UNCASVILLE, Connecticut. — Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard and her coaching staff stood at the empty Mohegan Sun arena on Thursday, puzzled.
The Mercury were supposed to take on the Connecticut Sun at 7:00 p.m., and its players were supposed to be on the court doing their usual pre-game shootout, but no one showed up.
Instead, the Mercury players returned to the dressing room, glued to the TV screen, watching their teammate. Conviction and sentencing of Britney Griner earlier in the day on charges of drug smuggling and possession in a Russian court thousands of miles away. “It was like you were waiting for a bomb to fall,” said Mercury security guard Diamond DeShields.
They watched with tears in their eyes as Griner fought back her tears and pleaded with the Russian court not to “take her life” for an “honest mistake.” Griner was sentenced to nine years in a strict regime colony in Russia and fined 1 million rubles, or about $16,000. The verdict opens the door for Griner’s return to the United States through a prisoner exchange, but for players, the news was still heartbreaking.
“And we still have to play this game,” Mercury defenseman Skylar Diggins-Smith said after the game, adding an expletive. “Nobody even wanted to play today. How are we even supposed to approach the game and go out on the court with a clear mind when the whole group is crying before the game?
Nygaard said the team ended up going through a “version” of the shootout, but nothing about that day or game seemed normal. Nygaard’s most atypical moment of the night occurred just minutes before kick-off, when the lights went out and the players, coaches and referees clasped their hands in solidarity for 42 seconds, matching Griner’s jersey number. Fans chanted “We are BG” and “Bring her home”.
“I even joined hands with the referee so you know you’ll never see that again,” Nygaard said with a smile.
Griner has been in Russian custody since February. January 17 after customs officials said they found hash oil, a cannabis derivative, in Griner’s luggage at an airport outside Moscow as she traveled to the country to play for UMMC Yekaterinburg, a professional women’s basketball team. Griner said during her drug trial that the hash oil in the vape pen was packaged by mistake. WNBA players and other professional athletes fought fiercely for her freedom. In May, the US State Department said it had determined Griner had been detained “wrongfully” and that its officials would work to secure her release. Experts say a prisoner exchange is the most likely route to Griner’s release; The White House recently said it did “significant” sentence.
Meanwhile, teammates and Griner fans continue to public support campaign.
As fans filled the arena Thursday night, they were greeted by Connecticut Sun dancers and arena staff wearing “We are BG” T-shirts. Purple and orange griner number. 42 Mercury T-shirts filled the stands, along with clothing variations with messages calling for her freedom. Mercury players donned We are BG T-shirts at pre-game warm-ups, as did the Connecticut coaching staff and several Sun players. Sun point guard Jasmine Thomas, who was injured, wore a hoodie with Griner’s graphic on the front and her number 1.42 on the back.
Sharon White, a Sun fan and season ticket owner since 2002, was among those wearing the Mercury colors. She wore a purple jersey with Griner’s name and number, which she said she wears to every game regardless of opponent.
“When I get home, I wash it and wear it again, even when they’re not playing,” White said, adding that her friends often make fun of her for wearing the shirt. White said she cried as she watched Greener’s sentencing Thursday.
“It just hurts – I love her as a player and it’s just a sad situation,” White said, wiping tears from her eyes. She added, “She doesn’t need to be there. When she comes home, she doesn’t have to come back. I don’t think any of our players should go there.”
A lot of WNBA players go abroad play for international teams in the off-season to supplement your income. On Thursday, Griner was shown holding a photo of her UMMC Yekaterinburg team from behind bars.
Among those pictured was Jonquel Jones, the Sun forward who won the WNBA Most Valuable Player award last season. Jones, like Griner, for several years he played for the Russian national team.
Jones said she never expected something like Griner’s arrest to happen. After her arrest, Greener Jones said she learned that even the cannabidiol oil she always carries with her to ease pain and injuries is illegal in Russia.
“My experience there was very good,” Jones said. “Our team was great. They treated us like the professionals that we are. We loved going there because of it. So we just always felt safe. We never felt like anything would ever happen. So seeing it happen to one of my teammates, being so close to it and realizing that it could have been me, it makes me think.”
Jones said it was hard to get excited about Thursday’s game; a moment of solidarity made her even more emotional.
“It was like, ‘Damn, we did it and now I have to go play basketball; my friend is still locked up overseas,” Jones said. “So you just go out there and do your best, rather than taking the moment for granted, knowing that this is where she would like to be.”
The Mercury lost the game 77–64 and ran 18–0 in the sun in the third and fourth quarters, putting the game out of reach. Diggins led the game with 16 points and Jones finished with 14. But for both sides, the numbers didn’t seem to matter.
“We will wake up tomorrow and BG will still be in a Russian prison,” Nygaard said. “Tomorrow is day 169 or something and the clock keeps ticking and we just want her to come home.”