Brianna Turner knew something was wrong when her bedroom door flew open around 7 a.m. Thursday and her mother burst in, waking her up.
It wasn’t bad news, however.
“BG is free! BG is free!” yelled Turner’s mother.
Still in bed and barely awake, Turner wasn’t sure what she was hearing.
“Am I dreaming?” She asked.
Then the Phoenix Mercury forward opened up on Twitter and saw national outlets confirming the news that teammate Brittney Griner had been freed from Russian custody after 294 days in a high-profile US-Russia prisoner swap.
“I really thought I was still dreaming,” said Turner, who is staying with her parents in Texas while she is back from playing abroad in Turkey. “I was confused. It was a total shock.
“I hopped on social media, we turned on the TV and yeah, all the news channels were like, ‘Breaking News, Breaking News.'”
Turner’s grandmother actually saw it first and called as soon as she saw Griner had been released. “Thank God my grandma was up early and watching the news,” Turner said.
She quickly took a screenshot of a reporter’s tweet confirming Griner’s release and sent it to teammates Kia Nurse and Shey Peddy in a group chat with the message, “Oh my god guys.” When the news broke and eventually settled in the Spread throughout the day, many members of the Mercury franchise responded similarly. Tears flowed, mouths fell open, text messages were sent. Lots of lyrics.
In Phoenix, Mercury President Vince Kozar also woke up to the news when the second of two calls from future Hall of Famer Diana Taurasi finally woke him up. The first thing Kozar did was cry.
“To say it was a cloud doesn’t even really capture it,” he said. “I think I probably feel like everyone – tremendous relief. It’s certainly a celebration. I think a bit of disbelief waiting for it to fully arrive.
“I didn’t know when either of us would see her again.”
Kozar fought back tears as he sat at his desk at home writing the statement that the Mercury would eventually release and as he watched Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker share the statement on Instagram. He finally made it to the office at the Footprint Center around 10am MT. He had work to do, including making sure Griner had everything she needed for her return to Phoenix — the city, not the team — whenever that happened.
“We’re not thinking about basketball,” Kozar said. “Our primary concern is for her, and — like I’ve told people before — if she never plays basketball again, another minute of WNBA basketball, we’re still going to love her and care for her, and nothing about what we do for her.” feel or what she means to us, or this town, or her family, or any of that will change.”
Check out some of the first recorded videos of Brittney Griner after boarding a chartered plane and boarding her journey home to the United States.
Outside of the Footprint Center, however, there was little sign of the Griner news. A maintenance team placed lights around palm trees. A human-taken video of the BG42 shield adorning the outside of the arena. Sun’s staff flocked to work this morning after a loss to the Boston Celtics the night before.
Two groups of Jehovah’s Witnesses greeted people passing on the sidewalk and offered them brochures. Outside the arena is one of their regular places where they have to line up because of the heavy foot traffic. They found out that Griner had been released when a local news team arrived and started interviewing people on the street.
But by and large, downtown Phoenix was business as usual. People strolled around the square in front of the arena while others ran in the morning. The lunch break had just started. And a few Griner fans made their way into the arena.
“If she never plays basketball again … we will still love and care for her.”
Mercury President Vince Kozar
Danae McKnight is a 33-year-old who moved to Phoenix with her wife from Florida three years ago. They didn’t know anyone in the area and bought Mercury season tickets to find a community, McKnight explained while standing in front of a Black Lives Matter mural depicting Griner at the side of the Footprint Center. McKnight said they observed Griner being “unapologetically herself.”
“It’s something that a lot of people, including me, struggle with,” said McKnight, who wore a “We Are BG” t-shirt. “It’s taken me years to figure out who I am and accept that because there’s so much fear of the LGBT community and coming out that you feel like you need to hide or worry .
“…Just the confidence that she has, and she just knows who she is, and she just wants to be that, and it’s inspiring. It taught me that it’s okay to be me.”
McKnight howled when her wife told her Griner was coming home and knew she wanted to come to the Footprint Center.
“It just felt like the right place,” McKnight said, fighting back tears. “It really affected me a lot more than I thought it would. I am married and I can only imagine my wife being separated from me for almost 300 days and it is very personal to me.”
TJ Quinn describes Brittney Griner’s time in a Russian labor camp and what comes next for Griner after being freed on a prisoner exchange.
Turner is located in Austin, about 90 miles from San Antonio, where Griner landed at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland on Friday. She wants to give Griner space and privacy while she adjusts to her old but new life.
Turner joked that she was close enough to drive Griner through the gates and wave at him.
“I’m sure that hopefully in a few weeks I’ll be able to talk to her and find something out,” Turner said.
Kozar, who had over 300 unread text messages as of midday, also hopes to see Griner “soon,” but only on her timeline, whether that be in Arizona or her home state of Texas.
“Me and everyone here who has been desperate to hug her for the past nine months will follow her lead when she wants to see people and when she wants to get out of the house and go to the grocery store and when she wants to go to a Suns game.” , he said.
The mood in the offices of Mercury’s and Suns was boisterous all day, Kozar said. The Mercury players and coaches he spoke to throughout the morning experienced a mixture of disbelief and joy. Her teammate, her friend, whom they had talked about, promoted and fought for for almost a year, was on her way home.
“When you talk about missing a family member, missing a piece of your culture, missing a piece of someone you have a personal relationship with — she made you laugh, she made you feel better , she picked you up, she helped you connect with other people — we missed that,” Kozar said. “The idea of this coming back, completely separate from basketball, is just really, really gratifying.”
As Kozar spoke to Mercury trainer Vanessa Nygaard on Thursday, she had just finished physical therapy to treat a back injury she sustained while surfing. When he mentioned her “poor back,” Kozar said, Nygaard replied, “Nothing hurts today.”
While the focus is on Griner’s safety and well-being and helping her adjust back into society, Kozar’s future in basketball wasn’t too far off. One thing Kozar learned through all the letters he and Griner exchanged was that it wasn’t just her freedom, family and friends that were being taken away from her. That was what she calls tires.
“We will follow her, we will do what she wants,” he said. “Part of the joy she’s brought people is how she plays and how she plays and who she is when she plays.
“And I’d be lying if I didn’t say there’s some kind of anticipation or excitement about the idea of everyone going to experience that again, but that’s not the most important thing.”
https://www.espn.com/wnba/story/_/id/35219941/brittney-griner-release-phoenix-mercury-shock-relief Brittney Griner’s release met with shock, relief from Phoenix Mercury