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Brittney Griner Is Back Where She Started

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - MAY 21: Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury handles the ball during the first half of the WNBA game at Footprint Center on May 21, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

There is one pretty mundane thing going on in Brittney Griner's life right now, and it's been going on for long enough that in the mess of everything else going on in her life, it becomes easy to forget: She is very good at basketball. Seven games into her first WNBA season back from a 10-month detention in Russia, Griner has played so well—and revealed herself to be so vital to her team—that you almost admire the Mercury for even playing last season without her, for not just giving up from the jump. However changed she may be by the experience, however much she has reconsidered her place in her country, however more vocal she is now on behalf of Americans detained abroad, Brittney Griner is basically the same basketball player she was on the day she shuffled through security at a Moscow airport.

That player makes opponents small and their attempts vain. Each Mercury possession follows the same logic: If GRINER, then SCORE. If ANYONE ELSE, then THE LITERAL WORST THING YOU HAVE EVER SEEN IN A BASKETBALL GAME. In those moments the game flows through her, everyone else on the court is just running around, pantomiming basketball, the way background extras mouth gibberish words in movies. On Sunday, she gave first-overall pick Aliyah Boston a "welcome to the WNBA" moment, carving up a very good defensive player with her blend of post strength and midrange touch. As it happened, the Mercury needed all of Griner's 29 points; Phoenix beat Indiana 85-82 for just their second win of the season. Griner is averaging 22 points a game on league-high 65 percent shooting from the field, and her teammates are content to let her do all the work. By "player impact estimate," a league-created all-in-one stat, she is contributing nearly twice as much to her team as the next-best player on the roster. It makes for frustrating games, but there's a small miracle in this lousy Mercury season, how ordinary it all is. Griner is right back where she belongs, playing 30 minutes a night and at the center of everything, holding together a team that would be hopeless without her.

The morning before she scored the 29 points, Griner and her teammates were walking through Dallas-Fort Worth Airport; the Mercury played two games against the Dallas Wings last week before taking a commercial flight to Indiana. A conservative YouTuber—a WNBA press release would later call him a "social media figure and provocateur" whose actions were "unfortunate"—began heckling Griner and filmed himself doing so while a team security member asked him to stop. He yelled his lurid questions about the prisoner swap that freed her from Russia and about her supposed hatred of America. "Our team nervously huddled in a corner unsure how to move about," Mercury forward Brianna Turner tweeted. Later the "provocateur" retweeted the WNBA statement condemning his actions. Mission accomplished.

The circumstances of this encounter are kind of unclear: The WNBA says its agreed upon safety measures for Griner "included charter flights for WNBA games and assigned security personnel with her at all times," but Griner's agent and the team's head coach Vanessa Nygaard disputed that a charter flight was an available option to the Mercury on Saturday. "I do know that we were following the guidelines that we were given," Nygaard said. Either way, she said the team plans to review and update its travel safety policies. And the WNBA players' union has used the incident to renew its calls for private flights to games.

Griner may no longer be a political pawn of Russia's, but she's no less a political symbol at home than she was abroad. To this "provocateur," to right-wing media, she's the queer, black avatar for every last one of their inscrutable resentments. Much as she would probably like to shut up and dribble, she first has to wade through the sludge. Some of the attention on her return has been warm (Billie Jean King, Kamala Harris and Magic Johnson were among those in attendance at her first games of the season), but in what Diana Taurasi pointed out afterward was "literally the first time we were in public together" Griner was made to feel powerless again, sentenced to disproportionate punishment, singled out in another airport stunt. In skill and disposition, Griner is, astonishingly, no worse for her 10-month ordeal. The country she came back to is an ever crueler, ever uglier place.

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