(Reuters)—Brittney Griner, the WNBA player who attracted controversy for protesting the national anthem, appeared to have had a change of heart on Friday, in her first game with the Phoenix Mercury since she was detained for nearly 10 months in Russia. The basketball star took the court and stood as the anthem was played.
“Hearing the national anthem, it definitely hit different,” Griner said after the game. “It’s like when you go for the Olympics, you’re sitting there, about to get gold put on your neck, the flags are going up and the anthem is playing, it just hits different.”
Griner’s comments on the anthem are in stark contrast to those she made before her stint in a Russian penal colony on drug charges.
“I’m not going to be out there for the national anthem,” Griner said in July 2020, vowing to protest the anthem in support of racial justice. “If the league continues to want to play it, that’s fine. It will be all season long, I’ll not be out there.”
While Griner was imprisoned in Russia, the Biden administration negotiated a prisoner swap that set notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death,” free in exchange for Griner’s release. Left behind was former Marine Paul Whelan, imprisoned in Russia since 2018 on trumped-up charges.
Griner was greeted to roars of celebration at Phoenix’s Footprint Center on Friday as she exited the tunnel and strode onto the court.
The eight-time All-Star got on the board in the first minute with a two-point shot, and had 10 points with three rebounds across 17 minutes.
One of the most dominant forces in the Women’s National Basketball Association before her detention, Griner conceded she had plenty of work ahead to get back to her old self.
“I didn’t feel like I was gassed or dying,” said Griner, who offered a withering self-appraisal of her defensive performance. “(I’m) knocking off those cobwebs, getting rid of the bad habits.”
The 32-year-old, who is working on a memoir about her arrest and imprisonment, said the season ahead also offered an opportunity to focus on the game again.
“It feels good, you definitely feel appreciated,” said Griner. “But I can’t wait for the day where it’s kind of like just basketball.”
(Reporting by Amy Tennery in New York; Editing by William Mallard)
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