There was more than an hour until her first competitive game in 572 days — since Game 4 of the 2021 WNBA Finals — was set to tip off. Fans were starting to file in, some of her teammates were warming up on the court. A buzz around the Footprint Center was brewing. All eyes focused on Griner.
A few hours later, it would all be over. She’d have played 17 minutes, scored 10 points and grabbed three rebounds in her unofficial return to the WNBA in a 90-71 loss to the Los Angeles Sparks in Friday night’s preseason finale.
Before all of that, though, she sat on the sidelines and started to zone out, thinking about the moment.
“I didn’t think I would be sitting right here,” Griner said. “I didn’t think I would be playing basketball this quickly. Even coming back, I didn’t know how it was going to go getting back into it. I mean, I’m grateful to be here for sure. I’m not going to take today for granted, but it was a lot to take in.”
The crowd of 4,563 gave her a standing ovation when she was introduced before the game, and a group of fans near the tunnel gave her an ovation as she walked off the court at halftime. One fan yelled to her: “Glad you’re back!” The fans sitting courtside, who Griner has grown to know during her decade in Phoenix, came up to talk to her.
“It was just a good moment,” Griner said.
From when she emerged out of the tunnel about 90 minutes before tipoff, Griner was the center of attention. She couldn’t walk the length of the court without being stopped, high-fived or hugged. Anyone she walked by, including Sparks players and coaches, smiled and said hello.
She acknowledged that hearing the national anthem before the game “definitely hit different” after a nearly 10-month detainment in Russia.
On the court, the Mercury didn’t waste any time getting Griner involved.
After she won the opening tip, the Mercury fed her in the post on each of their first three possessions that didn’t end in a turnover. Phoenix made it clear early in the first quarter that its offense still ran through the two-time defensive player of the year.
Griner continued to work in the post with a series of moves that kept Sparks defenders on her hip and, at times, helpless against her size. She seamlessly picked up the two-man game with guard Diana Taurasi, handing off the ball to the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer off picks — just as they had done in nine seasons together.
Still, Griner was brutally critical of her first game in 19 months.
“S—,” she deadpanned. “I mean, honestly, like, I didn’t guard anybody today. First game back, preseason game. The game in L.A. (in Friday’s season opener) will look totally different. We’re going to do totally different things, but coach (Vanessa Nygaard) keeps telling me to give myself grace, but that’s hard.
“I was happy with some of the shots that I took, but defense — that I got to be better. I got to be a lot better.”
Griner felt she was able to “knock off some cobwebs” but was also aware enough to admit “there’s a few more cobwebs than I thought.”
Griner didn’t hesitate to be aggressive on offense and on the offensive glass, at one point getting two offensive rebounds on the same possession. She finished the first quarter with seven points, adding just one more before halftime.
A sense of relief came over Griner after she made her first basket about a minute into the game on a post-up move in front of the hoop.
“Felt good,” she said, explaining her feeling when the ball went through the basket: “I was like, ‘Ohh, thank God. All right, here we go. So, got the first one out the way. The next couple should be OK.'”
She added another basket on a short baseline jumper in the third quarter and showcased some of the moves that made her one of the most dominant centers of her generation, whether it was her spin move to the rim or a double fake that brought back memories of Hakeem Olajuwon’s Dream Shake.
She played the first 5:02 of the game before getting a break. Nygaard said earlier Friday that how Griner felt would dictate how much she played. She started the game, as well as the second and third quarters, before getting subbed out for good with 6:43 left in the third.
“I think she did well,” Nygaard said. “This is a person who’s been off for more than a year here and she’s been battling and working really, really hard, but I thought she did some really good stuff. They didn’t double her. We play them in a week, so I would assume they’ll double Britney Griner.
“So, I thought she did some great stuff. She was super engaged and I know it was just a real joyful day for her and her family.”
Before Griner began warming up on the court, about 61 minutes before the opening tip, she spent time talking to Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike from the Sparks and took a photo with a young fan in a black No. 42 Brittney Griner jersey.
At one point while Griner was sitting on the Mercury bench during warm-ups, teammates Sophie Cunningham leaned over and asked her if she was excited.
Griner, leaning forward, looked at her and nodded her head.
Even though she felt appreciated Friday night, she’s glad her first game back — unofficial or not — is over and hopes one day soon it’s all basketball.
The Mercury open the regular season on Friday in Los Angeles against the same Sparks, in a nationally-televised game. Two days later, Griner will be back in Phoenix for the team’s home opener, fully expecting the pomp-and-circumstance — and emotion — that’ll come with it.
She was able to get through a lot of firsts on Friday: Her first game, her first basket, her first emotions on the court.
Now she can put it behind her and focus on what’s next: the rest of her return.
“I’m glad I was able to get this one out the way before the home opener,” Griner said, “and before we go to L.A.”