PHOENIX — Brittney Griner stood in front of a wall of screens on one end of a dark arena, waiting for her name to be announced in front of one the largest crowds in Phoenix Mercury history as a video tribute played throughout the Footprint Center on Sunday afternoon.
It took the first three words of the song “Coming Home” by Diddy and Dirty Money, played over the montage, for Griner to start tearing up.
“I’m coming home…” the song played as Griner stood watching.
“Oh my god,” Griner said after scoring 27 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in the Mercury’s 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 coming out. … But, no, it was really good. It was really good. Part of the process of healing is just kind of letting it out. So, yeah, nah, I got choked up a little bit.”
She tried to hide her emotion but wiped away a tear just before the opening tip. Even coach Vanessa Nygaard admitted after the game that she teared up, as well. Sunday was also the first time Griner played in front of her parents in more than a decade, another part of a milestone game that made her emotional.
“That was amazing,” Griner said. “I don’t think I’ve played in front of everybody in one place, honestly, since high school, honestly. So, just having everybody here right now and, like I said before, didn’t know when that was going to happen, if it would happen, depending on how long it was, it could have been a lot different.
“So just having them here, just spending time with them, playing in front of them. I mean, that got me choked up. Yeah, that one got me.”
Griner last played a regular-season game in her home arena on Oct. 13, 2021 during the WNBA Finals against the same Sky team she faced in her first game back in Arizona after missing the 2022 season while she was detained in a Russian prison for 10 months.
Griner’s return to home was as much a celebration as it was a game. The entire lower bowl of Footprint Center was sold out, forcing the team to sell seats in the upper deck. The 14,040 fans in attendance were believed to be the largest Mercury crowd since 1998.
Like in her preseason game and season opener, Griner was inundated with hugs and well-wishes during her pregame warmups. At one point, her and Sky coach James Wade shared a hug and a spoke 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 on their feet. The pregame ceremony began with video showing clips of Griner from throughout pregame on Sunday spliced with photos from her last few weeks. The lights then went dark and Jay Tatum, a spoken word artist from Phoenix, began reciting a poem she wrote specifically for Griner’s home return Sunday afternoon.
“On planet Mercury, dreams come true,” Tatum started. “Like Phoenix, they reunited with 42. Together, we watched our blues turn into different hues. On December 8th, when it finally broke the news that our X Factor was free, that our X Factor was safe, that our X Factor survived Regardless what she faced. I mean, isn’t that the Mercury way?”
After her poem, the entire Mercury roster was introduced. Griner was last. The moment Griner emerged, the cheers grew. And they didn’t stop growing. The entirety of a pregame ceremony lasted about 7 minutes. By the end, the emotion throughout the building was raw, visible and at a peak.
Then the game started. Just 14 seconds in, after winning the tip off and knocking it back to Diana Taurasi, Taurasi returned the ball to Griner in the post. Griner made a move to the middle, went up-and-under, hit the layup and was fouled. She completed the three-point play and, in the process, capped an emotional — and loud — stretch to start the game.
From there, Griner’s presence was felt time and time again, and she showed very little signs of any residual rust or cobwebs from the preseason. She was 8-for-11 on contested field goals, 7-for-10 off the dribble and scored 14 points from the post, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Griner complemented her 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 pull the Mercury within 58-53, and yelled “I’m back” while celebrating.
“That moment was very special, honestly,” Griner said. “It took me back to my last season playing. Just felt really good, honestly. It was a crazy moment.”
Guard Sug Sutton passed Griner the ball as she came down the court as the trailer. Why?
“She was wide open. We had momentum,” Sutton said. “Nah, I just knew she was going to hit it. She said that she just hoped that it would go in and I knew she was going to make it, so I’m glad she did and that kind of was a cool moment, really amazing moment in the arena.”
Sunday was the ninth game of her career with at least 25 points and four blocks. Only Lauren Jackson’s 12 were more. It was also her 24th game with 25 points and 10 rebounds, the fifth most in WNBA history. Griner is now the second player in WNBA history to average 20 points and four blocks in their first two games of a season.
She was just as effective on defense. The Sky was 3-for-12 shooting when Griner contested as the primary or help defender. And the second of Griner’s four blocks Sunday helped her pass Sylvia Fowles into third on the WNBA’s all-time blocks list.
After Sunday’s game, Nygaard called the entire day “amazing” despite the Mercury’s second-straight loss to start the season.
“I’m just continued to be impressed with B.G.,” Nygaard said. “B.G. is somebody that can handle so many things, clearly, that many people could not handle. So, I was just really happy to have her back on the court tonight and just to feel the love from all of our fans.”
Brittney Griner emotional after ‘amazing’ Phoenix homecoming