'A day of joy': Brittney Griner makes season debut after being jailed in Russia

Brittney Griner had 18 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots Friday night in her first WNBA regular-season game since being jailed in Russia. Her visiting Phoenix Mercury lost to the Los Angeles Sparks 94-71 in the teams' opener.

Mercury star had 18 points, 6 rebounds and 4 blocked shots in loss to Sparks

Two female basketball players slap their right hands together while celebrating on the court.
Mercury centre Brittney Griner, right, celebrates with guard Diana Taurasi during the first half of Phoenix's season opener against the Sparks on Friday night at Arena in Los Angeles. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports via Reuters)

Brittney Griner stood for the national anthem before her first regular-season WNBA game since being jailed in Russia.

Griner was outspoken for social justice in 2020 and didn't take the court during the pre-game anthem. But nearly a year behind bars in Russia changed her.

"I was literally in a cage and could not stand the way I wanted to," she said. "Just being able to hear my national anthem and see my flag, I definitely want to stand."

Griner had 18 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots Friday night for the Phoenix Mercury in a 94-71 loss to the Los Angeles Sparks.

"Not good enough, didn't get the dub," said Griner, who nevertheless couldn't be down in defeat.

"I appreciate everything a little bit more, all of the small moments, like, `Oh, I'm so tired I don't want to go to practice today,' that has changed, honestly," she said. "Tomorrow is not guaranteed, you don't know what it's going to look like. I feel a lot older somehow, too."

The 32-year-old centre's immediate goal is to be able to play an entire game by the all-star break in mid-July. She played 25 minutes Friday.

"I hope to be exactly where I want to be," Griner said. "Just getting back to how I was before all this happened."

Griner made an immediate impact against the Sparks. She fired a pass to Moriah Jefferson, who hit a three-pointer for Phoenix's first basket. Griner grabbed a couple of rebounds and scored twice in helping the Mercury to an early lead.

Nneka Ogwumike scored 17 points for the Sparks, while rookie Zia Cooke added 14.

For the first time since last season, Phoenix coach Vanessa Nygaard opened her pre-game comments without announcing how many days Griner had been jailed.

Griner has been free since December when she was part of a high-profile prisoner swap.

"Until the day we got the news in the morning that she was on her way home, no one thought that it was going to happen," Nygaard said. "We did our jobs probably with less joy than professional athletes do. It was heavy every day."

Not anymore.

"Today is a day of joy," Nygaard said. "An amazing, amazing thing has happened."

Griner and the Mercury were greeted with a standing ovation when they came on court for pre-game warmups, although the biggest cheers were reserved for the Sparks.

"Just taking it in but staying focused because at the end of the day I'm at work," Griner said. "Can't get caught up in the moment. Kind of feel it, but put it to the side and feel it a little bit later."

Griner hugged Vice President Kamala Harris and first gentleman Doug Emhoff as they left the court after Harris was presented with a No. 49 Sparks jersey. Earlier, Harris posed for photos in the Mercury's locker room.

"It was nice to be able to see her face-to-face and thank her for everything," Griner said.

She patted her heart and applauded in return during a brief video welcoming her back to the WNBA.

"It was nice to be back on the court for a real game," she said. "The love from the fans when we came out was amazing. I definitely feel it."

Griner scored 10 points in 17 minutes in an exhibition loss to the Sparks last week. It was her first game action since she was arrested at a Moscow airport in February 2022 after Russian authorities said a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges containing cannabis oil.

"We brought back this Black, gay woman from a Russian jail and America did that because they valued her and she's a female athlete and they valued her," Nygaard said.

"Just to be part of a group that values people at that level, it makes me very proud to be an American. Maybe there's other people that that doesn't make them proud, but for me, I see BG and I see hope and I see the future and I have young children and it makes me really hopeful about our country," the coach said.

Billie Jean King and wife Ilana Kloss, who are part-owners of the Sparks, were on hand for the opener, as was Magic Johnson, Pau Gasol, Byron Scott, Robert Horry, Los Angeles Lakers coach Darvin Ham and South Carolina women's coach Dawn Staley.

Cooke shot five of six from the floor and made both her three-pointers in her league debut in front of Staley, her former college coach. Cooke was taken 10th overall by the Sparks in the draft after starring at South Carolina.

Chiney Ogwumike added 15 points for the Sparks, who had five players in double figures.

Bonner, Thomas lead Sun past Fever

DeWanna Bonner scored 19 points, Alyssa Thomas had 18 points, 12 rebounds and six assists, and the Connecticut Sun held off No. 1 pick Aliyah Boston and the Indiana Fever 70-61 on Friday night to begin the WNBA season.

Former Indiana coach Stephanie White got the win in her Connecticut debut after replacing Curt Miller, who took the Sun to the WNBA finals last season.

Connecticut led by 15 points after three quarters but Indiana scored the opening 10 points of the fourth to cut its deficit to 58-53. The Sun eventually scored with 3:06 left on Bonner's fast-break layup.

Boston, the top pick in the WNBA draft, scored the next four points to get Indiana within 60-57. But Thomas scored six points in 70 seconds to keep Connecticut in front.

Kelsey Mitchell scored 15 of Indiana's 28 first-half points and finished with 20 points. Boston added 15 points and nine rebounds.

Brionna Jones added 13 points and nine rebounds for Connecticut despite fouling out with 4:06 left in the fourth. Starters Tiffany Hayes and Natisha Hiedeman combined to shoot just three of 19.

Connecticut opened the game on a 12-1 run as Indiana didn't make its first field goal until the 3:29 mark. The Sun extended it to 25-11 after scoring six of the opening seven points of the second quarter. Indiana got within 35-28 at halftime despite shooting just 25 per cent from the field.

A female basketball player leaps into the air with the ball in her hands as a defender prepares to jump in front of her.
Sun forward DeWanna Bonner goes up for a shot as Fever guard Erica Wheeler defends during the second half of Connecticut's 70-61 win over Indiana on Friday night at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. (Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports via Reuters)

Sky use big 2nd quarter to defeat Lynx 

Kahleah Copper had 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists, Alanna Smith scored 15 points and the visiting Chicago Sky used a big second quarter to beat the Minnesota Lynx 77-66 on Friday night.

Chicago pulled away in the second quarter after outscoring Minnesota 22-3 for a 44-27 lead at the break. The Lynx shot just one for 15 from the floor in the period and turned it over 11 times, leading to 13 Chicago points.

Chicago held a double-digit lead for the first 18 minutes of the second half until Kayla McBride made it 75-66 with 1:03 left in the fourth. Smith answered with two free throws to help seal it.

Elizabeth Williams added 14 points and Rebekah Gardner had 10 for Chicago. The Sky scored 17 points off 20 Minnesota turnovers.

Napheesa Collier, who missed most of last season while on maternity leave, led Minnesota with 17 points and McBride added 12. Diamond Miller, the No. 2 pick out of Maryland, had nine points and seven rebounds in 23 minutes.

Bridget Carleton of Chatham, Ont., scored six points in 14 minutes for Minnesota.

Chicago also beat Minnesota in a pre-season game on Saturday behind 18 points from Copper in the WNBA's first visit to Canada.

WATCH | Sky defeat Lynx in 1st WNBA game in Canada:

Copper leads Sky past Lynx in first WNBA game in Canada

4 months ago
Duration 1:06
Chicago defeats Minnesota 82-74 in the WNBA's first-ever game in Canada. Kahleah Copper scores game-high 18 points and adds nine rebounds for Chicago. Chatham, Ont., native Bridget Carleton records three points for Minnesota.

Thibault wins debut as Mystics beat Liberty

Natasha Cloud and Ariel Atkins each scored 14 points and the Washington Mystics beat the new-look New York Liberty 80-64 on Friday night to give longtime assistant Eric Thibault a win in his coaching debut.

Elena Delle Donne added 13 points and Kristi Toliver scored 10 in her return to Washington after spending two seasons in Los Angeles.

New York, which was labelled a super team during the off-season, shot just 34 per cent from the field and turned it over 20 times in the season opener for both teams.

Cloud blocked Sabrina Ionescu's shot at the halftime buzzer to keep Washington's lead at 39-26. The visiting Liberty started the game making just five of 23 shots and finished the half shooting 27 per cent.

Cloud sank a jumper from the free throw line to extend Washington's lead to 56-37 with 2:54 left in the third quarter.

Ionescu led New York with 18 points. Breanna Stewart had 12 points and 12 rebounds despite picking up her fourth foul with 3:42 left in the third quarter.

New York has high expectations this season after adding former MVPs Jonquel Jones through a trade and Stewart as a free agent. The Liberty also signed All-Star point guard Courtney Vandersloot.

Jones scored five points in 19 minutes and Vandersloot had eight points and six assists.

With files from CBC Sports