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Brittney Griner’s release was shocked and relieved by Phoenix Mercury

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Brianna Turner knew something was wrong when her bedroom door opened around 7am on Thursday and her mother rushed to wake her.

It wasn’t bad news though.

“BG is free! BG is free!” shouted Turner’s mother.

Still in bed and barely awake, Turner wasn’t sure what she was hearing.

“Am I dreaming?” she asked.

Then the Phoenix Mercury forward took to Twitter and saw national media confirm the news that teammate Brittney Griner had been released from Russian custody after 294 days in a high-profile US-Russian prisoner swap.

“Honestly, I thought I was still dreaming,” said Turner, who lives with her parents in Texas while back from playing overseas in Turkey. “I was confused. Like, it was a total shock.

“I jumped on social media, we turned on the TV and, yeah, all the news stations were saying, ‘Breaking news, Breaking news.'”

Turner’s grandmother saw him first, calling as soon as she saw Griner had been released. “So, thank goodness my grandma got up early to watch the news,” Turner said.

She quickly took a screenshot of a reporter’s tweet confirming Griner’s release and sent it in a group chat to teammates Kia Nurse and Shey Peddy with the message, “Oh my god guys.” As the news spread and spread throughout the day, many members of the Mercury franchise had similar reactions. Tears flowed, mouths opened, texts were sent. Lots of texts.

In Phoenix, Mercury Chairman Vince Kozar also heard the news when the second of two calls from future Hall of Famer Diana Taurasi finally woke him up. The first thing Kozar did was cry.

“To say it was a cloud doesn’t even really capture it,” he said. “I think I probably feel like everyone is feeling – huge relief. It’s definitely a celebration. I guess a little bit of disbelief is waiting for it to completely hit.

“I didn’t know the next time one of us would see her again.”

Kozar fought back tears as he sat at his desk at home writing the statement the Mercury would eventually release, and when he saw Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker sharing the statement on Instagram. He finally made it to the Footprint Center office around 10:00 MT. He had work to do: including making sure Griner has everything she needs for her return to Phoenix — the city, not the team — whenever that happens.

“We don’t think about basketball,” Kozar said. “Our main concern is her, and – as I’ve told people before – if she never plays another basketball game again, another minute of WNBA basketball, we will always love her and take care of her. ‘her all the same, and nothing about how we feel about her or what she means to us, or this town or her family or any of that is going to change.”

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0:41

Watch some of Brittney Griner’s first recorded videos after boarding a charter plane and beginning her return to the United States.

Outside of the Footprint Center, however, there was little sign of Griner’s news. A maintenance crew was installing lights around the palm trees. A man shot video of the BG42 sign adorning the exterior of the arena. Suns employees went to work mid-morning after a loss to the Boston Celtics the night before.

Two groups of Jehovah’s Witnesses greeted passers-by on the sidewalk and handed them brochures. Outside the arena is one of their usual places to post due to heavy foot traffic. They realized Griner had been released when a local news crew arrived and began interviewing people on the streets.

But overall it was business as usual in downtown Phoenix. People were strolling in the square in front of the arena while others were running around mid-morning. Lunch time was just beginning. And a few Griner fans made their way to the arena.

“If she never plays another basketball game again…we will still love her and take care of her just the same.”

Mercury Chairman Vince Kozar

Danae McKnight is a 33-year-old woman who moved to Phoenix three years ago from Florida with her wife. They didn’t know anyone in the area and bought Mercury subscriptions to find a community, McKnight explained while standing in front of a Black Lives Matter mural that features Griner on the side of the Footprint Center. McKnight said they saw Griner being “unapologetically herself.”

“It’s something a lot of people, myself included, struggle with,” said McKnight, who wore a “We Are BG” t-shirt. “It took me years to figure out who I was and to come to terms with that, because there’s so much fear with the LGBT community and you feel like you have to hide or you care.

“…Just the confidence that she has, and she just knows who she is and she just wants to be that and that’s inspiring. It taught me that it’s OK to be me.”

McKnight bawled when his wife told him Griner was coming home and knew she wanted to come to the Footprint Center.

“It was just the right place to be,” McKnight said, choking back tears. “It affected me a lot more than I thought. I’m married and I can only imagine my wife being away from me for almost 300 days, and it’s really personal for me.”

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2:36

TJ Quinn details Brittney Griner’s time in a Russian labor camp and what awaits Griner after being freed in a prisoner exchange.

Turner is in Austin, about 90 miles from San Antonio, where Griner landed Friday at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. She wants to give Griner some space and privacy as she adjusts to her old, but new life.

Turner joked that she was close enough to drive over and wave Griner through the doors.

“I’m sure in a few weeks I might be able to talk to him, figure something out,” Turner said.

Kozar, who had more than 300 unread text messages by lunchtime, also hopes to see Griner “soon,” but only on his timeline, whether in Arizona or his home state of Texas.

“Me and everyone around here who’s been desperate for nine months to hug her will follow her lead when she wants to see people and when she wants to leave the house and when she wants to go grocery shopping and when she wants to go to a Suns game,” he said.

The mood around the Mercury and Suns offices was celebratory all day, Kozar said. The Mercury players and coaches he spoke with throughout the morning felt a combination of disbelief and joy. Their teammate, their friend they had talked about, lobbied, campaigned for nearly a year, was on her way back.

“When you talk about a member of your family that you miss, a piece of your culture, a piece of someone you have a personal relationship with, she made you laugh, she made you feel better, she helped you, she helped you connect with other people – we missed that,” Kozar said. “So the idea of ​​this comeback, completely separate from basketball, is really, really joyful.”

When Kozar spoke with Mercury’s trainer Vanessa Nygaard on Thursday, she had just completed physical therapy to treat a back injury she sustained while surfing. When he mentioned his “back pain”, Kozar said Nygaard replied: “Nothing hurts today”.

While the focus was on Griner’s safety and well-being and helping him rehabilitate back into society, his basketball future wasn’t too far from Kozar’s mind. One thing Kozar learned through all the letters he and Griner exchanged is that it wasn’t just his freedom, family and friends that were taken away from him. So was, as she calls it, hoop.

“We will follow her example, we will do whatever she wants,” he said. “Part of the joy she’s brought to people is the way she plays and the way she plays and who she is when she plays.

“And I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was some kind of anticipation or excitement that everyone could experience this again, but that’s not what matters the most.”

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