US

US basketball star Brittney Griner has returned to the court for her first professional league game since her Russian prison ordeal.

The 32-year-old had not played alongside her Phoenix Mercury team mates in a match since 2021.

The two-time Olympic gold medallist was released from a Russian jail in a high-profile prisoner exchange with the US late last year after she was arrested in February 2022 on drug charges.

Griner lost no time in making her presence felt on Friday night, helping her side to an early lead against the Los Angeles Sparks, before they were eventually overcome – losing 94-71.

She also received a hug from US Vice President Kamala Harris, who attended the game.

For the first time since last season, Phoenix coach Vanessa Nygaard opened her pregame comments without announcing how many days Griner had been jailed.

She added: “Today is a day of joy. An amazing, amazing thing has happened.

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“We brought back this Black, gay woman from a Russian jail and America did that because they valued her and she’s a female athlete and they valued her.

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December 2022: Brittney Griner arrives back in US

“Just to be part of a group that values people at that level, it makes me very proud to be an American.

“Maybe there’s other people that that doesn’t make them proud, but for me, I see BG and I see hope and I see the future and I have young children and it makes me really hopeful about our country.”

Griner and her teammates were greeted with a standing ovation when they came on court for pregame warmups, while fans wore T-shirts with her name and jersey number on them.

Griner patted her heart and applauded in return during a brief video welcoming her back to the WNBA.

Tennis star Billie Jean King and wife Ilana Kloss, who are part-owners of the Sparks, were also there for the game, as was Magic Johnson.

Since her release, Griner has used her platform to campaign for other Americans being detained abroad. She was already an LGBTQ+ activist since publicly coming out in 2013.

Nygaard said: “She stands for so many people, so many different kind of people who can be undervalued in our society.
“She stands with pride and confidence and has never once has shied away from who she is.”

Griner announced in April that she is working with Bring Our Families Home, a campaign formed last year by the family members of American hostages and wrongful detainees held overseas.

She said her team has been in contact with the family of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is being detained in Russia on espionage charges.

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