Brittney Griner emotional after ‘incredible’ Phoenix homecoming
PHOENIX – Brittney Griner stood in front of a wall of monitors at one end of a darkened arena, waiting for her name to be announced in front of one of the largest crowds in Phoenix Mercury history as a video tribute was played throughout the Footprint Center on Sunday afternoon.
It took the first three words of Diddy and Dirty Money’s song “Coming Home,” played on the edit, for Griner to start tearing up.
“I’m coming home,” the song played as Griner watched.
“Oh my god,” Griner said after scoring 27 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in the Mercurys’ 75-69 loss to the Chicago Sky. “Oh my God.
“It was emotional in the back, just hearing, seeing some of the clips and then going out. … But no, it was really good. It was really good. Part of the healing process is just letting it go. So, yeah, no, I got a little choked up.”
She tried to hide her emotions but wiped away a tear just before the first tip. Even coach Vanessa Nygaard admitted after the match that she also got ripped. Sunday was also the first time Griner had played in front of her parents in more than a decade, another part of a landmark game that made her emotional.
“It was amazing,” Griner said. “I don’t think I’ve played in front of everyone in the same place, honestly, since high school, honestly. So having everyone here right now and, like I said before, I didn’t know when it was going happen, if it did happen, depending on how long it could have been very different.
“So just having them here, just hanging out with them, playing in front of them. I mean, it suffocated me. Yeah, that one made me.”
Griner had last played in a competitive game at her home arena on October 13, 2021, in the WNBA Finals against the same Sky team she faced in her first game in Arizona after missing the 2022 season while being held in a Russian prison. for 10 months.
Griner’s return home was as much a party as a game. The entire lower bowl of the Footprint Center was sold out, forcing the team to sell seats on the upper deck. The 14,040 fans in attendance were considered Mercury’s largest crowd since 1998.
As with her preseason game and season opener, Griner was inundated with hugs and well wishes during pregame warmups. At one point, she and Sky’s trainer James Wade shared a hug and talked for a few minutes. Former NBA guard and ESPN NBA analyst Jalen Rose was at the game, along with Olympic swimmer Simone Manuel and Phoenix Suns players Ish Wainright and Damion Lee.
Once the festivities began, it was hard to find many who weren’t up. The pregame ceremony began with a video showing clips of Griner throughout pregame activities on Sunday, complete with photos from his final weeks. The lights then went out and Jay Tatum, a spoken word artist from Phoenix, began reciting a poem she wrote especially for Griner’s Sunday afternoon homecoming.
“On planet Mercury, dreams come true,” Tatum began. “Like Phoenix, they reunited with 42. Together, we watched our blues turn into different hues. On December 8, when he finally broke the news that our X Factor was free, our X Factor was safe, that our X-factor survived despite everything she faced. I mean, isn’t that Mercury’s way?”
Following his poem, Mercury’s full list was presented. Griner was the last. The moment Griner emerged, the cheers grew. And they kept growing for a long time. The whole pre-match ceremony lasted about seven minutes. By the end, the emotion throughout the building was raw, visible, and at a fever pitch.
Then the game started. Just 14 seconds later, after Griner won the tipoff and returned the ball to Diana Taurasi, Taurasi returned it to Griner in the post. Griner made a move to the middle, went up and down, hit the layup, and was fouled. She finished the game on three points and in doing so capped an emotional – and raucous – stretch to start the game.
From there, Griner’s presence was felt time and time again, and it showed few signs of residual rust from preseason. She was 8 for 11 on contested field goals and 7 for 10 on dribbling and she scored 14 points from the post, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Griner completed his 27 points and 10 rebounds with four blocks and an assist.
Griner’s defining play on Sunday came late in the third quarter. She hit a 3-pointer – just the seventh of her career – with 38.2 seconds left to fire the Mercury 58-53, and shouted “I’m back” as she celebrated.
“That moment was very special, honestly,” Griner said. “It took me back to my last season playing. I felt really good, honestly. It was a crazy time.”
Guard Sug Sutton passed the ball to Griner as she came down the field as a tow. For what?
“She was wide open. We had momentum,” Sutton said. “No, I just knew she was going to hit him. She said she was just hoping it was okay and I knew she was going to, so I’m glad she did and that kind of moment was cool, really amazing time in the arena.”
Sunday was the ninth game of his career with at least 25 points and four blocks. Only Lauren Jackson, with 12, had more. It was also Griner’s 24th game with 25 points and 10 rebounds, fifth in WNBA history. Griner is now the second player in WNBA history to average 20 points and four blocks in his first two games of a season.
She was equally effective on defense. The Sky were shooting 3 for 12 when Griner challenged as a main or backup defender. And Griner’s second of four blocks on Sunday saw her pass Sylvia Fowles for third on the WNBA’s all-time blocks list.
After Sunday’s game, Nygaard called the whole day “incredible” despite Mercury’s second straight loss to start the season.
“I continued to be impressed with BG,” Nygaard said. “BG is someone who can handle so many things, clearly, that a lot of people couldn’t handle. So I was really, really happy to have him back on the pitch tonight and feel the love from all of our fans.”