Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner spent nearly 10 months in Russian detainment after being arrested for possession of cannabis oil. She was released in a prisoner swap in December. (Credit: Lorie Shaull, Wikipedia Commons)

A lot has changed in the nearly 500 days since Brittney Griner’s last competitive basketball game – including Brittney Griner. When she made her return to the WNBA this weekend for the first time since being wrongfully detained in a Russian prison, she reflected on how she’s changed since her last time on the court.

“I appreciate everything a little more,” the Phoenix Mercury player told reporters. “All the little, small moments…I’m so tired, I don’t want to go to practice today…That has changed, honestly. Just appreciating everything because tomorrow’s not guaranteed.”

In February 2022, Griner was arrested in Russia after authorities found cannabis oil in her luggage. A prisoner swap between the United States and Russia led to Griner’s release in December. Despite the ordeal, she immediately made it clear that she planned to return to the WNBA.

And return she did. When she stepped onto the court for a kickoff game against the Los Angeles Sparks on Friday, there was one change that fans noticed immediately – Griner stood for the national anthem. Following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, Griner was one of many athletes who began to kneel during the national anthem in protest of police brutality and social injustice. 

Today, however, Griner says the song has taken on a new meaning for her. “One good thing about this country…you have the right to protest, the right to be able to speak out, question, challenge and do all these things,” Griner told reporters. “What I went through and everything, it just means a little bit more to me now. So I want to be able to stand. I was literally in a cage [in Russia] and could not stand the way I wanted to.”

In her first press conference last month, Griner provided a glimpse into her time in the Russian prison. She said that while she kept herself moving with hard workouts and practice, it was the support she received from overseas that gave her hope, “which is a really hard thing to have,” she told reporters. “It’s a dangerous thing to have. Because, when it doesn’t work, it’s so crushing.”

Griner expressed feelings of hopelessness In a letter she wrote to President Joe Biden in July, asking for his help. “I miss my wife! I miss my family! I miss my teammates! It kills me to know they are suffering so much right now. I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home,” she wrote. 

On Friday – nearly a year after sending that letter – Griner was greeted by a roaring applause from spectators who came to celebrate her return to the league. Among them was Vice President Kamala Harris, who met with players from both teams and thanked them for advocating for Griner while she was detained.  

“It was nice to see her face-to-face, talk to her, thank her for everything as well,” Griner told reporters. “And then the team really enjoyed it, too.”

Griner received an even louder reception from fans on Sunday at Mercury’s first home game against Chicago Sky. Being in her home stadium surrounded by fans caused her to get choked up, as she joked with reporters, “There might have been a little dust in my eye.” Although Mercury lost both games, there was a feeling of victory on both sides – a feeling that, if only for a few minutes, everyone was on the same team.

This season, Griner and her team will partner with the Bring Our Families Home campaign to support other Americans who have been wrongfully detained overseas, such as former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich. “We’re not going to stop fighting and we are not going to stop bringing awareness to everyone that’s left behind right now,” Griner told reporters.