PHOENIX – Community support for Brittney Griner and the Phoenix Mercury was never in question Sunday afternoon when a crowd of 14,040 converged on Footprint Center for the seven-time All-Star’s long-awaited return.
In a powerful display of solidarity across the entire WNBA family, pregame festivities for the Mercury’s home opener featured signs, shirts and messages of support for Griner. The crowd – the third-highest regular-season attendance of her pro career – raised its volume substantially for favorites Sophie Cunningham and Diana Taurasi during player introductions before a thunderous roar overtook the arena as Griner stepped into the spotlight.
Skylar Grey’s hit song “Coming Home” played through the public address system, and Griner arranged her arms into an X in front of her face as a salute to the Mercury’s fans, known as the “X-Factor.”
“Part of the process of healing is just kind of letting it out,” Griner said postgame about the ovation she received in her first regular-season home game since being released from a Russian prison. “So yeah, I got choked up a little bit. Tried to hide it, but you caught it.”
The emotional moment carried over into the first possession of the game between the Mercury and Chicago Sky. Griner won the tip, backed her defender into the paint and drew a foul on a turnaround hook shot for a three-point play.
The “Brittney’s Home” theme continued throughout the game with introductions from special guests in attendance during breaks in game action. Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife, sat on the baseline and received a standing ovation during the first timeout of the game. US Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens, who played a leading role in Griner’s release from Russia, also received a warm welcome.
Griner’s arrest at a Moscow airport for drug possession in February 2022 marked the beginning of nearly 10 months of incarceration. The WNBA dedicated its entire 2022 season to Griner. After multiple efforts by the U.S. government, news broke of her release amid a U.S.-Russia prisoner exchange on Dec. 8.
“I can tell you from where I sit and where the team sits in Washington, D.C., we knew that this day was going to come,” Carstens said as he sat shoulder to shoulder with Griner during postgame media availability. “We knew it was going to be hard. It would take some time, but what we saw today was exactly how I pictured it. BG home. Cherelle cheering her on. BG’s family in the crowd and BG back on the court doing what she does best, and that’s playing basketball.”
For her part, Griner’s play shined just as bright as her smile on the court throughout the game. She finished with 27 points on 9-of-13 shooting, 10 rebounds and four blocks.
After taking a 9-8 lead with 6:30 left in the first quarter, the Mercury never led again in a 75-69 loss. The Sky led by 11 points in the closing minutes of the third quarter before back-to-back threes by Sug Sutton (career-high 13 points) and Griner sparked a comeback that fell just short. Griner’s 3-pointer with 39 seconds left in the period sparked the crowd’s loudest response of the afternoon.
“She was wide open,” Sutton said of Griner’s three. “We had momentum. I knew she was going to hit it and she said she hoped that it would go in, and I knew it was going to go in. I’m glad she did and that was a cool moment, an amazing moment in the arena with the X-Factor.”
The Mercury closed the gap to two points on Diana Taurasi’s 3-pointer with 3:09 left to play and again with another Griner three-point play with 1:48 to play, but that was the closest coach Vanessa Nygaard’s team came to its first win of the season.
Nygaard credited the crowd for creating an exciting home atmosphere and sticking with the team through the end.
“It just seems like a real moment here for women’s basketball that a lot of people are coming out to see it,” Nygaard said. “It was loud in there … I was screaming in the huddle, so I just think we had such an amazing crowd to welcome BG home.”
The Mercury, now 0-2, will search for their first victory of the season Thursday against the Minnesota Lynx (0-1) at Footprint Center.