UNCASVILLE, Conn. Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard and her coaching staff stood in the empty Mohegan Sun arena on Thursday, perplexed.
Mercury was supposed to face the Connecticut Sun at 7pm and their players were supposed to be on the pitch during their normal pre-match shooting, but no one showed up.
Instead, the Mercury players were back in the locker room, glued to the TV screen watching the conviction of their teammate Brittney Griner and the conviction of drug trafficking and drug possession earlier that day in a Russian court of thousands. miles away. “It was like I was waiting for a bomb to be dropped,” Mercury guard Diamond DeShields said.
They watched with tearful eyes as Griner fought through his own tears and begged a Russian court not to “end his life” for an “honest mistake”. Griner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony and fined 1 million rubles, or about $ 16,000. The ruling opens the door for Griner’s return to the United States through a prisoner swap, but for the players the news was still heartbreaking to hear.
“And we should still play this game,” Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith said after the game, adding a curse. “Nobody even wanted to play today. How can we even just approach the game and approach the pitch with a clear head when the whole group cries before the game? “
Nygaard said the team eventually went through a “version” of the shooter, but nothing about the day or the game seemed normal. The most atypical moment of the night for Nygaard happened a few moments before the episode, when the lights went down and players, coaches and referees shook their arms in solidarity for 42 seconds, corresponding to the number of Griner’s shirt. Fans sang “We are BG” and “Take it home”.
“I even shook arms with a referee, so you know you’ll never see him again,” Nygaard said with a smile.
Griner has been detained in Russia since February 17 after customs officials said they found hashish oil, a cannabis derivative, in Griner’s luggage at an airport near Moscow on his way to the country to play for UMMC Yekaterinburg. a professional women’s basketball team. Griner said during his trial on drug charges that the hash oil, in a vaporizer pen, had been packaged by mistake. WNBA players and other professional athletes fought fiercely for their freedom. In May, the US State Department said it determined that Griner had been “wrongfully detained” and that her officials would take steps to free her of her. Experts said a prisoner swap is the most likely route for Griner’s release; the White House recently claimed to have made a “substantial” proposal.
Meanwhile, Griner’s teammates and fans continued their public support campaign.
As fans filled the arena on Thursday night, they were greeted by Connecticut Sun dancers and arena staff members wearing “We are BG” T-shirts. Purple and Orange Griner No. 42 Mercury shirts filled the stands along with clothing variations with messages calling for her freedom. Mercury players wore “We are BG” shirts during the pre-match warm-up, as did Connecticut coaching staff and several Sun players. Sun point guard Jasmine Thomas, who was injured, wore a hooded sweatshirt with a photo of Griner on the front and his number 1. 42 on the back.
Sharon White, a Sun fan and subscriber since 2002, was among those who wore the Mercury colors. She wore a purple shirt with Griner’s name and number, which she said she wears in every match 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 tease her about how much she’s wearing the shirt. White said she cried as she watched Griner’s verdict on Thursday.
“It just hurts – I love her as a player, and it’s just a sad situation,” White said, wiping the tears from her eyes. She added: “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 there. “
Many WNBA players go overseas during the off-season to play for international teams to supplement their income. Griner was shown with a photo of her from her UMMC Yekaterinburg team from behind bars Thursday.
Among those pictured was Jonquel Jones, the Sun forward who won the WNBA’s Most Valuable Player Award last season. Jones, like Griner, has been playing for the Russian team for several years.
Jones said she never expected anything like Griner’s detention to happen. After Griner’s arrest, she Jones said she learned that cannabidiol oil, which she always carries with her to help recover from pain and injury, was also illegal in Russia.
“My experiences over there have been so good,” Jones said. “Our team was top notch. They treated us like the professionals we are. We enjoyed going there for that. So we always felt safe. We never thought anything would happen. So seeing one of my teammates happen and being so close to him and understanding that it could have been me puts that into perspective. “
Jones said getting excited about Thursday’s game was difficult; the moment of solidarity made her even more emotional.
“It was like, ‘Dang, we did it, and now I have to go play basketball; my friend is still locked up overseas, ‘”Jones said. “So just go out there and do the best you can do and don’t take the moment for granted, knowing this is where it wants to be.”
Mercury lost the game, 77-64, with Sun’s 18-0 run in the third and fourth quarters that put the game out of reach. Diggins was the top scorer of the game, with 16 points, and Jones finished with 14. But for both teams, the numbers didn’t seem to matter.
“We will wake up tomorrow and BG will still be in a Russian prison,” Nygaard said. “It’s day 169 or something tomorrow, and the clock goes on, and we just want you to come home.”