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Brittney Griner: First practice ‘everything I wanted it to be’

Brittney Griner (4) of the Phoenix Mercury speaks to the media on April 27, 2023. (Photo by Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images)

Brittney Griner returned to practice with the Phoenix Mercury much sooner than she had anticipated.

Following her first training camp practice Sunday, Griner revealed that while confined to a Russian jail last year, she had been convinced that her next practice wouldn’t come until her nine-year sentence had been completed in 2030.

“I just kind of prepared myself for the long haul, honestly. You never know,” she said. “But when it came quickly, I was really happy and I knew I couldn’t wait to get back on the court.”

After the two-hour Sunday practice she felt “so good,” Griner said. But she recognizes that she’ll face both physical and mental challenges in the next three weeks as she gets ready for the upcoming season.

“It’s everything that I wanted it to be, just finding my groove, just getting back into it,” she said.

Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard noted that the guard was “super diligent” during the team’s 100-day plan to prepare her for her first practice.

“So we’ll continue to just push her,” Nygaard said, “and I think it’s as she can tolerate, but she did it phenomenally.”

Nygaard was almost brought to tears Sunday by seeing Griner on the court, she said.

“It’s a miracle, right?” Nygaard said. “Let’s not forget. Let’s not forget. I was just so happy to see her today. I welcomed her back today. I almost cried. She’s great. She’s great energy. She’s a dominant player, she’s unguardable, she also has such a great spirit about her. So lots of positives for [the] Mercury having her with us.”

Sunday was the first time Griner was coached by Nygaard, and she noted that she feels a “little bit of a rookie in training camp right now.”

Griner knows that she’s not where she was when she last took the court as a member of the Mercury. But she’s giving herself grace and allowing her teammates to support her as she gets back to where she wants to be.

“I feel like I’m at a good spot to start a training camp though for sure,” she said. “I mean I didn’t fall out, they didn’t have to get a stretcher or oxygen or anything, so I guess I’m doing pretty good.”

And of course, some of her teammates had jokes about her being back out on the court.

“Terrible. Gosh, it sucked,” Sophie Cunningham joked when asked about having Griner back before adding: “It was absolutely amazing.”

“Just to have her vibe, her smile, her warmth and her experience, it’s a total game-changer,” she continued. “She’s the best in the league — in the world, in fact — and so just to have that presence back was awesome.”

“She’s annoying as always. So, she hasn’t lost that,” Diana Taurasi added. “No, it’s obviously, personally, I’m just, I’m happy she’s back. I’m happy she’s back on the court. I’m happy to see her with a smile on her face, and now it’s time to do a lot of work ’cause there’s a lot of work to be done.”