- Brittney Griner has signed a one-year deal to rejoin the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury for the 2023 season.
- The star enjoyed a homecoming filled with "so much joy" after nearly a year detained in Russia.
- Mercury President Vince Kozar gave Insider behind-the-scenes details of Griner's return to Phoenix.
Brittney Griner is back where she belongs.
After nearly a year detained in Russia for bringing vape cartridges containing hashish oil into the country, the WNBA superstar regained her freedom and returned home to her family by way of a prisoner exchange between the US government and the Kremlin in December.
In the months since, Griner has enjoyed a homecoming of a different variety: her reunion with the sport she loves and the only WNBA team she's ever known. On Tuesday, the perennial All-Star took the next step toward her return to the basketball court by signing a contract with the Phoenix Mercury for the 2023 WNBA season.
—Phoenix Mercury (@PhoenixMercury) February 24, 2023
Griner's reintegration with the game and the franchise has been filled with "joy, excitement, and celebration," Mercury President Vince Kozar told Insider.
"She wants to get back the pieces of her life that were taken away from her for a while," Kozar added. "Basketball is one of those things."
The Phoenix executive 'found out with the rest of the world' that Griner had been freed
Kozar remembers December 7, 2022 being a long day and a late night. He was in attendance at Footprint Center as the Mercury's NBA counterpart, the Suns, hosted the Boston Celtics for a game that tipped at 8 p.m. local time.
By the time the final buzzer sounded two hours later, Phoenix had suffered its biggest loss of the season — a 25-point rout so demoralizing, Suns superstar Devin Booker suggested it "should count as two losses," per the AP.
The daylight hours of that Wednesday hadn't been much more pleasant for Kozar; the slightly chilly, slightly overcast morning marked 293 days since Griner had first been taken into Russian custody. With the holidays fast approaching and end-of-year preparations in full swing, The Athletic published an article naming Griner the "WNBA Person of the Year."
The young executive had been interviewed for the story, so as he crawled into bed shortly before night gave way to morning, he ended the day by giving it a read.
"The very last line of that article — I'm paraphrasing — basically said, 'It's December 7th, and Brittney Griner still isn't home,'" Kozar recalled. "And that was essentially the last thing I read before I went to bed."
He woke up mere hours later to the sound of a phone that wouldn't stop ringing. Bleary-eyed, Kozar briefly glimpsed a screen that showed "five or six missed calls and dozens and dozens and dozens of text messages and a CNN alert and an ESPN alert and a New York Times alert" before yet another incoming call filled the display of his phone.
It was Diana Taurasi, the league legend who had spent all 18 seasons of her illustrious WNBA career with the Mercury. She had some urgent news — the same news contained in Kozar's constant stream of notifications.
It was December 8, and Brittney Griner was headed home.
"When I finally answered, that's essentially how I found out for sure," Kozar said. "And it was her call that woke me up.
"I found out with the rest of the world," he added.
Days after Griner first touched down in the US, Kozar was on a private jet to bring her home to Phoenix
"Tremendous relief" washed over Kozar as soon as he answered his phone and heard the good news. Sure, Griner's return would be great for his team — she is, after all, a generational talent and a key contributor to Phoenix's on-court success over the past decade — but that didn't even cross his mind.
Basketball had long ago taken a back seat to his concerns for Griner's "safety and her physical and mental well-being."
A Mercury mainstay for nearly a decade — a year longer than Kozar himself — the 6-foot-9 center represented so much more than points, rebounds, playoff bids, and championship rings to the leader of Phoenix's front office and the rest of his franchise. Griner was, and is, "a member of the family."
"Even after so much concern over time, none of that core anxiety ever waned," Kozar told Insider. "And so when you hear that she's on her way home, the feeling is relief because you no longer have to be worried about her safety and her physical and mental well-being."
"Anyone who's ever experienced something like that with a family member, you know you never really realize the weight that you're carrying around until it's lifted off," he added. "Certainly a lot of people who love her felt that, and the weight that we were carrying around doesn't even compare to that of her family or BG herself."
But after allowing himself a brief moment to let it all sink in, Kozar was back to work. He had plenty of preparations to make and people to reach out to: members of the Mercury, WNBA executives, and Griner's agent — Wasserman's Lindsay Kagawa Colas — among them.
On behalf of the franchise, Kozar made it clear that "anything and everything was available to BG" as she prepared to come home. One of those resources, he noted, was a private plane belonging to Sam Garvin, a minority owner of Phoenix's WNBA and NBA teams.
Griner — who had flown from Russia to the United Arab Emirates, then from Abu Dhabi to San Antonio, Texas — first arrived in her native Lone Star State to undergo physical and mental health evaluations at the Brooke Army Medical Center. But upon getting the green light to resume her normal life — whatever that might look like for her now — it was expected that Griner would join her wife, Cherelle, back home in Phoenix.
But standing nearly a foot and a half taller than the average woman in the US, the eight-time WNBA All-Star couldn't exactly be discreet walking through an airport and boarding a commercial flight to Arizona. Kozar, via Garvin, had a solution.
And "with the blessing of all the people who were helping her in San Antonio," Colas encouraged him and some other folks from the Mercury to "be on that plane to come pick her up." One week and one day after Kozar answered that fateful phone call from Taurasi, "Diana, myself, and our general manager, Jim Pitman, got on that plane and flew to San Antonio.
"It was a turnaround trip that was done in about five hours," he added. "Unforgettable, for sure."
After so many months of uncertainty, Griner and her team were able to 'pick up where [they] left off'
Griner knew there was a plane coming to pick her and Cherelle up from the military base and bring them back home to The Valley. But she had "no idea" that anyone she knew would be coming along for the ride.
It was a complete surprise. The night before their highly anticipated return to Phoenix, the two-time Olympic gold medalist and her wife FaceTimed with Kozar and Colas, both of whom were "keeping up the ruse."
So the next morning, when they looked up to find Kozar, Taurasi, and Pitman in front of them in Texas, they were "very, very surprised" and "so happy."
"It was a very celebratory moment," Kozar said. "There were a lot of tears shed throughout the process, but to my knowledge, there weren't any shed that morning just because there was so much joy. Joy and excitement and celebration."
Even with all that had transpired over the previous 10 months, the five of them managed to "pick up where [they] left off." And despite understandable speculation that Griner may not be ready to return to play for the 2023 season — including from Kozar himself, who was careful not to exert any pressure on the 32-year-old — the then-unrestricted free agent made it clear "as soon as we were wheels up" that she "intended to play basketball for the Phoenix Mercury" in 2023.
Right from her seat on that flight, the two-time WNBA scoring champion pushed send on an Instagram post that publicized those intentions to the world.
While Kozar and Pitman still needed to mind the rules governing free agency, they felt free to talk "about everything from the haircut she got in San Antonio, to some of her time away, to family and friends, to basketball."
"She loves basketball," Kozar said. "She wanted to talk about the team. She wanted to talk about last year. She wanted to talk about this year."
"It's one of her loves, and she's been excited to talk about it every time I've seen her," he added.
Griner has been reacclimating to life in Phoenix, reintegrating with the Mercury, and 'rehabbing her way back' to basketball in the months since
Griner took the holiday season to get comfortable back home, rest, spend time with family and loved ones, and continue her recovery after an unimaginably trying 10 months. But once the new year came around, she made her way back to the gym of the very same franchise where she started her professional basketball career.
Yes, Griner was technically a free agent, so Kozar and the Mercury staff had "to be careful" to abide by the league's rules. But the WNBA's eight-time blocks leader was "allowed to be in our facility to see our trainers," the president explained, as she was — and is — "rehabbing her way back to being able to play basketball."
Throughout her time back in Phoenix's facilities, Kozar has been "fortunate" to witness several of Griner's reunions with teammates and many of the other "people that make up the lifeblood of a team." The moments have been "really special" every single time — from crossing paths with trainers and equipment managers to run-ins with staffers and teammates who are in-market for the off-season.
Griner enjoyed some fun extracurriculars away from the Mercury as well. With the Valley playing host to two massive sporting events in mid-February, the superstar and her wife hit the town and made appearances at both Super Bowl LVII and the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
And, on Monday, another piece of her former reality fell back into place; Griner officially re-signed with the Mercury. She'll earn $165,100 over the 2023 WNBA campaign, per Spotrac, marking a 32% drop from last season's salary and far less than the $234,936 supermax for which she was eligible and could have easily drawn from Phoenix.
But as a result of Griner commanding less than 15% of the team's total salary cap, the Mercury were able to re-sign Taurasi — a 10-time All-Star and the WNBA's all-time scoring champion — while reaching deals with several other free agents to round out their roster.
Sources familiar with the contract negotiations told Insider that Griner's financial sacrifice was one of unselfishness rather than necessity. It was meant as an act of good will toward the franchise — which paid her salary in full through the season she missed while detained in Russia — and as a show of respect to Taurasi, who played the vast majority of her illustrious WNBA career without the opportunity to make more than five figures.
Once Griner signed on the dotted line, both parties were quick to celebrate her return. She posed for fresh headshots featuring her newly cropped hair, did a shoot-around in her jersey, and announced to the locker room — and the world — "I'm Back MF!!"
But Griner's welcome home wasn't just about photo shoots and fun social media posts; the franchise also recommitted itself to the cause Kozar calls Griner's "legacy work." The Mercury's "leadership team spent the afternoon writing letters to Paul Whelan" — a fellow American whom the US government deems "wrongfully detained" by Russia — in honor of BG's decision to return to Phoenix, according to social media posts from the franchise.
The organization encouraged fans to keep Whelan top of mind and join the effort to bring all wrongfully detained Americans home to their families.
—Phoenix Mercury (@PhoenixMercury) February 22, 2023
"What we saw was the power of sport generally last year in support of her, but also specifically the power of W players and the power of W fans," Kozar said. "So we won't deter from that in any way. We will do the campaigns to bring these detainees home, to have these families reunited.
"We will do the same work that we would've done on BG's behalf if she were still gone," he added. "We will just now do it with her in support of all of those other families who are enduring the same thing. So there's a lot more to come there."
What comes next in Griner's journey is still a bit of a mystery
Griner is itching to get back into the flow of WNBA competition, sources close to the star tell Insider. And the Mercury's fans, front office, and players — who struggled last season without Griner in the paint — are eager to see their superstar back in orange and purple.
But the logistics of making it happen are far more complicated than they were prior to February 17, 2022. Her Russian detainment and the politicized circumstances surrounding her return stateside has drastically increased her recognizability and, among some people, her notoriety.
As a result, ensuring Griner's "safety and security" throughout the season has become a major concern.
"We are all acutely aware of some of the things that have been said about her. We were acutely aware of the way that her return has been used to try and further polarize people," Kozar said. "We understand that certain [people] have tried to continue to use this to polarize people... and we understand that people have done that through the lens of BG's identity, which is as a woman, it's as a Black woman, and it's as a gay, Black woman.
"None of that is lost on us, and we understand that words oftentimes can be a precursor to violence," he added. "And so we take all of that incredibly seriously. We understand, and all of the people around her understand, that it is our joint responsibility to ensure that we are approaching this with the due gravity that it requires."
The franchise is prepared to take every precaution necessary to protect its superstar — at its own venues, on the road, and everywhere in between — and Kozar says "there is a collective commitment to support" those efforts across the WNBA. They'll likely approach Griner's security much like the NBA handles its biggest superstars' safety, sources familiar with the situation tell Insider.
That could very well necessitate private flights to and from away games, as many have speculated could be the case. But sources privy to conversations between the league, the Mercury, and Griner's camp told Insider the involved parties have not yet reached a consensus regarding how they'll handle her and her teammates' transportation for the season.
The WNBA's collective bargaining agreement (CBA) prohibits individual franchises from chartering flights. BG's unique circumstances, however, could very well elicit an exception.
"It's safe to say that as we consider all of those things, her safety as we travel is a top priority," Kozar said.
They have just under three months to figure it out. Phoenix's season tips off on the road, with Griner and the Mercury set to take on the Los Angeles Sparks at Crypto.com Arena on May 19. Two days later, she will suit up at Phoenix's Footprint Center for the first time in 19 months for her homecoming game against the Chicago Sky.
Regardless of all the remaining uncertainties, Kozar said he expects the moment Griner steps back onto her home court to be "one of the most special things any of us has ever experienced."
"After December 8, nothing will compare to December 8, right?" Kozar told Insider, referring to the date of Griner's release. "The news of BG coming home is the best thing that I've ever experienced in this job. What will probably come close to that is May 21 — what this building is going to look and feel like the moment she returns to play a home game for the first time.
"I don't know how that works, if you have any energy left to play basketball after something like that, so I don't know what the game's gonna be like," he continued, adding: "It's a moment in history. It's sports history; it's American history; it's just this moment in history that you'll be able to say you were a part of, but that also one that no news story or broadcast will be able to capture. I hope everyone's in the building, and I hope there's not a single seat left."
As far as the rest of the season goes, Kozar doesn't have any expectations for how things will play out. Though he's hopeful, he can't be sure whether Phoenix will compete among the upper echelons of the WNBA's Western Conference, return to the playoffs for an 11th consecutive year, or clinch the franchise's fourth WNBA championship.
All he knows for certain, he says, is that Griner will serve as "a constant reminder to all of us, whether on the court or off the court, that tomorrow's just not guaranteed."
"These moments that we have to be together, to compete, to find joy in this game, and to make a difference because of the platform we've been given by this game, they're not things to waste," Kozar said. "And so that relief has become gratitude, and I think it's just gonna be an incredible season of gratitude.
"I don't know how many games we're gonna win," he added. "My hope is that we're gonna win the very last one we play.
"But I know the season's gonna be about a lot more than just basketball."