Brittney Griner, the WNBA all-star who spent 10 months in a Russian prison, finally made her return to the regular season court Friday, a night long-awaited for her family, fans and teammates.
"The day I saw her come back in San Antonio I knew she had a long road ahead of her and, you know, she will," Phoenix Mercury Guard Diana Taurasi said.
Griner spent nearly 18 months away from competitive basketball, a period from which any athlete would be challenged to recover. Observers know, if her abilities are to rebound to where they once were, it will take time and rigorous training. Those around her, though, believe she can do it.
"I mean BG's gone through a lot," Taurasi said. "I kid but if there was one person built for jail in Russia it was her."
SEE MORE: Brittney Griner plays first WNBA game since detainment in Russia
Attention on the game in Los Angeles Friday is no-doubt elevated by Griner's return. The media frenzy around her detainment and high-stakes return is something Griner said she wants to translate to increased attention on her sport.
"I would like to encourage all of you to be at our first game as well and the whole entire season covering not only the Phoenix Mercury with the best fans in the league, but the whole entire league as well," she told a room full of reporters in April. "You know, from start to finish I expect to see this same coverage because we have a great product and you'll see it this summer."
WNBA games tend to have viewership of around a quarter million people. That's a fraction of the viewership for NBA games, regularly north of 1 million. But the pay disparity is far greater. The highest-paid WNBA player, Las Vegas Aces' Jackie Young, reportedly makes just over $250,000 a year. That's peanuts compared to the $48 million Steph Curry made playing for the Golden State Warriors this season.
Many WNBA stars travel overseas in the offseason to supplement their income. Griner was in Russia to compete when she was detained. Now, Phoenix Mercury star, and Griner's teammate, Diana Taurasi, thinks the league will have to rethink how to sustain players financially and physically in the offseason.
"I think this is gonna be a big challenge for not only BG but, really, for the WNBA. People will stop going overseas," she said. "You know, the offseason programing is no joke. It's 5 months and you have to do it every single day, and if you think you can, you know, skip months or weeks and be in tip-top shape it just doesn't work that way. So, I think it's gonna be a league challenge."
Despite Griner's detainment, dozens of players still went overseas last offseason, none to Russia.
After the Mercury's game against the LA Sparks Friday, they will travel home to Phoenix for their home opener Sunday.
Fans can watch Friday night WNBA regular season games this year ION. Scripps Sports secured a multi-year deal to carry the games on the channel. It starts next week with a double-header: The Washington Mystics at the Chicago Sky and the Dallas Wings at the Seattle Storm.
SEE MORE: Griner's detention shines light on other Americans wrongfully detained
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