PHOENIX — Brittney Griner knew throughout her time detained in Russia that Sunday, her return to the court as a member of the Phoenix Mercury, would come — at some point.
She just didn’t know when.
Griner said after her first training camp practice that she had been convinced her next practice wouldn’t come until she was let out of a Russian jail after her nine-year sentence had been completed, which, doing the quick math in front of a handful of cameras, Griner estimated to be Oct. 25, 2030.
“If it was the full nine, I think that would’ve been my release date,” Griner said. “Would’ve been a lot different. I don’t know if I would’ve been on the court at that point. But, yeah, I just kind of prepared myself for the long haul, honestly. You never know. But, when it came quickly, I was really happy and I knew I couldn’t wait to get back on the court.”
That happened late Sunday morning, and after the two-hour workout, Griner said she felt “so good” but understood there are still challenges, both mental and physical, that she’ll have to navigate during her lead-up to the regular season, which begins in about three weeks.
“It’s everything that I wanted it to be, just finding my groove, just getting back into it,” Griner said.
Sunday was the culmination of a 100-day plan to prepare Griner for her first practice, said coach Vanessa Nygaard, who added that Griner had been progressing throughout the offseason.
“She was super diligent in that work and she was able to go fully through practice today, so we’ll continue to just push her, and I think it’s as she can tolerate, but she did it phenomenally,” Nygaard said.
The last time Griner, 32, took the court as a member of the Mercury was on Oct. 17, 2021, when they lost the WNBA Finals to the Chicago Sky — 560 days ago. From a basketball standpoint, Griner said, she’s not the same player now that she was then, but she feels she can return to that level.
“Am I where I want to be? No, because last time I was with my team I was against Chicago in the Finals, and as much as I want to be ‘Finals BG’ right now, it’s not the case,” she said. “So, just kind of giving myself some grace and my teammates just picking me up. But I feel like I’m at a good spot to start a training camp though for sure.
“I mean I didn’t fall out, they didn’t have to get a stretcher or oxygen or anything, so I guess I’m doing pretty good.”
Griner’s trademark humor, sarcasm and light-heartedness were on display as she sat on a cushioned chair, facing a handful of cameras in the corner of the Mercury’s practice gym.
She made light of some of the challenges of returning to the court. The two-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year joked that she needs to remember to pick up her feet when she runs down the court so she doesn’t trip, but also said there were practical challenges, like getting her conditioning back, trying to remember the plays and all the little things on defense.
For now, Griner said, the challenges she faces are a 50-50 split between mental and physical.
Griner said she felt like a newbie in some ways Sunday, since she had never been coached by Nygaard. When some of the rookies asked her questions about their new coach, Griner had to remind them of that.
“I was like, ‘Well, I was locked up so I don’t really know too much,’” Griner said. “I was like, ‘I guess I’m little bit of a rookie in training camp right now.’”
Griner’s teammates, some of whom have been around her for about four months now since she returned from Russia, didn’t treat Sunday with any sort of tenderness or care.
The jokes were out in full force.
Asked what it was like to have Griner back on the court, Sophie Cunningham quipped: “Terrible. Gosh, it sucked.”
She added with a smile, “No, it was absolutely amazing. Just to have her vibe, her smile, her warmth and her experience, it’s a total game-changer. She’s the best in the league — in the world, in fact — and so just to have that presence back was awesome.”
Diana Taurasi followed suit.
“She’s annoying as always. So, she hasn’t lost that,” Taurasi said. “No, it’s obviously, personally, I’m just, I’m happy she’s back. I’m happy she’s back on the court. I’m happy to see her with a smile on her face, and now it’s time to do a lot of work ’cause there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Just seeing Griner on the floor almost brought Nygaard to tears.
“It’s a miracle, right?” Nygaard said. “Let’s not forget. Let’s not forget. I was just so happy to see her today. I welcomed her back today. I almost cried. She’s great. She’s great energy. She’s a dominant player, she’s unguardable, she also has such a great spirit about her. So lots of positives for [the] Mercury having her with us.”
Another part of her return to the court Sunday was the emotional aspect.
Griner said she had not taken the time to process the emotions of going through her first official practice until minutes after it ended. She said she stayed in the moment while she prepared for it, then took a few moments to gather her thoughts while the sounds of basketballs dribbling and sneakers squeaking filled the air.
“It’s a little emotional thinking about it because it’s like the thing that you love the most and you don’t know if you’re going to have it or if it’s going to be completely gone, and not the way that you want it to be gone,” Griner said. “Not on your own terms.
“So just being here right now means everything.”