Griner feels love from Texas, Baylor in trip back

  • M.A. Voepel, ESPN.comJun 8, 2023, 12:44 AM ET

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      M.A. Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

ARLINGTON, Texas — The warm welcome back that Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner received in her home state of Texas on Wednesday night came with something else — a pledge from Baylor women’s basketball coach Nicki Collen that Griner’s jersey at some point will be retired at her alma mater.

“That’s the goal,” Collen said. “We’re opening a new arena. There’s no doubt that I want to see her jersey in the rafters.” Foster Pavilion, which is scheduled to open in January 2024, will replace Ferrell Center as home of the Baylor men’s and women’s basketball teams.

Griner and the Mercury fell 84-79 to the Dallas Wings on Wednesday night at College Park Center, just 97 miles from Waco, Texas, where she starred at Baylor from 2009 to 2013. Griner, who had 24 points, was frustrated by a loss that dropped the Mercury to 1-4, but it didn’t diminish how much she enjoyed being home and playing in front of the current Baylor women’s team, among others.

“I played some of my best basketball there, met some really amazing people there, met my wife there,” Griner said of Baylor. “I can’t wait to get back. It’s safe to say I’m never going overseas to play ball again, so in the offseason, I’ll be able to actually go and see games. Just walk the same halls that I walked before.

“It was amazing to have [the Baylor team] here. I was really, really, really, really, really happy to see the Baylor team. That meant a lot having them here.”

All of the current Bears were still kids when Griner led Baylor to a 40-0 national championship season in 2012. But they’ve followed her in the WNBA, and Collen said her players were a little starstruck when meeting Griner before Wednesday’s game.

Phoenix has been Griner’s primary home since the Mercury drafted her No. 1 overall in 2013, but she’s a Houston native and grew up there.

Griner said it was emotional playing in Texas again for the first time since she was detained in Russia last year. Griner felt the wave of affection from fans, just as she did in Phoenix and on other road trips thus far. But it hit her even more because the Lone Star State is home.

She said along with the Baylor contingent, her high school coach, her AAU team, her wife and many family members were in attendance.

“It was good seeing everybody and just being back in Texas. I miss being here. When I came out and they announced my name, the love meant a lot to me.”

Brittney Griner, on return to Texas

“Just a lot of support. It was good seeing everybody and just being back in Texas,” said Griner, who will be here a couple more days as the Wings host the Mercury again Friday. “I miss being here. When I came out and they announced my name, the love meant a lot to me.”

Griner had 3,283 points, 1,305 rebounds and an NCAA-record 748 blocks at Baylor, helping the program to two Final Fours. Another member of that 2012 Baylor championship team, guard Odyssey Sims, was also on the floor Wednesday, as she was signed by Dallas as a replacement player earlier in the day. Kalani Brown, a star center on the 2019 Baylor national championship team, also plays for the Wings, making the game a bit of a Baylor reunion.

“I love Baylor,” Griner said. “Without that, I don’t get to where I’m at right here.”

But despite Griner’s status as the best player in program history, her No. 42 is not retired by the school. Former Baylor coach Kim Mulkey and Griner had a falling out after Griner finished college. Mulkey also for several years said that Griner’s number could not be retired until she had officially graduated.

Griner confirmed she has since received her college degree. And in 2021, Mulkey left Baylor, where she won three NCAA titles, for LSU, which won the championship this year.

Collen, who coached against Griner as both a WNBA head coach and an assistant, took over at Baylor in May 2021. Almost immediately, Collen spoke of her hope to renew the relationship between Griner and Baylor.

Griner told ESPN in December 2021 that she wanted to visit Baylor soon and was looking toward re-establishing her ties with her alma mater. Then Griner was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February 2022 when she was returning to Russia to continue her overseas basketball season with UMMC Ekaterinburg. Russian customs officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage, which she later acknowledged in court while saying she had no criminal intent and had packed them in haste.

Last August, Griner was sentenced to a nine-year prison term, but in December she was freed through a negotiated prisoner exchange between the United States and Russian governments. Since then, Griner has had several very emotional WNBA greetings: May 19 in Los Angeles when the Mercury played their season opener; May 21 when the Mercury had their home opener; and now here in Texas.

“This game meant a lot,” Griner said. “I really wanted to get this [win]. We’ve got another shot at them in another day.”

She was asked about what it meant to hear opposing players, including Dallas stars Arike Ogunbowale and Satou Sabally, talk about how glad they are that she is back, as well as the Wings and all WNBA teams that support Griner’s mission to help the “Bring Our Families Home” organization that aids those who have loved ones detained overseas.

“Yes, we go against each other, but we care about the other person,” Griner said of her WNBA peers. “We hear different causes people are playing for and we all rally together to help one another.”