Josh WinfussESPN staff writer6 minutes to read
Phoenix – Brittney Grenier sat on the seat of the Phoenix Mercury and looked around.
There was just over an hour until their first competitive game in 572 days — since Game Four of the 2021 WNBA Finals — set up. The fans started coming forward, and some of her teammates were warming up on the field. There was an uproar about the footprint center brewing. All eyes focused on Griner.
After a few hours, it will all be over. She played 17 minutes, scored 10 points and grabbed three rebounds in her unofficial return to the WNBA in a 90-71 loss to the Los Angeles Sparks in the final Friday Night preseason game.
Before all that, she sat on the sidelines and began to walk away, contemplating the moment.
“I didn’t think I’d be sitting here,” Greiner said. “I didn’t think I’d be playing basketball so quickly. Even when I came back, I didn’t know how you’d get back at it again. I mean, I’m definitely grateful to be here. I wouldn’t take it for granted today, but there was a lot to absorb.” .
The crowd of 4,563 gave her a standing ovation when she was introduced before the game, and a group of fans near the tunnel gave her a standing ovation as she walked off the field at the end of the first half. One fan shouted to her, “Glad you’re back!” Fans sitting on the field, whom Griner had grown to know during her decade in Phoenix, came to talk to her.
“It was just a good moment,” said Greiner.
Since she emerged from the tunnel 90 minutes before the alarm, Greiner has been the center of attention. She could not walk along the court without being stopped, hugged or cuddled. Anyone she was passing by, including Sparks players and coaches, smiled and said hello.
She admitted hearing the national anthem before the game “definitely had a different effect” after nearly 10 months in detention in Russia.
On court, Mercury wasted no time engaging Griner.
After she won the opening tip, Mercury fed her into the post on each of their first three possessions that didn’t end with a turn. Phoenix made it clear early in the first quarter that his offense still ran through the two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
Griner continued to work the position with a series of moves that kept the Sparks defender on her hips and, at times, powerless against her size. She seamlessly picked up a twosome with guard Diana Taurasi, and handed the ball to the NBA’s all-time leading scorer—just as they’ve done in nine seasons together.
However, Griner was savagely slamming her first game in 19 months.
“S—,” she nodded. “I mean, honestly, like, I wasn’t guarding anybody today. Back for the first game, the pre-season game. The game in LA (on Friday’s season opener) is going to look completely different. We’re going to do completely different things, but the coach (Vanessa Nygaard) keeps going.” Telling me to give myself a blessing, but it’s hard.
“I was happy with some of the shots I took, but the defense – I have to be better. I have to be a lot better.”
Greiner felt she was able to “shake out some cobwebs” but was also perceptive enough to admit “there were a few more cobwebs than I thought”.
Griner did not hesitate to be aggressive up front and on the offensive glass, at one point getting two offensive rebounds on the same possession. It finished the first quarter with seven points, adding just one before halftime.
Griner was relieved after she made her first basket about a minute into the game on a post-follow-up action in front of the hoop.
“It felt good,” she said, explaining how she felt when the ball went through the basket: “I was like, ‘Oh, thank God. Well, here we are. You should be just fine.'”
She added another basket on a short primary jumper in the third quarter and displayed some moves that made her one of the most dominant centers of her generation, whether it was her move to the rim or a double fake that brought back memories. Dream Shake Hakim Olajuwon.
The first 5:02 of the game is played before you get a break. Nygaard said earlier Friday that how Griner feels will determine how much she plays. The game started, as well as the second and third quarters, before it was out for good with 6:43 left in the third period.
“I think she did a good job,” Nygaard said. “This is the one who’s been out for over a year here and she’s been struggling and working really hard, but I thought she did some really good stuff. They didn’t double her. We’re playing them in a week, so I’m assuming they’re going to double Brittney Griner.”
“So, I thought she did some great things. She was very engaged and I know it was just a real fun day for her and her family.”
Before Griner began warming up on the court, about 61 minutes before the opening tip, she spent time talking to Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike of the Sparks and posed for a photo with a young fan wearing Brittney Griner’s black No. 42 jersey.
At one point while Griner was sitting on the Mercury bench during warm-ups, Sophie Cunningham’s teammates leaned over and asked her if she was excited.
Greiner leaned forward, looked at her, and nodded.
Although she felt appreciated Friday night, she’s glad her first game — casual or not — is back and she hopes one day soon it will be all-basketball.
The Mercury opened the regular season on Friday in Los Angeles against the Same Sparks, in a nationally televised game. Two days later, Griner will return to Phoenix for the team’s home opener, fully anticipating the pomp and circumstance–and the emotion–that will come with it.
She was able to get through a lot of firsts on Friday: her first game, her first basket, and her first feelings on the court.
Now she can put it behind her and focus on the next step: the rest of her comeback.
“I’m glad I was able to get this out of the way before the house opened, and before we went to LA,” said Griner.
“Friendly food junkie. Lifelong introvert. Student. Avid coffee scholar. Unapologetic travel specialist. Zombie buff.”
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