UNCASVILLE, Conn. –Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard and her coaching staff stood in the empty Mohegan Sun arena in bewilderment on Thursday.
The Mercury was scheduled to face the Connecticut Sun at 7 p.m., and its players were supposed to be on the field doing their pregame shootout, but no one showed up.
Instead, the Mercury players were back in the locker room, glued to the TV screen watching their teammate Conviction and sentencing of Brittney Griner on drug trafficking and possession charges earlier today in a Russian court thousands of miles away. “It was like you were waiting for a bomb to drop,” Mercury guard Diamond DeShields said.
They watched with tear-filled eyes as Griner fought back 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 sentence opens the door for Griner to be returned to the United States via a prisoner swap, but for players the news was still heartbreaking to hear.
“And we’re still supposed to play this game,” Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith said after the game, adding an expletive. “No one even wanted to play today. How are we even supposed to approach the game and approach the pitch with a clear mind when the whole group is crying before the game?”
Nygaard said the team eventually went through a “version” of filming, but nothing about the day or the game felt normal. The most atypical moment of the night for Nygaard came moments before kick-off, as the lights went out and the players, coaches and referees locked arms in solidarity for 42 seconds – matching Griner’s jersey number. Fans chanted “We are BG” and “Bring her home”.
“I even tied my arms to a referee so you know you’ll never see that again,” Nygaard said with a smile.
Griner has been detained in Russia since February 1. 17 after customs officials said they found hash oil, a cannabis derivative, in Griner’s luggage at an airport near Moscow while she was traveling to the country to play for UMMC Yekaterinburg, a professional team women’s basketball. Griner testified during his drug trafficking trial that the hash oil, contained in a vape pen, was mistakenly packaged. WNBA players and other professional athletes campaigned fiercely for his freedom. In May, the US State Department said it had determined Griner was “wrongfully detained” and officials would work to free her. Experts said a prisoner exchange was the most likely route for Griner’s release. the White House recently said it had made a “substantial” proposal.
Meanwhile, Griner teammates and fans continued their 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. Griner’s purple and orange No. 42 Mercury jerseys filled the stands as well as clothing variations with messages calling for his freedom. The Mercury players donned the “We are BG” jerseys during pre-game warm-ups, as did the Connecticut coaching staff and several Sun players. Point guard Sun Jasmine Thomas, who was injured, wore a hoodie with a picture of Griner on the front and her #1. 42 on the back.
Sharon White, Sun fan and subscriber since 2002, was among those who wore the colors of Mercury. She wore a purple t-shirt with Griner’s name and number on it, which she said she wore to every game, regardless of the opponent.
“When I get home, I wash it and put it back on, even when they’re not playing,” White said, adding that her friends often made fun of her for how much she wears the jersey. White said she cried watching 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 don’t think any 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 holding a picture of her UMMC Yekaterinburg team photo behind bars on Thursday.
Among those pictured was Jonquel Jones, the Sun forward who won the WNBA Most Valuable Player award last season. Jones, like Griner, has played for the Russian team for several years.
Jones said she never expected something like Griner’s detention to happen. After Griner’s arrest, Jones said she learned that even cannabidiol oil, which she always carries with her to help her recover from pain and injuries, was illegal in Russia.
“My experiences there were so good,” Jones said. “Our team was top notch. They treated us like the professionals we are. We loved going there because of that. So we always felt safe. We never felt like anything was wrong. So seeing this happen to one of my teammates and being so close to it and understanding that it could have been me, it puts that into perspective.
Jones said it was hard to be excited for Thursday’s game; the moment of solidarity made her even more emotional.
“It was like, ‘Dang, we did this, 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 and don’t take the moment for granted, knowing that’s where she would want to be.”
The Mercury lost the game, 77-64, with an 18-0 Sun run in the third and fourth quarters that put the game out of reach. Diggins led the game with 16 points, and Jones finished with 14. But for both teams, the numbers apparently didn’t 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 her to come home.”