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Brittney Griner returns to WNBA, meets Kamala Harris

May 20, 2023

Griner returned to the basketball court after being detained in Russia for narcotics possession and trafficking. She was released during a high profile prisoner swap.

Vice President Kamala Harris hugs Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury
Griner was released as part of a prisoner swapImage: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

US basketball star Brittney Griner made a return to the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) late Friday in Los Angeles, receiving an enthusiastic welcome from the crowd, which included Vice President Kamala Harris.

Griner on return to court: 'It felt good'

Griner, who was released from a Russian penal colony in a high-profile prisoner exchange with the US last year, was embraced by Harris on the court before the game. 

"It felt good, it felt real good. It felt like the last time I played," Griner said with a smile, reflecting on her shot after missing the entire previous season while detained in Russia for nearly 10 months. She expressed her gratitude towards fans and supporters.

Griner, from the visiting Phoenix Mercury team, appeared emotional during her introduction, and the crowd erupted with cheers when she made a 17-foot (2.1-meter) jumper on her first attempt of the contest.

Outside the arena, Nike billboards displayed a photo of Griner with the caption "Basketball is Home."

Phoenix coach Vanessa Nygaard described her return as a "day of joy." 

"All last season I opened every press conference with how many days she is gone. And until the day when we got the news in the morning that she was on her way home, no one thought that it was going to happen," she said in pre-game remarks. 

Why had Griner been imprisoned in Russia?

The two-time Olympic gold medalist was taken into custody at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport in February 2022 and later convicted of narcotics possession and trafficking. She had been found carrying vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.

She was then sentenced to nine years in prison. However, she maintained that she had been prescribed medical cannabis in the United States for a chronic injury and never intended to break the law.

Brittney Griner set to make WNBA return

US officials claimed she was wrongly detained and used as a political pawn during a period of strained relations with Moscow.

"I appreciate everything a little bit more now," Griner said. "All the little, small moments. I used to say, oh I'm so tired, I don't want to go to practice today. I think that has changed. I'm just appreciating everything because tomorrow is not guaranteed. You don't know what it's going to look like."

As she kicked off her 10th season with the Mercury, the 32-year-old two-time Olympic champion expressed a renewed perspective on the sport. 

The game saw notable figures in attendance, including tennis Hall of Famer Billie Jean King and Lakers legend Magic Johnson. The Los Angeles Sparks won with a score of 94-71.

Griner had previously played in a pre-season game one week ago.

tg/wd (Reuters, AP)