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Brittney Griner’s WNBA return: Kamala Harris attends first game after Russian detention

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Ahead of her first official WNBA game since her 10-month detention in Russia, WNBA star Brittney Griner received a hug from Vice President Kamala Harris (Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images)

Brittney Griner competed in her first official WNBA game in 579 days on Friday night, playing 25 minutes in the Phoenix Mercury’s 94-71 loss to the Los Angeles Sparks at Crypto.com Arena. The eight-time WNBA All-Star recorded 18 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots.

Griner’s return to the WNBA was celebrated by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, who helped bring the Phoenix Mercury star home from Russia after she was wrongfully detained for 10 months last year. Harris met with both the Mercury and Sparks pre-game.

“Thank you for all that you did in supporting Brittney,” Harris said in the Mercury locker room. “I know that was rough and so difficult.”

“It was nice to be able to see her face-to-face, talk to her, thank her for everything,” Griner said of the vice president’s visit. “And then the team really enjoyed it, too, when she came in.”

Harris was also presented with a Sparks jersey by WNBA players’ union president Nneka Ogwumike.

“Tonight is a game, but we’re also celebrating the return of one of our own, and what the Biden administration did to make that happen is really important,” Ogwumike said. “We know that wasn’t easy. But we want to say thank you so much for us to be able to play against BG tonight.”

The 10,396 fans in attendance at Crypto.com Arena included Billie Jean King, Dawn Staley and Magic Johnson. WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert also attended the game.

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WNBA players' union president Nneka Ogwumike presented Vice President Kamala Harris with a WNBA jersey ahead of Friday's game. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Ahead of tipoff, Griner stood with her Mercury teammates for the playing of the U.S. national anthem. Prior to her detention in Russia, Griner chose not to be on the court for the playing of the national anthem, as part of a protest against police brutality and the treatment of Black Americans.

Griner was asked about the change post-game.

“One good thing about this country is you have the right to protest, the right to able to speak out, question, challenge and do all these things,” she said. “What I went through and everything, it just means a little bit more to me now. So I want to be able to stand. I was literally in a cage [in Russia] and could not stand the way I wanted to.

“Just being able to hear my national anthem, see my flag, I definitely want to stand. Now everybody that will not stand or not come out, I totally support them 100 percent. We’re fighting (for) a good cause. …  That’s our right, as an American, in this great country.”

In an essay for Time, Griner’s agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas wrote about her client’s change in stance, noting that Griner’s national anthem decision is “is sure to be misinterpreted… by the same ‘shut-up-and-dribble’ voices that reflexively attack and distort every principled expression of athlete dissent.”