LAS VEGAS — When Brittney Griner was named an All-Star starter last month, Breanna Stewart immediately maneuvered to post her friend up next to her again as a teammate, even if for a short time.
“To have her sitting next to me, to have her on my team, that was my No. 1,” Stewart, who earned the All-Star captaincy by finishing second in fan voting, said Friday. “I had to do some behind-the-scenes negotiations to have everything right and the way I wanted it. But it’s incredible.”
The deal to secure Griner as Team Stewart’s center, and as Stewart’s interview mate ahead of the contest, was a big one. Stewart agreed to let A’ja Wilson, the top fan vote-earner with the rights to the No. 1 pick in the All-Star Draft, select all three of her Las Vegas Aces teammates. Wilson began with No. 1 overall pick Chelsea Gray and Stewart followed with Griner at No. 2. Wilson proceeded to add Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum as part of the deal.
“I found out a little bit after the fact and I was like, ‘Shoutout to the teammate right there,’” Griner said. “I was super happy about it.”
Also super happy was Stewart, whose drafting earned redemption from last year’s loss in a meeting of the same captains. Team Stewart ran away from Team Wilson, 143-127, to even the series at 1-1. Jewell Loyd was named MVP with an ASG-record 31 points. Griner paced the squad early and finished with 18 points, 13 rebounds and multiple dunks.
“First pick, I knew I had to do something so I could pay that back,” Griner said after the game. “So those dunks and getting the dub. That did it right there.”
Gray told teammates Friday to just get out of the way to avoid a Griner dunk, and it sure looked like opponents were tempting her to do it early in the first quarter. Griner scored her first points off an offensive rebound, and the next two buckets in a completely wide-open lane. With under four minutes left in the quarter, Stewart fed her in transition and Griner threw one down all alone.
— WNBA (@WNBA) July 16, 2023
She added another at the start of the second half, though she noted postgame she had wanted Team Stewart teammate Nneka Ogwumike to get in on the slam action. Stewart quipped Griner should have had five dunks.
Only way to start the second half is with ANOTHER Brittney Griner dunk! pic.twitter.com/dh9Awkfdcx
— Phoenix Mercury (@PhoenixMercury) July 16, 2023
Stewart’s appreciation for the moment, which was far from a possibility this time last year, was clear on Friday as she gazed with a smile at Griner next to her on the dais in the halls of Michelob Ultra Arena. The 2022 event was held without Griner and players returned out of halftime all wearing her No. 42 to keep Griner centered. Days later, the Phoenix Mercury star held up a photo of them from her Russian jail cell.
“Looking back to last year, especially the All-Star [Game] and really throughout the entire season, it was like there’s a void in the WNBA and there’s something that’s missing,” Stewart said. “And that was BG. And we continued to do whatever we could to make sure she knew that we were still thinking of her, we were still fighting for her.”
Stewart centered Griner’s wrongful detainment in Russia with daily tweets after the case went public in March 2022. Since Griner’s return, Stewart has made her safety a focus, including a push for charter flights as part of her free-agency dealings. The day the All-Star starters were announced, Stewart questioned after a New York Liberty win at Barclays Center if she should trade picks with Wilson to nab Griner.
“Fast-forwarding to this year’s All-Star, it’s incredible to have her here,” Stewart said Friday.
A couple hours later, Griner spotted up on the sidelines of the skills competition with a plate of bacon alongside former Mercury teammate DeWanna Bonner. It was refreshingly standard Griner behavior, but with special significance. She said earlier that day she was enjoying eating whatever she wanted after spending 10 months in a Russian prison.
“Well, my health, I don’t really think I’m the best person to ask about health,” she said, purposely reaching down to drink from a can of soda below the interview table.
Though her health habits might not be All-Star caliber, her play certainly warrants the nod. Griner is averaging 19.5 points (seventh), 6.6 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.9 blocks (second). Her 27.7 minutes per game is close to a career-low and she’s hitting 60.6% of her shots, ranking third in the league and bettering her career average by five percentage points.
“I’m just happy to be here in this building,” Griner said. “All-Star is a fun time to be here together. You get to learn each other’s personality.
Stewart and Griner have learned each other through Team USA, where they won Olympic gold together, and playing on the same UMMC Ekaterinburg team that Griner was returning to two winters ago when she was taken into Russian custody in an airport. Stewart’s decisions with her all-business clipboard on draft day also reunited Griner with Courtney Vandersloot, who played with the two on that UMMC team that was a European powerhouse before Russia invaded Ukraine.
“We were playing together overseas and everything that happened happened and we didn’t get to finish it out, so just being able to be back on a team with her [Stewart] and Sloot, it feels good,” Griner said.
— WNBA (@WNBA) July 16, 2023
From her first news conference with reporters in April, Griner has been appreciative of everyone who fought to bring her home and is taking in the little moments. She said a day into the weekend’s festivities she had most enjoyed being around the players again and having a very close friend and her godson in town. Being at All-Star again was “a little surreal, to be honest,” she said.
She’s also infused everything with her sense of humor. Ahead of the game, she joked in a quip viewed by some as dark that she hoped to score more than she did last year.
“I always use humor as a crutch or just to get me through a tough moment,” Griner said. “And it’s not for everybody, but if you can’t find the humor in something, it’s better than just being depressed and sitting underneath a dark cloud.”
She turned with more laughs to Stewart.
“I mean, I really do hope my numbers are better. I hope I get something,” Griner said. “But it’s just good being able to do that. It just helps me.”
She got the best of Plum, the 2022 All-Star MVP, with a swat late in the fourth quarter. Plum looked jokingly aggrieved the referee didn’t give her team the possession, and Griner was still laughing coming down the court on her team’s next offensive possession. They tied up under the basket with a couple minutes left, Griner towering over the 5-foot-8 Plum Dawg.
“Probably getting blocked by BG?” Ogwumike chided Plum when they were asked the best moment of their weekend.
Minutes into the contest, she toyed with another hometown Ace, giving Gray the fingers-to-eyes motion while guarding her on the perimeter. Team Wilson quadruple-teamed her late, to which Wilson asked, “What else were we supposed to do?” In the fourth quarter, she accepted a passing of the game ball from Wilson for Phoenix hosting the 2024 All-Star Game.
“I’m lucky enough for it to be coming back again,” Griner said. “I know that Phoenix and the Mercury organization, they're going to put on one hell of a All-Star. I know that for sure. So I’m looking forward to it, to play there in front of our fans.”
Griner spent time after the game seeing people on the court and signing gear for a group of young fans, a few of whom were in Aces jerseys. As she was ushered out by PR people for postgame media responsibilities, she stopped to sign a hat for one of the fans hanging off the railing yelling her name. On the trek from the court to the interview room, she kept running into people and when she crashed onto the interview stand, it upset the baby of Aces assistant Tyler Marsh sitting on Wilson’s lap.
Griner leaned over and apologized to the baby, all smiles as the room laughed and Wilson asked, “Where’s this baby’s parents?” to great joy. She joked with Stewart next to her once again, continuously re-filling the void the league felt last summer when their only connection to the All-Star was by wearing her No. 42.