ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Brittney Griner had a Texas homecoming, in private and on the court with the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA star’s home state six months after her release from a Russian prison.
The only thing really missing was a victory.
Even before the first of consecutive games against the Dallas Wings, Griner was getting shouts of encouragement while out eating with teammates. And less than two hours before Wednesday night’s game, she met in private with the women’s basketball team from Baylor, the campus 100 miles away where she was part of a 40-0 national championship in 2012.
“Close to home, AAU team is here, my high school came up, Baylor came down. I was really, really, really, really happy to see the Baylor team. That meant a lot having them here,” said Griner, who also had family from Houston and Little Rock at the game.
When the starting lineups were introduced before Phoenix’s 84-79 loss, Griner got a rousing ovation from the crowd of 4,242. She responded by applauding to the crowd, then made a jumper on the game’s first shot for the first of her 24 points.
“It was just a lot of support. It was just good seeing everybody and just being back in Texas. I mean miss being here, so it was really cool,” she said. “When I came out, the love, that meant a lot to me.”
The Mercury were on the road for only the second time this season. It is the first time for Griner to play in her home state since before she missed all of last season while detained in Russia for nearly 10 months on drug-related charges that ended with a prisoner swap in December.
Wings forward Satou Sabally, who had 24 points and 10 rebounds, said it means a lot to have Griner back.
“Last year we played without her and it was just weird, something was missing,” Sabally said. “And now everything is back to normal.”
Phoenix and Dallas play again Friday night, when the game is already sold out in the arena on the University of Texas-Arlington campus that can hold about 7,000 fans.
“This is a joyful distraction as opposed to what we all went through last year,” Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said. “Every city last year, it was the BG game, but not the BG game like this, so extremely grateful to have her back. We can’t forget the miracle that it is that she is here.”
Dallas coach Latricia Trammell said the highlight of her day was giving Griner a big hug when the Mercury were coming onto the court for their morning shootaround as the Wings were finishing their session.
“It just was an emotional moment for all of us,” Trammell said. “Just honored and blessed that she’s on the floor safe, healthy. And like she told me, she goes, it’s all happiness from here.”
Griner also shared hugs with Wings players Odyssey Sims and Kalani Brown, both former Baylor players. Sims was a teammate of Griner’s on the undefeated national title team, while Brown was part of the Bears’ national championship in 2019.
Brown used to go to camps at Baylor when Griner was playing there — “BG does not like me to pull that camp picture out,” Brown said with a smile.
Now that Griner is back on the court, Brown said it is important that she knows how much everyone was pulling for her and praying for her in a difficult time.
“I’m glad that that situation didn’t dim her light, because she is the sweetest person. Every encounter we have, I’ve never had a negative one,” Brown said. “I’m so glad that didn’t change her.”
When the current Baylor players met with Griner, they presented her with a commemorative frame featuring the “BG42” patch that the Bears wore on their jerseys throughout last season, even after Griner was freed.
Nicki Collen, who just finished her second season as Baylor’s coach, said her goal is to retire Griner’s No. 42 jersey, as early as the upcoming season when the school opens its new basketball arena. No one has worn that number for the Bears since Griner’s senior season in 2012-13, the last time she was on campus for a game.
“I do think one of the things that BG wants is just to truly feel welcomed at Baylor,” Collen said. “So to have the opportunity to connect the dots will be really huge for our program.”
Griner, who has since finished her Baylor degree, said she would love to see her jersey hanging in the rafters, and looks forward to getting back to a game on the Waco campus.
“Played some my best basketball there, and met some really amazing people there,” Griner said. “I can’t wait to go back. I mean, it’s safe to say I’m never going overseas to play ball again. So, you know, in the offseason I’ll be able to actually go and see games and be there.”By STEPHEN HAWKINS AP Sports Writer