Basketball-Griner plays in WNBA for first time since Russia detention

By Amy Tennery

(Reuters) - Brittney Griner played with her Phoenix Mercury for the first time since 2021 on Friday, taking the court far sooner than she expected for their preseason game against the Los Angeles Sparks, after nearly 10 months of detention in Russia.

The two-time Olympic gold medalist was released from a Russian penal colony in a high-profile prisoner exchange with the United States late last year after she was arrested in February 2022 on drug charges.

"I didn't think I would be sitting here. I didn't think I would be playing basketball this quickly," Griner told reporters after the Sparks handed them a 90-71 loss.

"I didn't know how it was going to go, getting back into it. Grateful to be here, that's for sure."

Griner was greeted to roars of celebration at Phoenix's Footprint Center on Friday as she exited the tunnel and strode onto the court.

The eight-time All-Star got on the board in the first minute with a two-point shot, and had 10 points with three rebounds across 17 minutes.

One of the most dominant forces in the Women's National Basketball Association before her detention, Griner conceded she had plenty of work ahead to get back to her old self.

"I didn't feel like I was gassed or dying," said Griner, who offered a withering self-appraisal of her defensive performance. "(I'm) knocking off those cobwebs, getting rid of the bad habits."

The two-time WNBA scoring champion has been subject to enormous media interest since her return to the United States, using her super-sized platform to champion the cause of other Americans detained abroad.

The 32-year-old, who is working on a memoir about her arrest and imprisonment, said the season ahead also offered an opportunity to focus on the game again.

"It feels good, you definitely feel appreciated," said Griner. "But I can't wait for the day where it's kind of like just basketball."

The Mercury open their regular season on the road in Los Angeles against the Sparks on May 19.

(Reporting by Amy Tennery in New York; Editing by William Mallard)