Brittney Griner returned to the basketball court as her Phoenix Mercury team faced the Los Angeles Sparks Friday night at the Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles. Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff made a surprise visit to the game, where the couple spoke with and posed for photos with both teams before they faced each other.
It was Griner’s first professional basketball game since she was released from Russian captivity in December. But in the end, Griner and the Mercury failed to get the results they wanted. However, although they lost 94-71 to the Sparks, Griner’s return to the floor and doing what she loves was more important than the result. Six rebounds, four blocks, and 18 points rounded out her performance.
Before meeting with the teams, Harris and Emhoff had a quiet moment with Griner and her wife, Cherelle.
The Advocate was granted exclusive access to the moment when Harris, Emhoff, and the Griners had their quiet chat in a small side room near the locker rooms.
“Even before all that happened, BG, you led with courage, and while it was happening, you showed such poise and dignity and grace,” Harris told Griner as they discussed her wrongful detention abroad.
Harris told Griner that she inspired so many because “learning that nothing is going to knock you down is good. That’s really good stuff.”
She pointed to Griner as a role model and example of overcoming overwhelming adversity.
“So you just do your thing,” Harris added.
The second couple joined Griner and her team in the Mercury locker room shortly after Harris, Emhoff, and the Griners had their private one-on-one.
“I came here to talk to the team to congratulate you on exhibiting excellence in every way,” Harris told the players.
“You are some of the finest athletes in the world, and to do what you do every day shows that it is right to have ambition,” she said. “It is right to have aspirations. It is right to work hard. It is right to compete when you know you have put everything into it; when you have trained, when you have discipline, when you have intelligence, and when you have brilliance.”
She added, “It makes me so proud as Vice President of the United States to go around the world talking to folks about a variety of issues, and one of the subjects that does come up is the WNBA. [The world] is watching what you guys are doing, lifting up the excellence of the finest athletes in the world.”
The vice president praised the team for being strong and “doing everything you could to support Brittney to help get her home.”
After meeting with the Mercury and before receiving thunderous applause from the crowd of about 10,000 spectators after Harris’s presence was announced, she and Emhoff stopped by to speak with the Sparks (Emhoff proudly wore the team’s jersey).
Long-time WNBA Union president and Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike took the opportunity to thank Harris for working to secure Griner’s release. Harris played a crucial role in securing Griner’s return to the U.S. through efforts by the U.S. Department of State.
“What the Biden administration did to make that happen is really important,” Ogumike said to Harris. “It was not easy, but I just want to say thank you so much for everything you did for us to be able to play BG tonight.”
Harris returned the praise thanking Ogwumike for her leadership.
“The voice of the union, the voice of the members, was extraordinarily important,” Harris said. “You and the union and members were such an important partner to us in being able to bring her home. And I hope that is a reminder to everyone who’s here or is aware of this conversation. Your advocacy, your voice, use it always. It makes a difference. You all made a huge difference, and I thank you for that.”
Griner was released from a Russian labor camp in December after she had been convicted in a sham trial for possessing a very small amount of cannabis oil. Ultimately, Russian President Vladimir Putin allowed her to go free in exchange for the U.S. release of a notorious Russian arms dealer named Viktor Bout.
Regarding Harris’s surprise visit, Griner remarked during a press conference after the game, “It was nice to be able to see her face-to-face and thank her for everything.”
Tennis star Billie Jean King sat courtside at the home opener for the Sparks. Basketball legend Magic Johnson was also in attendance.
After the appearance at the WNBA game, Harris tweeted about the experience.
“Great time at the game tonight cheering on the @LASparks and @PhoenixMercury as we celebrated @BrittneyGriner‘s return to the court. Her grace, courage, and determination are an inspiration to all,” she wrote.