'Tomorrow's not guaranteed:' Brittney Griner reflects on ordeal in Russia after opener

 LOS ANGELES — Brittney Griner showed flashes of her All-Star form Friday night with 18 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots in her first competitive game since she was detained for almost 10 months in Russia.

But before and after Griner and the Phoenix Mercury lost to the Los Angeles Sparks 94-71 in the WNBA season opener for both teams, it became clear the ordeal has led to changes.

After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, for example, Griner called on the WNBA to stop playing the anthem and began kneeling to protest police brutality and social injustice. On Friday night, however, she stood during the playing of the anthem.

"You know I was literally in a cage and could not stand the way I wanted to and a lot of other different situations," she said of her imprisonment in Russia that stemmed from vape cartridges with hashish oil allegedly found in her luggage at a Moscow airport. "So just being able to hear my national anthem and see my flag, I definitely stand."

But of the players who choose protest, Griner said, "I totally respect them 100 percent. …That’s our right, as an American in this great country."

'IT'S A MIRACLE SHE'S HERE'Brittney Griner makes WNBA return after Russian detainment

'Tomorrow's not guaranteed'

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner (42) holds on to a rebound in the first half against the Los Angeles Sparks at Crypto.com Arena.

Griner said the ordeal in Russia, which ended with her release in December, has changed her in other ways, too.

"I appreciate everything a little more," she said. "All the little, small moments that I used to just, oh, I’m so tired, I don’t want to go to practice today. And, oh, this and that.

"That has changed, honestly. Just appreciating everything because tomorrow’s not guaranteed. You don’t know what it’s going to look like. So I think that’s kind of how I changed a little bit."

Oh, and something else.

"Feel a lot older now, too, for some reason," Griner, 32, said with a smile.

'It was amazing'

Griner seemed particularly moved by the time she spent with Vice President Kamala Harris, who was in attendance. Before the game, Griner spoke with Harris one-on-one before the vice president visited with each team in their respective locker rooms.

"It was amazing," Griner said, noting that she and Harris both were at the White House correspondents’ dinner last month in Washington D.C. but did not find time to speak. "So it was nice to see her face-to-face, talk to her, thank her for everything as well. And then the team really enjoyed it, too."

Other notable people in attendance were South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley, basketball Hall of Famer Magic Johnson and tennis legend Billie Jean King.  

'C'mon, L.A.'

Before the game, Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard spoke poignantly about Griner’s return to basketball after the U.S. government negotiated her release.

"Today is a day of joy and just an amazing, amazing thing has happened," Nygaard said. “I mean, and I just love that I’m an American. We brought back this woman, this Black, gay woman, from a Rus  sd2sian jail, and America did that because they value her. … It makes me very proud to be an American. And maybe there’s other people that doesn’t make them proud, but for me, I see BG and I see hope."

She was noticeably crankier after the game despite a crowd of 10,396 in the Crypto.com Arena, which has a capacity seating of 19,067 for basketball

“I mean, it was great," Nygaard said of the reception the crowd gave Griner. "But, like honestly, c’mon, LA. Like, you didn’t sell out the arena for BG? Like, I expected more, to be honest. It was great, it was loud. But how is it not a sellout?"

Security measures

The Mercury and WNBA provided no details about travel plans for Griner, who has expressed hope for taking private planes this season for security reasons. The league’s 12 teams largely are restricted to commercial travel.

"Us and the league are working on it together to provide Brittney with the safest travel we can," said Olivia Kuby, Basketball communications manager for the Mercury.

WNBA commissioner Catherine Engelbert offered no details, but said, "We’ve worked out a plan with the Phoenix Mercury and our security experts around Brittney specifically."

Security measures also have been beefed up across the league, according to Engelbert.

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