Britney Griner stars in loss to Sky; a bright spot in a sad journey

The last time the Sky saw Britney Griner, they won a championship. The date was Oct. 17, 2021, Game 4 of the WNBA Finals at Wintrust Arena.

After missing the 2022 season while stuck in a Russian prison, Griner returned to the court for the first time in Phoenix on Sunday against the Sky. Griner played a great game, producing 27 points, 10 rebounds and 4 blocks, but the Sky improved to 2-0 with a 75-69 victory over the Mercury.

"I would say it was obviously a very emotional game," Sky forward Kahleah Copper said after the game. "We were so excited just to have BG back. But it's fun playing in those type of environments, having a full gym. That's what the WNBA deserves, that's what we need."

This was an important moment for the WNBA, but it felt like the ESPN broadcast tried too hard to turn it into a party.

Don't get me wrong, it's great to have Griner back in the U.S. and playing in the WNBA, but her ordeal just feels more sad and somber than cause for celebration.

The story is obviously well-known. On Feb. 17, 2022, Griner was detained at Sheremetyevo International Airport after she was reportedly found carrying vape cartridges containing less than a gram of hash oil. She was eventually sentenced to nine years in prison, then released in a prisoner swap for arms dealer Viktor Bout.

This is an awful story for so many reasons, starting with Griner's treatment in Russia. She had been one of the country's premier athletes, spending eight years with powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg, a team she led to several EuroLeague titles.

Imagine an overseas athlete like Nikola Jokic being sent to a labor camp for a minor violation at the Denver airport.

Griner knew hash oil was illegal in Russia and made a bad mistake at the worst possible time. Her release wasn't the end of the story. How long will other imprisoned Americans be stuck in Russian jails? Will innocent people die because of Bout's release? We may never know that answer.

A week after Griner's arrest, Russia invaded Ukraine. American basketball players like former Sky guards Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley headed home from their teams in Russia, while UMMC Ekaterinburg and other Russian clubs were banned from EuroLeague. Cities in southern Ukraine have been destroyed and thousands have died in another pointless war.

So Sunday's WNBA game in Phoenix was a relative bright moment in this sad saga. Sky coach James Wade spent three years as an assistant coach for UMMC Ekaterinburg from 2017-20. Before the game, he approached Griner to show her a video message from his son Jet.

"When you're overseas, especially in a place like Russia, when the Americans are together, they kind of become a family," Wade said after the game. "Because you don't speak the language, there's a culture shock and everything. My son's birthday, she was there every time. She babysat my son. So the relationship is bigger than basketball.

"It was my first time seeing her and so many days since the Finals. So when you talk about not seeing someone for almost two years, that's a special moment."

Wade felt out of respect for Griner, it was important for the Sky to bring maximum effort. The Sky held the lead most of the way and fought off every comeback attempt by the Mercury.

Phoenix got as close as 2 points twice in the final 3:09. When the Mercury had a chance to tie, the Sky forced two turnovers in a row and guard Dana Evans hit a bank shot with 36 seconds left to make it a 4-point lead.

Evans, a native of Gary, Indiana, got emotional in the postgame news conference, revealing that she spent Saturday at a funeral for her cousin.

"I'm dedicating this season to him," she said.

Evans started Sunday because Sky point guard Marina Mabrey was a late scratch with an ankle injury. The Sky survived that and some early foul trouble to open an 11-point lead in the second quarter.

Copper led the Sky with 15 points, while Evans scored 13, Courtney Williams 12 and Elizabeth Williams 10.

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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