PHOENIX — Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner tried keeping things light when discussing the darkest time of her life in front of the media for the first time Thursday morning.
The Mercury held a press conference unlike any other they've hosted, with dozens of national media outlets descending upon downtown Phoenix to hear Griner speak about her experience in Russian custody.
The first thing Griner said once she sat in front of the microphone was: "Whew! A little different than a basketball press conference. A lot of media in here today."
Griner understands her circumstances are unique. This time last year, the two-time Olympic gold medalist was detained in Russia and facing up to 10 years in prison after marijuana vape cartridges were found in her luggage at an airport near Moscow.
It's been nearly five months since Griner was released from Russian custody in a prisoner swap. The 32-year-old had to fight back tears when answering the first question of her 30-minute press conference.
"You know I’m no stranger to hard times... See? You cry now; you made me cry," Griner told the reporter. "You're going to be faced with adversities throughout your life. This was a pretty big one."
Griner expressed gratitude to President Joe Biden and his administration and everyone who amplified her story and helped bring her home.
BG and the Mercury are now partnering with the "Bring Our Families Home" campaign to advocate for others who are wrongfully detained overseas.
Griner was in Russia to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason when she was arrested in February 2022 but she's vowed to never play overseas unless it's for Team USA in the Olympics.
The last time Griner played competitive basketball on U.S. soil was during the 2021 WNBA Finals against the Chicago Sky, but she's eager to get back to work with her teammates in Phoenix.
"I wanted to be that player when I started back and everybody was telling me to give myself grace and it's going to take time," Griner said. "But that's the hardest thing to do to a pro athlete because we always want to be back at our tip top shape. It's been a struggle but it's liberating at the same time as a release. Just getting back to my craft and being here in Phoenix with my teammates and coaches supporting me every step of the way on the court."
Griner was smiling and cracking jokes throughout her media availability. Her joy could be felt in the lobby full of Mercury and Suns employees who worked to keep her name top of mind throughout 2022.
Griner already has a WNBA Championship from 2014 under her belt, but she's looking forward to taking the court with longtime teammate Diana Taurasi who turns 41 years old in June. Griner revealed that Taurasi was the first teammate she saw upon her return to the States.
"Playing with D, I mean, who wouldn't want to play with a walking fossil? Nah, I'm playing! She's gonna kill me!" Griner said with a laugh. "Legit, I was worried. I thought she was going to retire on me or something while I was gone or I would miss it and that, honestly, was killing me knowing that was a possibility. But I'm really thankful that she's still here."
BG is still working with a therapist to maintain her mental health and her physical ramp up to the WNBA season looks and feels significantly different from years past.
Griner explained how challenging it was to do a plank again upon returning from a Russian prison. While she's not the same athlete she was 14 months ago, her love of the game is still there and she won't be taking any of her upcoming games with the Mercury for granted.
Even outings around Phoenix -- for the MLK Day March or the WM Phoenix Open or, more recently, a Suns game -- is bringing a sense of normalcy back to one of Arizona's most recognizable pro athletes.
"Walking around town is a little bit different now but it felt good just being back. Just being back on U.S. soil, especially being back here in the Valley. I've made this my home," Griner said. "It was really warming and nothing but love being out and about and just trying to get back to just being normal. Just being able to walk out the door... It's been amazing."
Mercury fans, a.k.a. the X-Factor, will get to see Griner back on her home court on Friday, May 12, for a preseason game against the Los Angeles Sparks. The Mercury home opener is coming up on Sunday, May 21, against the Sky. Tip-off is set for 1 p.m. at Footprint Center.
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