Brittney Griner's return to WNBA is an act of defiance, activism for other detainees

As Brittney Griner prepares for the Mercury's preseason WNBA game, every shot she takes, every rebound she grabs will keep a spotlight on other Americans who are wrongfully detained abroad.

Nancy Armour

You cannot be imprisoned for 10 months, wrongly detained in desperate conditions millions of miles from home and not knowing when you’ll see your loved ones again, and not carry the scars.  

You can see their faint outlines when Brittney Griner says, emphatically, that she will not play overseas again without the protection of a Team USA uniform. Or she makes a passing reference to the danger of having hope.

More vivid than those scars, however, is Griner’s strength. It isn’t enough for her simply to live well now that she’s home. She is determined to reclaim the life she had before and, while doing so, help others who remain where she once was, reclaim theirs.

"I’m really fortunate to have this platform that I have," the eight-time WNBA All-Star and two-time Olympic champion said last week. "Every chance I get, wearing a shirt, saying their names, any interview I have – and you’ll see the theme throughout the season – that’s just bringing awareness to everybody that doesn’t have the platform and the followers and the exposure.

"That is the way I’m trying to help out. In any way that I can."

Artist Antoinette Cauley, Cherelle Griner, Brittney Griner, Neda Sharghi, chair of Bring Our Families Home, and Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs sit beside a 30-foot mural outside the Footprint Center in Phoenix. The mural depicts individuals detained abroad.

Griner has already been doing that. She has made statements and used her social media channels to make public appeals for the release of Paul Whelan, who Russian officials refused to include in the prison swap that brought Griner home in December, and the many other Americans wrongfully detained across the world. Her presence at high-profile events like the Met Gala and the White House Correspondents Dinner was a visible reminder that while she is free, so many others are not.

Beginning with the Phoenix Mercury’s first preseason game Monday night, however, Griner’s resistance takes on greater prominence. For the next four months – likely longer, given the Mercury hasn't missed the playoffs in more than a decade – she will be a constant show of defiance.

Her mere presence tells Vladimir Putin and his henchmen that they couldn’t break her. That they did not win.

"I believe in me. I believe in what I can do. I know that if I put my mind to it, I can achieve any goal," Griner said. "I’m not trying to sound big-headed, but I just really, I bet on me. … It was no question to be back in the WNBA and back in Phoenix and playing."

And with every shot she takes, every rebound she grabs, every game the Mercury plays, every highlight of hers that’s played, Griner will keep a white-hot spotlight on the captivity of Whelan, Evan Gershkovich, David Lin, Shahab Dalili and other Americans who are wrongfully detained.

Just as Griner’s absence was the prevailing theme of the WNBA last season, now it will be her presence and, by extension, her fight to free her fellow Americans.

"We’re not going to stop," she said. "We’re not going to stop bringing awareness to everyone that’s left behind right now."

Griner and the Mercury have partnered with Bring Our Families Home, and the group’s logo will be prominently displayed on Phoenix’s court where "BG42" was last season. Expect to see Griner and her Mercury teammates wearing T-shirts with the names of more than a dozen others who are still wrongfully detained.

The Mercury has already unveiled a mural on the west side of its arena dedicated to the campaign, and the team will encourage fans to write notes of encouragement to prisoners.

"It’s so easy to feel forgotten. To feel like no one’s thinking of you," Griner said. "When you get a letter from people that you know or that you don’t even know, it just does something to you. It gives you that spark of life to keep holding on, to keep fighting, not to give in."

It would have been easy, understandable even, had Griner decided to sit out this season. The spotlight can be harsh, and not everyone has celebrated her return. But she cannot forget how much it means to know people back home are thinking of you, fighting for you.

By returning to the game she loves, by living the life she always has, Griner will distance herself from the horrors of her imprisonment. And, she hopes, bring those still detained closer to home.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.