PHOENIX — Brittney Griner’s unofficial return to the WNBA on Friday night was full of hugs, hellos and flashes of old.
In her first competitive game action in 572 days — since Game 4 of the 2021 WNBA Finals — Griner had 10 points in 17 minutes in a 90-71 loss to the Los Angeles Sparks, showing glimpses of the player she was before a 10-month detainment in Russia caused her to miss all of last season.
From the moment she emerged from the tunnel to the court about 90 minutes before tipoff, Griner was the center of attention in the Phoenix Mercury’s preseason finale. She couldn’t get down the length of the court without being stopped, high fived or hugged. Anyone she walked by, including Sparks players and coaches, smiled and most wanted to say hello.
While it was a muted welcome compared to what her official return in the Mercury’s home opener May 21 will be, it was still a welcome.
The crowd gave her a standing ovation when she was introduced before the game and a group of fans near the tunnel gave her an ovation as she walked off the court at halftime. When fans were allowed on the court during a timeout with 8:58 left in the game to form a sort of conga line while Quad City DJ’s “C’mon ‘N Ride It” blasted through the arena, fans clamored to wave to Griner as they danced by the Mercury’s bench.
On the court, the Mercury didn’t waste any time getting Griner involved. After she won the opening tip, they fed her in the post on each of their first three possessions that didn’t end in a turnover. Phoenix made it clear early on in the first quarter that its offense still ran through the two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
Griner did Friday night what Griner had always done in the WNBA. She continued to work in the post with a series of spin and post moves that kept Sparks defenders on her hip and, at times, helpless against her size. She seamlessly picked up the two-man game with guard Diana Taurasi, handing off the ball to the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer off picks like they had done for nine seasons together.
Griner also didn’t hesitate to be aggressive on offense and on the offensive glass. She finished the first quarter with seven points, adding just one more before halftime. She added another basket on a short baseline jumper in the third quarter and showcased some of the moves that made her one of the most dominant centers of her generation, whether it was her spin move to the rim or a double fake that brought back memories of Hakeem Olajuwon’s Dream Shake.
She played the first 5 minutes, 2 seconds before getting a break. Coach Vanessa Nygaard said earlier Friday that how Griner felt would dictate how much she played. She started the game as well as the second and third quarters, before getting subbed out for good with 6:43 left in the third.
Before Griner began warming up on the court with about 61 minutes before tipoff, she spent time talking to Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike from the Sparks and took a photo with a young fan in a black No. 42 Brittney Griner jersey. At one point while Griner was sitting on the Mercury bench during warmups, teammates Sophie Cunningham leaned over and asked her if she was excited.
Griner, leaning forward, looked at her and nodded her head.