Brittney Griner played her first WNBA game since being released into U.S. custody from a Russian prison cell.
Griner took the court at Crypto.com Arena for the start of her 10th season in the league, following her ten-month detainment in Russia for smuggling cannabis vape cartridges into the country last February.
The hoops star had originally traveled to Moscow to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg during the off-season, and ended up missing the entire 2022-23 WNBA season while she was tried and sentenced to a nine-year prison term.
During her first game back, Vice President Kamala Harris visited Griner’s Phoenix Mercury for a locker room meet-and-greet prior to the game.
WNBA player Brittney Griner, who previously protested national anthem, said ‘Star Spangled Banner’ ‘hit different’ after being freed from Russia. She stood for the anthem on May 12, 2023. pic.twitter.com/UUzJOhHZtJ
— Dom Lucre | Breaker of Narratives (@dom_lucre) May 19, 2023
Harris thanked the players for all that they did to support Griner and “keep her story alive” during their teammate’s “unlawful detainment.”
“I know that was rough and so difficult for you,” she remarked. “A team is a team and that’s family.”
When the game was about to start, Griner showed how much she appreciated being back on U.S. soil by standing for the National Anthem.
VP Kamala Harris was in the Phoenix Mercury locker room before the game to welcome Brittney Griner back to the @wnba, then came to the @cryptocomarena court pregame and received a No, 49 jersey and hug from Nneka Ogwumike. pic.twitter.com/HSi7xmUEwB
— Jill Painter Lopez (@jillpainter) May 20, 2023
This was a huge departure for WNBA player, who refused to stand during the song for the duration of the entire 2020 season.
Griner went as far as calling for the Star-Spangled Banner to not be played before sporting events.
“I honestly feel we should not play the national anthem during our season,” she said in July 2020. “I think we should take that much of a stand.”
“I’m going to protest regardless,” Griner continued. “I’m not going to be out there for the national anthem. If the league continues to want to play it, that’s fine. It will be all season long, I’ll not be out there.”
She also said that the song did not represent Black Americans.
“I personally don’t think it belongs in sports. … Black people didn’t have rights at that point,” Griner continued.
“It’s hard disrespecting a song that didn’t even represent all Americans when it was first made.”
Now that Griner’s been liberated from a Russian hard labor camp, she’s singing a different tune about the song that represents the nation.
“Just being able to hear my national anthem, see my flag, I definitely want to stand,” she told the press.
Great to see Brittney Griner back on the court 🙌
— espnW (@espnW) May 13, 2023
Though the two-time Olympic gold medalist won’t hold it against her teammates for kneeling.
“Now everybody that will not stand or not come out, I totally support them 100 percent. That’s our right, as an American in this great country,” Griner said.
“You have the right to protest, the right to able to speak out, question, challenge and do all these things.”
Her personal struggle, which ended with an Abu Dhabi based prisoner exchange for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in December, changed Griner’s view on the subject.
“What I went through and everything, it just means a little bit more to me now,” she remarked.
“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.”
“I appreciate everything a little bit more. That has changed,” Griner told reporters.
“Tomorrow is not guaranteed; you don’t know what it’s going to look like. So I think that’s how I’ve changed.”
The Mercury lost to the Los Angeles Sparks 94-71, during the WNBA’s opening day on Friday.