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Brittney Griner, Phoenix Mercury set to tip off WNBA season

Brittney Griner's life and career path have taken a sharp turn over the past 18 months following a nearly 10-month detainment in Russia on drug-related charges that ended with a prisoner swap in December.

To say the Phoenix Mercury center's journey has been complicated would be an understatement.

Now, the next chapter will be for everyone to see how good a basketball player she still is.

The early returns suggest that the 31-year-old remains a formidable talent, even if she's understandably a bit rusty. She scored 10 points and grabbed three rebounds in her only preseason game against the Los Angeles Sparks on Friday, flashing her considerable skills but also showing there's some work to do.

“Coach keeps telling me to give myself grace," Griner said. “But that's hard.”

The WNBA regular season begins Friday.

With all that has happened off the court, it's easy to forget Griner had arguably her best season in 2021. She finished second in the MVP voting after averaging 20.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and nearly two blocks per game. She was a major reason the Mercury reached the WNBA Finals before losing to the Chicago Sky.

Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said she has been amazed by Griner's ability to bounce back from an experience few athletes could fathom.

“This is a person who has been off for more than a year and she’s been battling really hard, and I thought she did some really good stuff,” Nygaard said. "I thought she did some great stuff, she’s super engaged, and it was a really joyful day for her and her family.”

Even though Griner said she had “a few more cobwebs than I thought" after her first preseason game, there's little doubt her return is a huge positive for the Mercury. Without Griner last season, Phoenix finished with a 15-21 record.

“I love playing with BG (Brittney Griner) and who wouldn’t,” Mercury guard Moriah Jefferson said after last Friday's preseason game. "She’s such a big body and she’s a great teammate off the court and she had a great game. She came out aggressive and had a lot of boards and put-backs with some good finishes.

"It was nice for her to be back, and we’ll be better for next game.”

Of course, Griner's play on the basketball court is just one part of here comeback. She'll tour the country this season playing WNBA games with the Mercury — making stops in Los Angeles, Dallas, Indianapolis and Washington, D.C.

The exposure that came from being detained in Russia for having vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage has given Griner a platform to advocate for other Americans being detained abroad. She was already an LGBTQ+ activist since publicly coming out in 2013 and became the first openly gay athlete to be sponsored by Nike.

Griner announced in April that she is working with Bring Our Families Home, a campaign formed last year by the family members of American hostages and wrongful detainees held overseas. She said her team has been in contact with the family of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is being detained in Russia on espionage charges.

It's expected that WNBA fans will be widely supportive of her comeback — she received a standing ovation before the Mercury's preseason game last week — and Nygaard said navigating the media hoopla will be a welcome challenge.

“I'm anticipating the first time we go everywhere, it'll be the ‘BG’ game, and it'll be a thing," Nygaard said. "So maybe we have to get through all the cities, and then it'll be more normal. But it's going to be a great tour. She's going to go into a bunch of spaces where people are really excited and supportive.

“We know she's somewhat of a divisive media figure now, too. We can't ignore that fact. In the WNBA arenas, there's going to be a ton of love for her.”

Nygaard said last year's experience gives the Mercury some idea of what to expect. The huge difference is that instead of hoping and praying for Griner's safe return, she'll be right there in the arena playing basketball.

“We were never really allowed to find joy," Nygaard said of the 2022 season. "Her return brings joy."

For more on the storylines to watch this season, The Show spoke to Cassandra Negley, WNBA reporter for Yahoo Sports.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.