PHOENIX — It was a block party celebration with basketball action squeezed in when the Phoenix Mercury tipped their home schedule off on Sunday at Footprint Center. From player introductions eliciting tears — particularly from another U.S. government official in the house to see the Mercury — to game-break honorees who pulled more than a usual amount of applause, it was all about their powerhouse post reclaiming the paint as hers in the Valley.
“All we wanted last year was to get our girl BG home,” Sophie Cunningham announced to the crowd in an unofficial start to a long-anticipated afternoon that included an opening poem with a dance performance. “And we did that.”
Brittney Griner is back home and back dominating as life for the WNBA superstar begins to slowly regress back to “normal” with the emotions of the season opener and home debut now in the rearview and 38 more games ahead. The Mercury will be looking to keep their eyes on the uphill climb after a winless weekend culminated with a 75-69 loss to the Chicago Sky.
The rough start is very much on the top of Mercury personnel’s mind, but secondary to the day many looked forward to even if they didn’t think it would happen this soon. Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard said it was about celebrating the people who helped bring Griner home after she was wrongfully detained in a Russian prison for nearly a year.
As each reserve and starter was introduced to the 14,040 fans, the cheers grew louder until there was only one player left in the tunnel. Griner entered to the lyrics “Tell the world I’m coming home,” sung by Skylar Grey, in an emotional moment for a city that’s called her its own since she was drafted No. 1 in 2013.
Brittney Griner is introduced at home to @PhoenixMercury
Sky head coach James Wade said earlier to see her at events was one thing. To see her on the court "it gets really real."
Doesn't get more real than this #WelcomeHome intro. Wow. pic.twitter.com/gn9xirWf9m
— Cassandra Negley (@CasNegley) May 21, 2023
She answered a question about the emotions of it all by joking she had dust in her eye. None of the players had seen their pregame introductory clips for the season debut.
“Vince, you set me up with that song. Oh, my God. Oh, my God,” Griner said with emphasis, looking at Mercury president Vince Kozar and her wife, Cherelle Griner, on the side of the interview room. “I got choked up a little bit and tried to hide it, but you caught it.”
Griner then proceeded to settle back into the basketball embrace of the home X-Factor and led the Mercury with a 27-point, 10-rebound double-double alongside 4 blocks in 31 minutes of action. In the season opener, she played 25 minutes in a regimented substitution by Nygaard that shifted in the second half on Sunday.
“Well, I don’t consider myself a dummy, but she was scoring every time she touched the ball,” Nygaard said. “So [I] just wanted to get her more touches. She was extremely productive and we needed her in because she was doing so many things for us. She battled through her fatigue tonight and I think every game we have, you’re going to see a little bit more from her.”
Griner scored the first points of the game on a pretty and-1 move over Elizabeth Williams to a small roar and received the same greeting for substitutions, free throws and blocks until game’s end. With minutes left in the first quarter, the 10-year veteran blocked her 722nd career shot to surpass Sylvia Fowles for third on the WNBA’s all-time block list. Margo Dydek holds the record with 877 and Lisa Leslie is second with 822.
In the final minute of the third, she drained an open 3-pointer to a roar as loud as player introductions. It was only the seventh triple of her entire career (four came in her MVP runner-up 2021 season alone) and brought the game within 5 for Phoenix. Sug Sutton, who scored 13 points off the bench for the Mercury, said she passed it to Griner knowing she would hit it.
On her way back down the floor, Griner yelled, “I’m back!” while raising her hands in the 3-point symbols without any lull of applause from the home crowd. She said she didn’t start the game with an “I’m back” mentality, but joked she did end up saying that.
“That moment was very special, honestly,” Griner said. “It took me back to my last season playing. It just felt really good, honestly. Really crazy moment.”
One of the more moving aspects for the 6-foot-9 center was that her entire family was in the arena, including her parents, to watch her play. She said it might be the first time since high school they were all there at once to see her.
“I didn’t know when that was going to happen, if it would happen,” Griner said. “It could have been a lot different. Having them here, spending time with them, playing in front of them, that got me choked up.”
They saw a full show. In the final minutes of the fourth quarter, Griner blocked Kahleah Copper so hard the Sky star lost her shoe. At the 2:01 mark with the Mercury trailing by 5 in large part from Griner’s efforts defensively, the DJ played LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” with the lyrics, “don’t call it a comeback.” She exploded out of the break with an and-1 to pull within 2, the crowd on its feet. The Mercury couldn’t get the shot to tie it and the Sky sealed their second win of the young season.
The final quarter sure felt like a shift from being all about a return home to being all about playing basketball again at a BG level. Nygaard has said repeatedly that as was the case when they went on the road for the first time last year, Griner will remain a story. Only this time, it’s a story of joy.
That was on display throughout the game Sunday during media timeouts, stoppages in play and halftime performance of “One Love” by Wyclef Jean.
The first media timeout named Cherelle, Brittney’s wife of nearly four years, as the “Believe in Women” honoree of the game for her strength over the past year. She thanked the X-Factor for their embrace of her in a moment when she said she felt like zero. The in-house cameras showed her to more applause, and the Jumbotron caught a smile from Griner clearly enthralled.
The Bring Our Families Home campaign and chair Neda Sharghi received their moment in the second quarter. Griner is committed to focusing on the campaign throughout the season and embraced Sharghi in a big hug with a check for $5,000. Judging by her face, she wasn’t aware of the amount.
Ahead of the second quarter, the arena honored Roger D. Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs who led the U.S. government’s efforts in a prisoner exchange for Griner. Carstens told reporters he and Texas congresswoman Sheila Jackson, who introduced a resolution in the House calling for the player’s release, were crying when Griner was introduced to the arena and nation on ESPN.
Griner, who came into the press room and immediately walked into the seats to hug him, sat next to him holding in her emotions as he described crying like a baby the entire time he watched her playing.
“When BG came out, it was a very emotional moment for both of us, but I can tell you from where I stood and from where the team sits in Washington, D.C., we knew that this day was going to come,” Carstens said. “We knew it was going to be hard, it would take some time, but what we saw today was exactly how I pictured it. BG home, Cherelle cheering her on, BG’s family in the crowd and BG back on the court doing what she does best, which is playing basketball.”
The picture moved from mind to a memory no one will soon forget. Chicago Sky coach James Wade said before the game Griner’s return didn’t feel “really real” until he saw her on a basketball court again. Williams, long tasked with attempting to guard the dominant former MVP candidate, called it surreal thinking being able to do it again.
It doesn’t get more real than a booming introduction to a moving song selection and a stunning final stat line to say Griner is back home safe and soundly dominating again. At least for this weekend, there’s no bigger win than that.