Brittany Griner’s tearful WNBA teammates play after her guilty plea

Brittany Griner’s tearful WNBA teammates play after her guilty plea

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard and her coaching staff stood in an empty Mohegan Sun Arena Thursday, confused.

The Mercury was set to take on the Connecticut Sun at 7 p.m., and its players were supposed to be on the court going through their usual pregame shootaround, but none showed up.

Instead, the Mercury players were back in the locker room, glued to television screens watching their teammate Brittney Griner’s conviction and sentencing earlier that day in a Russian court thousands of miles away on drug trafficking and possession charges. “It was like you were waiting for a bomb to drop,” Mercury guard Diamond DeShields said.

They watched with tearful eyes as Griner fought through his own tears and pleaded with 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 return to the United States via a prisoner exchange, but for the players, the news was still heartbreaking to hear.

“And we still have to play this game,” Mercury guard Skyler Diggins-Smith said after the game, adding a surprise. “Nobody wanted to play today. When the whole team is crying before the game, how can we approach the game and go on the court with a clear mind?”

Nygaard said the team eventually went through a “version” of the shoot-around, but nothing about the day or the game felt normal. The most unusual moment of the night for Nygaard occurred moments before tipoff, as the lights dimmed and players, coaches and referees locked arms in solidarity for 42 seconds — matching Griner’s jersey number. Fans chanted “we’re busy” and “bring him home”.

“I even linked arms with a referee, so you know you’ll never see that again,” Nygaard said with a smile.

Griner has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17 after customs officials said they found hashish oil, derived from marijuana, in Griner’s luggage at an airport near Moscow while she was on her way to the country to play for UMMC Yekaterinburg, a professional women’s basketball team. Greener said during his trial on drug charges that the hashish oil, in a vape pen, was mistakenly packed. Players and other professional athletes throughout the WNBA campaigned vehemently for her freedom. In May, the US State Department said it had determined Griner was “wrongfully detained” and that its officials would work to free him. Experts say a prisoner swap is the most likely path to Griner’s release; The White House recently said it had made a “significant” proposal.

In the meantime, Griner’s teammates and fans have continued their public campaign of support.

As fans filled the arena Thursday night, they were greeted by Connecticut Sun Dancers and arena staff wearing “We’re BG” T-shirts. Greener’s purple and orange No. 42 Mercury jersey filled the stands with a variety of apparel calling out his independence. Mercury players wore “We’re BG” shirts in pregame warm-ups, as did the Connecticut coaching staff and several Suns players. Suns point guard Jasmine Thomas, who was injured, wore a hooded sweatshirt with Griner’s picture on the front and his No. 42 on the back.

Sharon White, a Suns fan and a season-ticket holder since 2002, was among those wearing Mercury colors. He wore a purple T-shirt with Griner’s name and number, which he said he wears to every game, regardless of the opponent.

“When I get home, I wash it and I wear it again, even when they’re not playing,” White said, adding that his friends often make fun of him for how much he wears his shirt. White said he cried Thursday when he saw Griner’s verdict.

“It just hurts — I love him as a player, and it’s just a sad situation,” White said, wiping tears from his eyes. He added: “He doesn’t need to be there. When he comes home, he doesn’t need to go back. I don’t think any of our players should go there.”

Many WNBA players go overseas in the off-season to play on international teams to supplement their income. Griner was seen Thursday from behind bars holding a photo of his UMMC Yekaterinburg team photo.

Among those in the photo was Jonkel Jones, the Suns forward who won the WNBA’s Most Valuable Player award last season. Like Griner, Jones has played for the Russian team for several years.

Jones said he never expected something like Griner’s arrest to happen. After Griner’s arrest, Jones said he learned that even cannabidiol oil, which he always carries with him for pain and recovery from injuries, was illegal in Russia.

“My experience there has been great,” Jones said. “Our team was top notch. They treated us like professionals. We love going there for that reason. So we always feel safe. We never felt that anything would happen. So to see it happen to one of my teammates and be so close to it and realize it could have been me, it puts it into perspective.”

Jones said it was hard to get excited for Thursday’s game; The moment of solidarity made him 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 you just go out there and do the best you can and don’t take this moment for granted, knowing that he wants to be here.”

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 was the game’s leading scorer, with 16 points, and Jones finished with 14. But for both sides, the numbers apparently didn’t matter.

“We’ll wake up tomorrow, and BG will still be in a Russian prison,” Nygaard said. “Tomorrow is day 169 or something, and the clock is ticking, and we just want him to come home.”

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