Brittney Griner welcomed back to basketball court in LA by crowds and US Vice President

Supporters cheered and Kamala Harris embraced the athlete freed from Russian penal colony in high-profile prisoner swap last year

Phoenix Mercury centre Brittney Griner drives against the Los Angeles Sparks during the first half of a WNBA preseason basketball game in Phoenix. AP
Powered by automated translation

American basketball player Brittney Griner was greeted by US Vice President Kamala Harris on Friday night as her return to the court in Los Angeles was cheered by a raucous crowd.

It was her first appearance in the WNBA since being released from a Russian penal colony in a high-profile prisoner exchange between Washington and Moscow last year.

She embraced the vice president on the court and was celebrated by the crowd after making a long shot basket despite her Phoenix Mercury being the visiting team.

"It felt good, it felt real good. It felt like the last time I played," a smiling Griner said of making the shot after missing all of last season while detained in Russia for nearly 10 months.

"The love from the fans who came out was amazing," she told reporters.

"I definitely feel it, and I felt it while I was over there too."

Outside the arena, Nike billboards displayed a photo of Griner with the caption "Basketball is Home."

Griner was taken into custody at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and subsequently convicted of narcotics possession and trafficking after she was found to have been carrying vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. She was subsequently sentenced to nine years in prison.

She said she was prescribed medical cannabis in the United States for a chronic injury and never intended to break the law. US officials said she was wrongly detained and was being used as a political pawn amid increasingly strained relations with Moscow.

"I appreciate everything a little bit more now," Griner said.

"All the little, small moments. I used to say, oh I'm so tired, I don't want to go to practice today. I think that has changed.

"I'm just appreciating everything because tomorrow is not guaranteed. You don't know what it's going to look like."

The two-time Olympic champion, 32, kicked off her 10th season with the Mercury on Friday after playing in a preseason game one week ago.

Tennis Hall of Famer Billie Jean King and Lakers legend Magic Johnson were among others on hand for the game, which the Sparks won 94-71.

Updated: May 20, 2023, 8:47 AM