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Brittney Griner Led Scoreboard In WNBA Return, But It Wasn't Enough To Stop LA Sparks Blowout

Brittney Griner, wearing a white Mercury jersey with the number 42, her bare arms covered in colorful tattoos, holds a white and orange basketball up in her right palm while holding another player back with the other outstretched arm.
Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury controls the ball against Joyner Holmes #24 of the Los Angeles Sparks in the first half at Arena on May 19, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
(Ronald Martinez
Getty Images)
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Brittney Griner played here in L.A. Friday night in the WNBA regular season opener between her Phoenix Mercury and the L.A. Sparks. It was just the second game back for Griner since she was imprisoned in Russia last year on drug smuggling charges.

Despite scoring more points than any other player on either team, Griner couldn't stop a rout — the Sparks flipped the script after trailing in the first quarter to take a 13-point lead over the Mercury, and they built on that for the rest of the night.

After the game, Griner said her performance was "not good enough."

Why this was a big moment for Griner

The six-time WNBA All-Star was detained at an airport in Russia early last year after officials found vape cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage. Marijuana remains illegal in the country.

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Her arrest drew international attention. She received a sentence of nine years in a Russian prison, but the U.S. government secured her release after she was detained for 10 months. She was released in a prisoner swap for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout last December.

Griner, a 6’9" center, has been part of the team since they drafted her as the No. 1 pick of the 2013 WNBA draft. She helped lead the Mercury to a WNBA Finals win in 2014 and to another finals appearance in 2021.

But her imprisonment meant she missed all of last season, and it had been 579 days since Griner's last game other than one pre-season matchup this year.

Why Griner was in Russia

A tall woman with dreadlocks walks, wearing handcuffs, behind two security officers in tactical gear. The tall woman is Black and holds a water bottle. She wears a T-shirt, another piece of clothing tied around her waist, and sweatpants. She has tattoos on both arms. She wears glasses. The security officers both appear to be white. A stairwell is behind them.
WNBA basketball superstar Brittney Griner arrives to a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow, on June 27, 2022.
(Kirill Kudryavtsev
AFP via Getty Images)

Before her arrest, Griner had also played basketball for a Russian team since 2014 and previously played for a Chinese team in 2013. Many WNBA stars make extra money playing internationally, largely due to the lower pay and lower profile of women’s basketball in the U.S. compared with the NBA.

As much as I’d love to pay my light bill for a love of the game, I can’t.
— Brittney Griner on why she played overseas

“I think that’s a big reason why a lot of people go overseas. That’s why I was there,” Griner said last month in her first press conference since returning home. “As much as I’d love to pay my light bill for a love of the game, I can’t.”

The NBA’s base salary last year was $5.4 million, compared with $120,600 for the WNBA, NPR reports. It’s also a shorter season, with 36 games in the WNBA to the NBA’s 82.

The revenue each sport brings in is also vastly different — the NBA predicted last season that the league would make $10 billion that year, while it’s estimated that the WNBA brings in $70 million in revenue. The NBA’s commissioner told the Associated Press in 2018 that the WNBA lost $10 million a year. Its revenues have since been hurt by the pandemic. According to the Associated Press, women’s basketball players can make four times as much playing overseas as they can for the WNBA, with some salaries over $1 million per year.

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A big welcome home

Fans decked out in purple turned out for the game at Arena on Friday night. But it wasn't just Sparks supporters in the violet outfits — purple is also the signature color of their high-profile opponents, the Phoenix Mercury.

Before the game, fans of both the Sparks and the Mercury expressed their enthusiasm for seeing Griner on the court. There were also plenty of kids among a crowd that looked to include more women and girls than you'll see at most men's sports events.

At a pre-game press conference, both Sparks players and the new Sparks head coach Curt Miller praised Griner and her meaning to the sport. Miller said he also had the chance to get to know Griner through his work as a coach for Team USA.

Among the spectators Friday night was Vice President Kamala Harris, who also spoke to the team before the game.

"Thank you for all that you did in supporting Brittney, because I know that was rough, and that was so difficult for you. A team is a team, that's family," Harris said in a speech captured by ESPN.

The players also expressed thanks to the Biden administration for helping make Griner's return a reality.

Before the game started, the announcer called for a "welcome home" for "BG," which drew a standing ovation.

How the game went

Heading into Friday's game, it remained to be seen how Griner would fare on the court. The Mercury lost their pre-season game in Las Vegas, with Griner putting up just 10 points in 17 minutes of play. In her last season with the team before her imprisonment, she averaged 35 minutes of play and 22 points per game.

In the first quarter Friday, Griner played less time than any other starting Mercury player, at 5:51. Compare that to the 8:21 clocked in by Brianna Turner and Moriah Jefferson, who had the most time on court. Griner scored 4 points, fewer than the Mercury's first quarter points leader, Diana Taurasi, who netted 9.

At halftime, Mercury were trailing the Sparks 41-54. Griner had put 11 points up on the board to Taurasi's 14.

By the end of the third quarter, the Sparks had expanded their lead to 76-57, Griner had logged as much court time as the other Mercury starters, and she was tied for most points on her team with Jefferson — both at 16.

Griner put up another 2 points in the final quarter to become the lead scorer, but in the end it wasn't enough. The Mercury lost 94-71.

Griner’s future

Griner has said she would no longer play overseas, other than if she makes our Olympic team again — she was previously part of two gold medal-winning U.S. teams. The team Griner played for is owned by Uzbek-born oligarch Iskander Makhmudov, who has ties to authoritarian Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

A representative from the Mercury noted that there are details about her time in Russia and return home that she can’t discuss due to security concerns. However, Griner is writing a memoir about her time in Russia, set to be released next spring.

Her publisher said in a press statement that she would share “in vivid detail her harrowing experience of her wrongful detainment (as classified by the State Department) and the difficulty of navigating the byzantine Russian legal system in a language she did not speak. Griner also describes her stark and surreal time living in a foreign prison and the terrifying aspects of day-to-day life in a women’s penal colony.”

Griner told the press after Friday's game that if they wanted to know more about her experience in Russia, they'd have to buy the book, to a small round of chuckles.

Since her return, Griner’s advocated for more attention to the gender pay gap, as well as for other Americans detained overseas. That includes former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who U.S. negotiators were unable to get Russia to include in the prisoner swap for Griner, as well as Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich.

She also noted Friday that she planned to stand up for the national anthem moving forward, as she did earlier that night, but that she doesn’t have anything against other Americans who choose not to. In 2020, she had advocated against the playing of the anthem and chose not to be on the court when it played, in protest against police brutality, in honor of those like Breonna Taylor who had been killed by police, and in support of Black Lives Matter.

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