Brittney Griner delivers an emphatic message — ‘I’m back’ — despite a loss to the Chicago Sky in her return to Phoenix

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PHOENIX — Before Brittney Griner’s first 3-pointer in nearly two years splashed through the net at the Footprint Center, the crowd had already launched to its feet.

The ball snapped through the net. The eruption that followed was a celebration of more than just a basket, capturing both the joy and relief of the WNBA star’s return to Phoenix.

Griner absorbed praise from each of her teammates before she turned to the crowd, pounded her chest twice and roared a message she had waited 597 days to deliver: “I’m back.”

In her first regular-season game back in Phoenix since her wrongful detention in Russia, Griner didn’t waste time reintroducing herself. She scored the first points of the game on the opening play Sunday against the Chicago Sky, drawing the first of five fouls on Sky center Elizabeth Williams on the way to the rim.

And over the following four quarters, Griner showcased the dominant post play that sets her apart in the WNBA — muscling through traps, lofting shots around the rim and at one point knocking Kahleah Copper out of her shoe with a block.

Led by 15 points from Copper, the Sky outlasted Griner and the Mercury for a 75-69 win. But in an emphatic 27-point performance, Griner made it clear in her first game on her home court — she’s still the same BG.

“I never try to get tied up into all the outside stuff, trying to say ‘I’m back’ — granted, I did say that after that 3,” Griner said with a grin after the game. “Starting off the game, my mindset was that if I’m the first option, I’ve got to go score it. If I’m not, I need to get my player open. … None of that is ever going to change.”

After making her regular-season return to the WNBA in a road game Friday against the Los Angeles Sparks, Griner’s return to Phoenix marked another step in her comeback. She was detained in Russia for 294 days on minor drug charges before she was released in December shortly after being sent to a prison work camp.

Her first home game was emblazoned with celebration — shirts featuring her profile, billboards throughout downtown Phoenix, the song “Coming Home” playing as she walked out to cheers during player introductions.

Before she could jump for the opening tip, Griner was forced to stop to wipe her eyes clear of tears.

“They set me up with that song — oh, my god,” Griner joked. “Part of the process of healing was just kind of letting it out. So, yeah, I got choked up a little bit.”

Just like Griner, Sky coach James Wade didn’t want to get emotional.

He knew it was inevitable. But in the minutes before he headed onto the court, Wade tried his best to focus on the game at hand.

Wade spent two years in Russia with Griner, who played for him with UMMC Ekaterinburg, with whom she was playing at the time of her detainment. In that time, Wade forged a deep respect for Griner on and off the court. Her absence hung over every moment of preparation for last year’s games against the Mercury — scouting film without Griner in it, scouting the players who were holding her place.

The last time Wade saw his former player was in October 2021. The Sky had just defeated Griner and the Mercury in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals to win their first championship. And even in the wake of the loss, Griner found a moment to tell Wade she was proud of him.

“That’s how nice of a person and sweet of a person she is,” Wade said. ”I appreciate that everybody has gotten to know that person too.”

Any hope of staying stoic melted away when Wade finally caught sight of Griner during warmups.

The Mercury center nearly lifted Wade off the floor with the force of her embrace. He pulled out his phone to show Griner a video his son, Jet, had made to welcome her back.

That moment was repeated with different magnitudes of emotion throughout the afternoon as Griner reconnected with her home crowd. And it will become a routine this season for Griner — an endless series of reunions drenched in gratitude and relief as every player, coach, fan and official in the league individually welcomes her home.

Celebrities including Jalen Rose, Billie Jean King and Olympic swimmer Simone Manuel dotted the sidelines Sunday. During breaks in the game, the Mercury recognized Roger Carstens — the presidential envoy for hostage affairs who spearheaded the negotiation to secure Griner’s release — and Griner’s wife, Cherelle.

Amid the celebratory atmosphere, Griner’s return renewed a familiar challenge for the Sky — attempting to outmatch one of the most dominant players in the league.

Even among WNBA players, Griner is singular. Standing 6-foot-9 with an 87½-inch wingspan, she poses a physical mismatch for every player in the league. She’s an immovable object that few forces can displace off the block — and after watching Griner’s tape from the preseason and season opener, Wade believes she only grew stronger in the last year.

Griner stands third in league history in career blocked shots (794), passing Sylvia Fowles after recording four blocks Sunday. The sight of Griner in the paint forces even the most confident rim attackers to balk.

“It’s just her sheer size,” said Sky forward Alanna Smith, who played with Griner for three seasons in Phoenix. “She’s just got such a presence on the floor. You see BG in the key and you almost have to think twice before you go in there because she just has that presence.”

In some ways, Sunday felt like a return to normalcy. Griner led the Mercury with 27 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks.

But for Griner, there will never be a return to her life before her detainment — only an after, defined by the fear and courage that marked those 294 days in Russia.

That truth drives Griner as she embraces her first season back in the WNBA, which will be dedicated to helping other Americans trapped in the nightmare she faced last year.

Griner and the Mercury partnered with the Bring Our Families Home campaign, which advocates for the release of wrongfully detained Americans around the world. At least 54 people in seven countries have been identified by the campaign as victims of wrongful detainment.

One element of the program that Griner will support is letter-writing campaigns, which she cited for buoying her resiliency throughout her detainment.

“You’re so far away from all your loved ones,” Griner said. “When you get those letters, you have some really bad days and you get hope. Hope’s a dangerous thing, especially when it doesn’t come through. But getting those letters, that right there makes you feel like you’re at home.”

The Mercury donated $5,000 on Sunday and will continue a series of advocacy and fundraising campaigns for the organization throughout the WNBA season.

The partnership aims to use the platforms of the Mercury, the WNBA and Griner’s experience to return every wrongfully detained American home to their families.

“Everyone seems to think that the U.S. government brings people home and we don’t,” Carstens said. “We in the government never bring someone home. It’s everyone. Building off of what we all did here together, we bring BG home and we bring others home.

“The goal is that one day when an American is taken overseas, this whole nation mobilizes to bring those people home.”