Inside Brittney Griner's first season after Russian detainment

Brittney Griner has played in 29 games this season, her first since a 10-month detainment in Russia in 2022. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Brittney Griner sat down behind a microphone at Phoenix's Footprint Center in late April, clad in a black T-shirt, pants and sneakers while wearing a familiar smile that hadn't been seen in her home arena in a year and a half.

In her first meeting with the media since returning to the United States in December 2022 after a 10-month detainment in a Russian prison, Griner showcased her typical sense of humor -- she referred to longtime teammate Diana Taurasi as a "walking fossil." Griner almost seemed like the same person as the one who played her last game with the Phoenix Mercury in the 2021 WNBA Finals.

"I'm a jokester," Griner said. "I used humor a lot throughout this whole experience."

But she also acknowledged being forever changed.

"I'm no stranger to hard times," Griner said then. "You're going to be faced with adversities throughout your life, and this was a pretty big one. You find a way to just grind it out."

Concern for Griner defined much of the 2022 WNBA season. Welcoming her back was huge in 2023. From a visit by Vice President Kamala Harris for Griner's first regular-season game, to the deep emotional reconnection to Mercury fans, to ovations in every WNBA arena, Griner expressed how much the support meant to her.

And she played at a high level. Voted as a starter for July's All-Star Game, she leads the Mercury in points, rebounds and blocked shots this season.

Still, the season has had its difficulties. On June 10, a provocateur's verbal ambush at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport spotlighted not just Griner's traveling and security challenges, but also the ongoing quest by WNBA players for charter flights.

On June 24, Griner returned from a three-game absence due to a hip injury, but the Mercury lost by 23 to a rebuilding Seattle Storm team. That dropped Phoenix to 2-10, the worst start through a dozen games in franchise history.

Asked what the Mercury needed to do to change results, Griner said, "I guess tear it down and rebuild it back up. I really don't get it. It's not going the way we want it to go."

The next day, coach Vanessa Nygaard was fired with a record of 17-31 in less than a season and a half. Nikki Blue took over as interim coach, and the Mercury are 7-19 under her with two regular-season games remaining. Griner also took a three-game break recently to focus on mental health. She also missed three more games in August due to health and safety protocols.

On Aug. 27, the Mercury were eliminated from playoff contention, missing the postseason for the first time since 2012 -- the year before Griner joined Phoenix as the WNBA's No. 1 draft pick. Griner, who turns 33 in October, is an unrestricted free agent in 2024.

Much needs to be decided in the coming months by the Mercury, who have new general manager Nick U'Ren taking over. But as Phoenix prepares to close out 2023 -- the Mercury's finale is Sunday at Las Vegas (3 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App) -- we look back on some of Griner's biggest moments this season.

L.A. story: Griner is officially back

The anticipation was building all day around Crypto.com Arena in downtown Los Angeles on May 19.

With high-profile guests such as the vice president, who visited both teams before the game, tennis legend and women's sports advocate Billie Jean King and South Carolina coach Dawn Staley in attendance, Griner and the visiting Mercury opened the season against the Los Angeles Sparks.

The crowd roared when Griner ran onto the court and again when she was introduced with the starting lineup. Within the first 41 seconds, she had won the opening tip, grabbed a rebound and hit a long jump shot, with fans applauding. To an extent, the Sparks graciously took a backseat.

"It will hopefully create a warm welcome, a warm hug, for her coming into this season," Sparks star Nneka Ogwumike said of how L.A.'s fans reacted to Griner.

"I appreciate everything a little bit more. Tomorrow is not guaranteed." Brittney Griner

Phoenix trailed 54-41 at the break. WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert spoke with the media at halftime.

Engelbert said the league and the Mercury had put together a travel plan to make it as safe and free of complications as possible. Asked if the plan might be revisited at any point, she said it would if circumstances warranted. That proved to be the case less than a month later after the confrontation at DFW.

But this night, the Sparks fans got to cheer on Griner and see a 94-71 Los Angeles victory. Griner converted 7 of 9 shots from the field and all four of her free throws, finishing with 18 points, 6 rebounds and 4 blocked shots in 25 minutes.

Griner walked into a room full of media, saying it was great to be back.

"I appreciate everything a little bit more," she said. "Tomorrow is not guaranteed; you don't know what it's going to look like."

Still, she insisted, the performance by her and the Mercury wasn't good enough.

"By All-Star [weekend], I hope to be exactly where I want to be," Griner said. -- M.A. Voepel

Home, sweet home

The celebration began the moment Griner walked out of the tunnel at the Footprint Center to begin pregame warmups for the Mercury's home opener.

Inundated with hugs and well-wishes from the Chicago Sky and their coaches, everyone wanted to say hello to Griner, check in and welcome her back.

A buzz that's normally reserved for the playoffs reverberated throughout the arena, and in a lot of ways the moment felt bigger.

But it was the seven-minute pregame ceremony that encapsulated the emotion of the night. Seemingly every one of the 14,040 fans in attendance -- the largest Mercury crowd since 1998 -- was on their feet. A video showing clips of Griner from throughout the pregame activities was spliced with photos of her from the weeks leading up to the season.

Then the lights went down and Jay Tatum, a spoken word artist from Phoenix, began reciting a poem she wrote for Griner's return as the Mercury's dance team performed behind her.

When the Mercury were introduced, they saved Griner for last.

As she emerged from behind a wall of screens, the crowd reacted with cheers pent up for more than a year. Then a video tribute started, and when the first words "I'm coming home" -- the first three words of the song "Coming Home" by Diddy and Dirty Money -- filled the arena, Griner teared up.

Emotions were high during the pregame ceremony, elevated by Griner's parents being in the crowd for one of her games for the first time in more than a decade. Griner scored 27 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in a loss to the Sky, but the results didn't matter.

"Oh, my God," Griner said after the game. "Oh, my God.

"It was emotional in the back, just hearing, seeing some of the clips and then coming out. ... But it was really good. It was really good. Part of the process of healing is just kind of letting it out. So, yeah, nah, I got choked up a little bit." -- Josh Weinfuss

A Texas homecoming

The Mercury played at the Dallas Wings on June 7 and 9, giving Griner a chance to relish some time in her home state of Texas. She was born and grew up in Houston, then starred at Baylor in Waco. Griner said getting local barbecue was one of her priorities.

"I like going to the little mom-and-pop spots," Griner said.

The Baylor women's basketball team attended the June 7 game. Bears coach Nicki Collen said beforehand that she hoped to facilitate the retirement of Griner's No. 42 by the school: "We're opening a new arena [in 2024]. There's no doubt that I want to see her jersey in the rafters."

Griner had 3,283 points, 1,305 rebounds and an NCAA-record 748 blocks at Baylor, leading the program to two Final Fours, the 2012 national championship and a 40-0 season. There was a surge of emotion for Griner in every WNBA arena she entered for the first time this season, but she felt a special connection to her roots at College Park Center in Arlington, Texas.

That's because along with the Baylor contingent, her high school coach, her AAU team, her wife, Cherelle, and many family members were there. Griner had grown estranged from her former coach at Baylor, Kim Mulkey, but said her love for the school had never waned. She had been looking forward to visiting Baylor again, in fact, before her arrest in Russia.

"I played some of my best basketball there, met some really amazing people there, met my wife there," Griner said of Baylor. "I can't wait to get back. It's safe to say I'm never going overseas to play ball again, so in the offseason, I'll be able to actually go and see games.

"I was really, really, really, really, really happy to see the Baylor team. That meant a lot having them here."

And when she does get back to Waco, Griner said, a stop at the old-fashioned burger joint, Health Camp, will be a must: "I'll get me a shake." -- Voepel

An All-Star returns

All-Star Games are typically fun, light affairs, but a somber cloud hung over the 2022 WNBA version in Chicago. By then, Griner had been detained five months, although she was never far from the minds of league officials and the players: She was tabbed an honorary All-Star starter, and players came out of the locker room at halftime wearing jerseys with Griner's name and No. 42. Griner was later photographed behind bars holding a photo of her peers in the jerseys.

But 370 days after the tribute, Griner was back among the league's best in Las Vegas for the 2023 All-Star Game, where she exhibited her trademark goofiness and joy.

Griner had one of the day's better performances with 18 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks. But the lasting memories were of how much fun she seemed to be having: from her two first-quarter dunks to eating a snow cone on the bench (the flavor was tiger's blood, she clarified afterward); to watching Kehlani's halftime performance alongside Cherelle; to getting caught on camera dancing behind an oblivious Engelbert before the commissioner turned around and Griner greeted her with a big hug.

Griner was also playful postgame, making a grand entrance by jumping upon the media dais where Jewell Loyd and A'ja Wilson were speaking. Wilson was holding a baby -- the son of Aces assistant coach Tyler Marsh -- on her lap, and the commotion caused the baby to cry. Griner immediately tried to help soothe him.

Later, Griner teased Wilson for partying too hard the night before the game, and when players were asked about lessons they'd take from their Las Vegas experience, Griner joked, "Go to bed on time. Go to bed on time, and drink a lot of water."

Breanna Stewart perhaps said it best going into the game: "Looking back to last year, at All-Star and through the entire season, there was a void in the WNBA, there was something that was missing, and that was BG." -- Alexa Philippou

'Amazing to have her back'

When Griner first returned to the Mercury, Phoenix guard Shey Peddy noticed Griner acted like she had never left.

Peddy was confused.

"It was kind of weird at first," Peddy said. "I didn't know how to react. It was like she was here the whole time. She seemed even funnier, like her spirits were always up, even when I know she's probably going through some things.

"That's just who she is. Never wanted anybody to feel bad for her, so she's always got a smile on her face."

For the past nine months, Griner has, for the most part, returned to the routine of being the friend and teammate she was before her imprisonment.

"BG's light and always brings that lightness to every room she's in," Taurasi said. "It's been amazing to have her back."

Griner's absence felt like a hole, guard Sophie Cunningham said. Once Griner returned, the Mercury made a point to create an atmosphere full of love and fun, Cunningham added.

"We're giving her a lot of grace," Cunningham told ESPN last month. "Because what she went through is pretty crazy and a lot of people don't know the full story, and so we're just trying to give her as much love as possible."

Griner also seamlessly returned to being a calming presence in the locker room, and teammates said her innate ability to keep the mood upbeat and jovial were missed in 2022.

There's "a bunch more laughter," Cunningham said.

Griner is still the "life of the party," forward Brianna Turner added.

And Griner's humor helped quite a bit this season.

"We had to laugh a lot this year," Taurasi said. "Laugh at a lot of not funny s---."

There's not a much basketball talk with Griner in the locker room, Peddy said. The conversation usually centers around concerts, cars, off-roading, candy -- Griner loves candy -- funny things that are happening. And "she has a lot of inappropriate jokes," Peddy added with a laugh.

Just knowing she's back and safe has been a massive relief, Cunningham said.

"I know a lot of people are happy to have her back on the court, which we all are too, but just having her back in the locker room, like her sense of humor, she brings so much joy and energy to the group, whether we are serious or not," Peddy said. "She gets everybody motivated, and we really missed that." -- Weinfuss