Brittney Griner
Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury controls the ball against Joyner Holmes #24 of the Los Angeles Sparks in the first half at Arena on May 19, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. Image Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images/AFP

Los Angeles: Brittney Griner made an emotional return to women's basketball on Friday, playing her first competitive game in nearly two years following her incarceration in Russia.

Griner, who was released by Russia as part of a prisoner swap last year, made her first appearance in a WNBA game in 579 days as the Phoenix Mercury faced the Los Angeles Sparks in a season opener in California.

US Vice President Kamala Harris was among the well-wishers at the Arena in downtown Los Angeles as the WNBA superstar finally returned to action.

The two-time Olympic gold medalist made an instant impression on her return, winning the tip-off and scoring four points as the Mercury jumped into an early 7-0 lead.

Fans from both teams cheered Griner's early play, while others held up homemade banners welcoming her return to the sport.

Before the game, Phoenix coach Vanessa Nygaard said the occasion was a "day of joy," describing Griner's freedom as a "miracle."

"All last season I opened every press conference with how many days she is gone," Nygaard said in pre-game remarks.

"And until the day when we got the news in the morning that she was on her way home, no one thought that it was going to happen.

"We did our jobs probably with less joy than professional athletes do. It was heavy every day. But it's great to have this game today. Today it's a day of joy.

"I'm just so glad she's home. It's a miracle that she's here and everyone going to see this game today is going to witness a miracle that she's returned from a Russian jail and is playing basketball in the WNBA again.

"It's by the force and will of so many people that this has happened."

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'A team is a team'

Shortly before tip-off, Vice President Harris congratulated Phoenix's players for ensuring that Griner's case was not forgotten.

"Thank you for all that you did for supporting Brittney, because I know that was rough," Harris said in a locker room address. "That was so difficult for you because a team is a team - that's family."

WNBA players union chief and Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike thanked Harris and the Biden administration for helping to secure Griner's release.

"Tonight is a game but we're also celebrating the return of one of our own," Ogwumike said.

"What the Biden administration did to make that happen is really important.

"We know it wasn't easy so we wanted to say thank you for everything you did for us to be able to play against B.G. tonight."

Griner, 32, a WNBA champion, was arrested on drug charges at a Moscow airport in February 2022 against a backdrop of soaring tensions over Ukraine.

At the time of her arrest, Griner had been playing for a professional team in Russia, as a number of WNBA players do in the off-season.

She was accused of possessing vape cartridges with a small quantity of cannabis oil and sentenced in August to nine years in prison.

She pleaded guilty to the charges, but said she did not intend to break the law or use the banned substance in Russia.

Griner was eventually released as part of a deal that saw her swapped for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout - known as the "Merchant of Death" - in December.

Phoenix coach Nygaard, meanwhile, said she hoped her team would benefit from the feel-good factor surrounding Griner's return.

"We went around every city last year and B.G. was the story," Nygaard said.

"This year it will be a story of joy, and love and happiness.

"So that positive energy will probably help our team and be less of a distraction."

"We brought back this woman, this Black, gay woman from a Russian jail, and America did that because they valued her," Nygaard said.

"Just to be part of a group that values people at that level, it makes me very proud to be an American. I see B.G. and I see hope and I see the future. It makes me really hopeful about our country."