Brittney Griner gets rousing welcome in Phoenix home game after release from Russian prison
PHOENIX (AP) — Brittney Griner won the opening tip and ran to her familiar spot in the low post.
There was nowhere else the ball was going on the Phoenix Mercury’s opening possession of the season — not after what Griner had gone through to get here.
Her back to the basket, Griner faked as though she would shoot a turnaround, spun the other way and put up another up-fake. Chicago’s Elizabeth Williams fell for the deke, Griner absorbed the contact and hit the shot to begin a three-point play.
After all the emotional buildup, Griner got off to the perfect start in her first regular-season home game since being released after more than 10 months in a Russian prison.
“If I was the first option, I was going to be aggressive and try to score,” Griner said.
Griner did her part all afternoon, finishing with 27 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots. The Mercury did their best to pull out a win after cutting an 11-point deficit to two in the closing minutes.
It wasn’t enough.
The Chicago Sky held on for a 75-69 win on Sunday, but Griner’s return was more about playing in front of the home family and fans again when, just a few months ago, she was in prison halfway across the world.
“We didn’t we didn’t finish the job by getting a win tonight, but I’m just continuing to be impressed with BG,” Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said. “BG is somebody that can handle so many things clearly that many people could not handle.”
Griner received a warm reception in her lone preseason game and again in the Mercury’s season opener at the Los Angeles Sparks.
Her home debut had an entirely different vibe.
Many fans wore Griner’s 42 jersey and some waved small black towels with “BG” on the front. One young fan held a sign that said “We (heart) BG. Welcome home!”
During warmups, Griner shared hugs with her teammates, Sky players and Chicago coach James Wade, who had coached her overseas. Just as warmups were winding down, Mercury guard Sophie Cunningham grabbed a microphone near midcourt and addressed the crowd.
“Last year, all we wanted was to get BG home. We did that and we’re all together now,” Cunningham said, drawing roars from the crowd.
Just before player introductions, a poet paid tribute to Griner while being surrounded by the Mercury’s dancers. Once introductions started, the fans gave each of the Mercury players loud cheers before Griner came out last.
The 6-foot-9 forward walked out from behind a wall and, surrounded by flashing lights, stepped into the bowel of the arena, drawing a massive ovation. She still had a tear in her eye just before jumping center.
“There might have been a little dust in my eye, a little dusty,” she said. “It was emotional being back stage, seeing some of the clips.”
Griner had an immediate impact against the Sparks Friday night, finishing with 18 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots in the 94-71 loss.
She opened with the three-point play against Chicago, blocked a shot on the Sky’s second possession and dropped a nifty bounce pass to Diana Taurasi for a backdoor layup.
Griner swatted another shot and sprinkled in some trash talk as she turned up the floor. She added another three-point play late in the second half to pull the Mercury within seven points.
Griner drew a laugh from the crowd early in the third quarter when, after fouling Courtney Williams, forcefully helped up Williams, who flew through the air to accentuate it.
The support turned into a roar when Griner hit a 3-pointer, the fans rising from their seats and to match the two-handed, three-fingered gesture she flashed while screaming “I’m back”!”
“It just took me back to being on the plane (home),” Griner said. “It felt really great. A crazy moment.”
Griner scored on a three-point play to pull Phoenix within 69-67 with just under two minutes left, but it was the Mercury’s last gasp.
Phoenix had a couple of sloppy turnovers, Chicago’s Dana Evans scored on a running bank shot and the Sky held on for the win.
Griner ended her home debut by hugging Sky players and Wade again before heading to the baseline to hug and kiss her wife Cherelle.
A loss in the short term, a win in the long one.
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