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Brittney Griner’s Stricken Teammates Play on After Her Conviction

By: Eric Weinberg

In a stuffy locker room at Mohegan Sun Arena, the Phoenix Mercury players were glued to the TV, where they watched their star teammate fight against her heavy conviction charges in a Russian court. Brittney Griner argued before the judge, lawyers, and jury surrounding her, pleading for them to “not end her life” for an “honest mistake” of illegal substance smuggling and possession. Griner was given a sentence of nine years in a Russian penal colony and fined 1 million rubles (16,000 US dollars). Even though Griner will most likely be transferred back to a U.S. prison, all of her teammates were stricken with sadness.

After the game, Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith said, “And we’re still supposed to play this game [obscenity removed]. Nobody even wanted to play today. How are we even supposed to approach the game and approach the court with a clear mind when the whole group is crying before the game?”

The Mercury players were so devastated and overwhelmed by the news that they didn’t come out early for a pregame shoot-around. Coach Nygaard said that the whole night was different than normal. For Nygaard, one of the most atypical moments was when everyone on the court came together and linked arms in a moment of silence for 42 seconds, Griner’s number.

It all started in February, near a Moscow airport, where Griner was found with a vape pen full of illegal cannabis oil. She was detained in Russia, though pleading that it was a mistake.

Many people involved with the WNBA, including players, coaches, and officials begged for her freedom. The U.S government said she was “wrongfully detained,” and many government officials were working for her release. A prisoner swap would most likely be the only way for her to get back on home soil, experts say.

But the public campaign of support has just started, with many WNBA players, coaches, and fans showing their support.

Mohegan Sun Arena was flooded with support that night. Arena staff all wore “We are BG” t-shirts, and a quick glance into the stands would show thousands of calls for freedom and BG jerseys.

Avid fan Sharon White was among them. She was wearing her Griner jersey, which she says she wears to every game and even when they are not playing. She told the press, “It just hurts — I love her as a player, and it’s just a sad situation,” and “She doesn’t need to be there. When she comes home, she doesn’t need to go back. I think none of our players should go over there.”

Many WNBA players do travel to Europe and Asia to support their income and play for many different European teams. Griner was shown holding up a picture of her UMMC Yekaterinburg team photo last Thursday. One player in the photo who played for the Russian team with Griner was Sun’s player Jonquel Jones. She expressed how nice it was in Europe, with the treatment “like the professionals we are.” Jones also said she could not believe Griner’s lock-up, learning that even the healing cannabidiol oil she carries is illegal in Russia.

Playing whilst knowing of Griner’s position hit everyone, including Jones. She described, “It was like ‘Dang, we did that, and now I got to go play basketball; my friend is still locked up overseas. So, you just kind of go out there and do the best that you can do and not take the moment for granted, knowing that this is where she would want to be”.

Connecticut won the game 77-64, with Diggins and Jones being the leading scorers, although the numbers didn’t mean anything to the teams. No matter what, Griner is still far from home and not coming back soon. Coach Nygaard said, “We’ll wake up tomorrow, and B.G. will still be in Russian jail.” She added, “we just want her to come home.”

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