Year of resilience: Brittney Griner’s triumphant return inspires Phoenix Mercury’s 2023 season

Brittney Griner, named AP’s Comeback Player of the Year award, reflects on her remarkable journey from a Russian prison to completing the Phoenix Mercury’s 2023 WNBA season. (File photo by Bobby Murphy/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Brittney Griner vividly remembers where she was a year ago.

The thought of all she endured to return to the United States, then to the basketball court, and everyone who played a part in making it a reality sent a rush of emotion through her Monday during the Phoenix Mercury’s exit interviews one day after the 2023 season came to an end.

From previously answering mostly basketball questions to regularly fielding political inquiries, when asked about the Biden administration’s current efforts to free five Americans who are wrongfully detained in Iran, Griner fought back tears.

“I can’t wait for them to be home with their families. I know much they are waiting for them to be home,” Griner said. “I know what it feels like coming home like that. I know what it’s going to feel like for their families, so prayers up, fingers crossed that everything goes right, goes smooth, and they’re back soon.”

After serving nearly 10 months in a Russian prison and missing the WNBA playoffs for the first time, Griner is back home in Phoenix, where she’s an inspiration to her family and Mercury teammates.

She’s grateful for her liberties, such as walking where she desires freely. Yet teammates couldn’t tell the difference in her bubbly personality between now and before she was arrested in Moscow on Feb. 17, 2022, after cartridges containing less than a gram of medically prescribed hash oil were found in her luggage. Sentenced to nine years in prison, Griner was transferred to a notorious penal colony before being released in December in a prisoner exchange.

“If it was quiet and private and the world didn’t know, you wouldn’t know just talking to her,” Mercury guard Moriah Jefferson said. “The most genuine person you’ll meet, she’s talking to everybody around you, staff members, workers, she’s going to have a conversation with everybody.”

The Mercury’s home opener started with a special pregame ceremony celebrating her long-awaited return and led newscasts across the country. There was plenty of promise at Footprint Center, but it wouldn’t last.

The Mercury ended the season on an 11-game skid to finish 9-31. Despite the losses, Griner starred at home and in visiting arenas. The special treatment continued at the 2023 WNBA All-Star Game, where she was met with a raucous ovation and delivered two dunks.

Griner publicly stated displeasure with her overall performance on the season after averaging 17 points per game and tying her career low in rebounds since her rookie season with 6.3.

While Griner’s stats may differ from her usual production mark, Mercury coach Nikki Blue said more should be considered.

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“I think that Brittney probably wanted to have a better season in terms of production, but let’s give her a little bit of grace and a little bit of mercy,” Blue said Monday. “She did sit in her Russian prison for a very long time, and she didn’t have her full year of training that she’s accustomed to to get herself back.”

Although Griner has regained her freedom and can resume her routine, the trauma endured persists with the passing of Bill Richardson, founder of Richardson Center for Global Engagement, who helped release her from prison. Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, died in his Chatham, Massachusetts, home on Sep. 2.

Griner shares empathy for Richardson, as well as American citizens held captive abroad.

“That was very tough. That was very tough,” Griner said as she fought back emotion. “Really good man. So much good. So much good. I owe a lot to him and his family.”

On the court, Griner wants to dominate the basketball world in the same way she excelled at the University of Baylor or with the Mercury two years ago, when she averaged 20 points per game, snagged a career high in rebounds with nine and led Phoenix to its fifth WNBA Finals appearance, falling short to the Chicago Sky.

Blue said she saw glimpses of Griner’s dominance but doesn’t feel her star player reached her potential. However, Blue is grateful for Griner’s sacrifice and commitment to the team.

“From a coaching standpoint, I was just happy that she was out there,” Blue said. “From a mental standpoint and just physically, we needed her, and I’m glad that she showed up for us, even in a time where she probably didn’t feel too comfortable, she showed up for our team, which I am extremely grateful for.”

Blue wasn’t the only one within the Mercury organization to express excitement about Griner rejoining the squad. Mercury guard Diana Taurasi said it was nice “beyond basketball,” and teammates Sophie Cunningham, Shey Peddy and Megan Gustafson cited Griner’s return to the team as the highlight of the season.

Mercury guard Sug Sutton said Griner’s exuberance after all the hardship she faced in the past calendar year compels her to “go a bit harder every day,” knowing that it could all be stripped away one day.

Despite a year of navigating emotions, increased attention, a coaching change and injuries, Griner still earned AP’s Comeback Player of the Year nod Tuesday. Basketball continues to be her focus as she plans to spearhead Team USA’s defensive front in the 2024 Olympics in Paris, so long as she is invited.

However, as she moves forward in her life and career, Griner’s contribution to the Mercury team has left a lasting impact.

“I think she deserves a tremendous amount of credit for getting through the season and playing as well as she did,” Mercury general manager Nick U’ren said. “Considering what she’s been through, it’s really remarkable. There’s no human on this earth that can identify with what she’s been through. For her to play an entire WNBA season on the heels of that is as admirable as it gets, so I’m amazed and thankful to have watched it.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Alfred Smith III expects to graduate in June 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Smith III is a sports editor at ASU’s student-led newspaper, The State Press.