Well, I’m here as Ms. Griner asked of us.
All of us, may I add. Fans, press, patrons and swindlers – all inclusive. Come on now. don’t make that noise There’s plenty of room for us in the cold corners of the crypt.
And everywhere would be a welkin, let Brittany Griner say so. Everywhere except where she was.
It’s been around 500 days since any of us saw Griner in uniform walk across the hardwood that transformed her from nobody to supernova and stunned viewers with a simple flick of the wrist. But in those 500 or so days, Griner went through hell and back. She crawled and clawed her way out of the katabasis to, no less than the City of Stars, embark on her own hero’s journey. She was no Odysseus, I assure you. However, I could have sworn that as I stood face to face with barely 200 people strolling around the crypt, I saw a god with the flickering blue embers of the underworld, still trying to figure out how their new normal worked.
There was a time when Griner’s name was the most feared name in the world when it came to basketball. With all the ceremony that brought Griner home from the Russian prison where she was held for ten months, it’s easy to forget. As a senior, she set high school records for blocks and dunks. She was sent to college counseling to learn how to control her anger after taking pride in breaking a girl’s nose on the court. I remember Griner from Baylor: a punishing center taller than anyone in college or the pros, who relentlessly dug in and pushed and shoved to be the most dominant force in the women’s basket for a generation. She won a national championship, was named National Player of the Year, and was eventually named the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft. She was an unmistakable phenomenon. But a controversy was connected with it as well as success.
Coincidentally, it was the isolation in Russia while playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg that helped Griner mature. She longed for the cold summers around the world, not just for the paycheck, but for what it meant to her spiritually. Years later, past and present separated from Russia, here was another Griner. A woman returned to American soil as a heroine and was shown to the world as a symbol. Both the dangers of basketball and its unheralded reach.
Ninety minutes before the clue, teenage black girls made their way down into the crypt. In the center of the arena were lines of people in black shirts patiently waiting for Griner to get up. She sat on the visitors’ sidelines, her six-foot-tall stature crammed into the shiny leather. Between her Phoenix-Mercury warm-ups lay a thin chain of gold rope. She turned her head to the right, all that could be seen as far as the roundabout was a crown tattooed under her ear. She rarely said anything that was far from a hint.
As she rose from the pews, the small congregation fainted. The way these children behaved was as if they had seen Lazarus coming out from behind the rock. It wasn’t such a magical moment for Griner. She was still shaking off the rust. While detained in a labor camp, she had barely felt a basketball. Her fans wanted to see what was beyond the American imagination. Griner just wanted to fire a shot.
She went to a corner of the crypt, detached herself and tried to warm up as she would every night. Her elbows looked stiff and she could barely get the ball out of her fingers. The white and orange on the WNBA ball flew out of her hands, concocting a miserable sorbet of ineptitude. She was dangerously out of rhythm, a death sentence for a pro hooper. The clinking made the sky ring. Sometimes two in a row. Other times: five.
“Aghhhhhhh!!!” Griner groaned at the three-point line. She lifted again, twisting her arc into an irregular spiral.
“No!!!” she shook her head.
She tried again.
It still wasn’t there.
Everything in her game still seemed intact, as fluid as it was almost two years ago when she was fighting for the MVP trophy. The spin move? Golden, as slippery as Baylor was 10 years ago. The athletics? Dominating, she moved effortlessly on this side of the floor. But like any connoisseur of the sport, she was a perfectionist. The bricks pursued them. She wanted to play 40 minutes every night if she could. And after the All-Star hiatus, she was not only determined to return to the MVP form she left.
So, of course, Griner yelled at two ball girls to get the fuck out of her way. She told an assistant that she wasn’t done yet and rushed to the strong side of the field to make another round of jump shots.
She switched to free throws. And when that wasn’t enough, came the dunks.
Starting from the baseline, her bulky silhouette raced to the edge. She stayed there a millisecond longer than usual, and when she returned to the ground with us mortals, something funny happened. She looked down and grabbed her hands. Griner made a face, just a little. Enough for her to notice. Her face stiffened. Even the edge humbled her now. In all that time, it seemed like she’d forgotten what it felt like to fly.
She fled the square behind cheers from her fans and signs illustrating the historic evening. But she ran back, all the way toward the locker room, past some Intelligence ropes and machine guns manned by the local infantryman. Griner’s wife, Cherelle, appeared on the other side of a large door with a smile on her face.
“Is that sweat?!” Cherelle asked.
“Of course,” Griner said with a knowing smile.
Behind another door was a special guest of the evening: Vice President Kamala Harris. The vice president flew in to celebrate the evening with Griner. After a few minutes of conversation and Harris’s address to the Mercury dressing room, she left her chambers beside the LA Kings badges, with Commissioner Cathy Engleberg in tow and a smile Lava could stop. In fact, someone’s mom when she saw the dignitary exclaimed, “Oh my god, it’s Kamala Harris!” only for Harris to turn around in one motion, smile wider and shrug to mimic it Michael Jordan in Game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals. “That’s right!” she said happily. “It’s meeee!” Beside her was a white man named Doug, feverishly reminding anyone who would listen that he was here to support his “hometown Sparks” while also showing off his – apparently brand new – jersey.
When Griner walked back onto the court, the lower bowels of the arena were full. Ten thousand, more or less, came to give her a heroic welcome. When Griner’s name was announced, she stared at the rafters in disbelief. Cherelle could be seen wiping away a few tears under her sunglasses. Though Griner wanted to just slip on her hard hat and get to work, she took a few seconds to listen to the crowd. Listening to the teenagers in section 210 crying because they saw someone on the floor; hugging the stars on the sidelines who couldn’t bear to miss the moment when she came back to us through basketball.
Griner said that night that the wave hit her despite her steely nature. For a few moments she felt much older as she sat on that bench tonight.
“It was a river of emotions,” she said. “I didn’t get to experience that for a while.” She tried to return to who she was: the anonymous, raw uniqueness of women’s basketball. “I’m at work,” she said. “I have a job to do. I can’t get into the moment.”
A few minutes after Mercury won the tip, Griner ran across the floor and brushed a Sparks player’s shot off the glass like a giant shooing away a mosquito. Griner slapped another not too long after, slicing at one player and reminding him of what needed to be earned in the ditches of color. With all the rush to get Griner back, it was almost as if some of us had forgotten who we were inviting into the herd.
But it was immediately clear. BG was back and it almost looked like she never left.
After the game, Griner hobbled into the press room to listen to the end of Diana Taurasi’s speech. There she was, the star of the show, shoeless, feet pale and massive, huddled on tiptoe eating a slice of cheese pizza. She considered the first thing she would say to the press after playing her first regular-season game since her incarceration.
And what would she say? What could she?
Griner tried to smile while Taurasi talked, switching back and forth between her brain and the pizza, oscillating between normality and spectacle. She shuffled onto the dais and sat there alone as the basement’s fluorescent beams hit her forehead. Griner stared straight ahead. A blank look between her ears. She scored 18 points in 25 minutes. Had six rebounds and four blocks. But love, no matter how sacred or unrequited, could not replace her hunger.
Also, the Mercury lost by 23.
So what is the conclusion after the first day back at work?
Griner ambushed us before giving an upbeat reply.
“Not good enough,” she grumbled.