Brittney Griner a star among WNBA All-Stars in emotional return

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner starred during 2023 WNBA All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas after missing last year’s game while being detained in Russia. (Video screenshot by Adrian Carbajal/Cronkite News)

LAS VEGAS – During a weekend full of celebrity appearances and broken records, Brittney Griner and the Phoenix Mercury stole the show at the 2023 WNBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas.

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced Saturday that Phoenix will host next year’s All-Star Game, and on and off the court, the love for Griner was evident since the moment she arrived for practice.

Ultimately, Team Breanna Stewart defeated Team A’ja Wilson Saturday, 163-147, with Jewell Loyd of the Seattle Storm taking home MVP honors with 31 points, and Sabrina Ionescu cashed 20 straight 3-pointers Friday to set a new 3-point-contest record for the WNBA and NBA with 37 points in a single round.

But Griner held the spotlight all weekend as the WNBA family celebrated her presence and platform following her absence last year. The nine-time All-Star received the loudest ovation during pregame introductions of any player who didn’t play for the hometown Las Vegas Aces.

“I just love being here,” Griner said Saturday during her postgame interview. “I love competing. I love just doing everything for the fans. I’m just honored to be on this court.”

“It was very heavy on everyone to have her missing (last year),” Aces guard Kelsey Plum said before the All-Star game. “She’s obviously a key part of this league on and off the court. To have her back is tremendous, even just seeing her around in social settings has been really cool. I’m excited. You love playing against a star. I’m not getting dunked on in the game, I’ll tell you that.”

After her first dunk of the season July 9, everyone in the building was expecting an All-Star dunk from Griner, and she didn’t disappoint. The 6-foot-9 center threw down two slams during the game and finished with 18 points and 13 rebounds in 26 minutes. Griner’s seven offensive rebounds were a personal All-Star Game best, and the game marked her first double-double in the All-Star Game.

But as players raved all weekend long about, her attitude stood out more than her stats.

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“It’s been amazing to see her smiling face more than anything,” said DeWanna Bonner, Griner’s former Mercury teammate. “I’m super excited for her to be here and enjoy this. I’m sure she’s going to live it up to the fullest.”

“To have her now in the gym, playing in the All-Star Game, it’s a blessing,” said Aces forward and Team Wilson captain A’ja Wilson. “Just to have her around, her energy back, is … pretty cool to see.”

Another lighthearted moment from the game took place early in the fourth quarter when Griner received a pass in the post. No less than four members of Team Wilson converged on her, forcing her to pass.

“I mean, what else were we supposed to do?” Wilson joked. “We were already down by 50, so we had to at least do something, show a little effort.”

New York Liberty forward Breanna Stewart drafted Griner with her first selection in the All-Star draft July 8.

“Looking back to last season, there was a void in the WNBA and there was something missing – that was BG,” Stewart said. “Fast-forwarding to this year’s All-Star, it’s incredible to have her here and to have her sitting next to me. To have her on my team. That was my number one.”

Engelbert agreed with Stewart that something was missing, not only in last year’s game but throughout the duration of the season and around the entire WNBA community.

“It was a huge burden on the team last year and the whole league and everybody that was rooting for her to come home from her wrongful detention,” Engelbert said. “We’re thrilled she’s here, she looks happy, and I can’t be more proud of how she’s performing both on the court and the platform she’s carrying around (for) wrongfully detained Americans around the world.”

The WNBA reiterated its support of Griner’s philanthropic platform by showing a Bring Our Families Home advertisement – the non-profit organization Griner champions that’s designed to aid in the return of wrongfully detained Americans in foreign countries – throughout the arena during the first timeout of the game.

Before having the chance to support Bring Our Families Home, Griner infamously spent nine months in a Russian prison, causing her to miss the entire 2022 WNBA season, including the All-Star Game. The WNBA dedicated last year’s game to her, and every player came out of the locker room for the second half wearing Griner’s No. 42.

Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks, president of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, expressed the honor she felt hosting Griner and the Mercury to kick off the 2023 season, as well as having the chance to play alongside Griner in this year’s All-Star Game.

“It’s definitely way better being here playing the game with BG than dedicating the game to her,” Ogwumike said. “It’s just fun to see her back here. Starting the season off playing against her is something we wanted so badly and, of course, we spent a lot of time prioritizing that when it came to us doing what we did last year. It’s just such a blessing to have her here, and I’m really excited for it.”

“It meant everything to me,” Griner said of the love and support she received while in Russia. “I didn’t think I’d be here today, honestly. Everybody sending letters, sending love, posting, I’m still seeing it to this day, everything that everybody did. It really meant a lot to me. It gave me hope. It made me not want to give it up or anything. It was this league that helped me out.”

Josh Bootzin jaw-sh boot-zin (he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Josh Bootzin expects to graduate in December 2023 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. He receive bachelor’s of arts degrees in statistics and creative writing from the University of Pittsburgh in 2021 and hopes to build a career in data journalism around proficiencies in statistics, print journalism and a love for sports.

Adrian Carbajal ah-dree-an car-buh-hall (he/ him/ his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Adrian Carbajal expects to graduate in December 2023 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Carbajal has interned as a reporter at KOLD News 13 in Tucson.