September 27, 2022

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard and her coaching staff stood in the empty Mohegan Sun arena Thursday, bewildered.

The Mercury were scheduled to face the Connecticut Sun at 7 p.m. and her players were supposed to be on the court to go through the regular pregame shoot-around, but no one showed up.

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

They watched with teary eyes as Griner fought back tears and begged the Russian court not to “end her 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’s return to the United States via a prisoner exchange, but for the players, the news was still heartbreaking.

“And we’re still supposed to play this game,” Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith said after the game, adding a twist. “No one even wanted to play today. How are we supposed to approach the game and approach the field with a clear mind when the whole team is crying before the game?”

Nygaard said the team eventually went through a “version” of the shoot-around, but nothing about the day or the game seemed normal. The most unusual moment of the night for Nygaard occurred moments before the upset, as the lights dimmed and the players, coaches and referees locked arms in solidarity for 42 seconds — equal to Griner’s jersey number. Fans chanted “We are BG” and “Bring her home”.

“I even tied hands with an umpire so you know you’re never going to see that 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 when she traveled to the country to play for UMMC Yekaterinburg, a professional women’s team basketball. Griner said during her trial on drug charges that the hashish oil, in a vapor pen, had been packaged by mistake. Players throughout the WNBA and other professional athletes have fought hard for her freedom. In May, the US State Department said it had determined that Griner was “unlawfully detained” and that its officials would work for her release. Experts said a prisoner swap is the most likely path to Griner’s release. the White House recently said it had made a “substantial” proposal.

Meanwhile, Griner’s teammates and fans 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 are BG” T-shirts. Griner’s purple and orange No. 42 Mercury jerseys filled the stands along with variations of clothing with messages calling for her freedom. Mercury players wore “We are BG” jerseys in pregame warmups, as did Connecticut’s coaching staff and several Sun players. Sun point guard Jasmine Thomas, who is out injured, wore a hoodie with Griner’s photo on the front and her No. 42 on the back.

Sharon White, a Sun fan and season ticket holder since 2002, was among those wearing Mercury colours. He wore a purple T-shirt with Griner’s name and number on it, which he said he wears to every game regardless of the 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 wears the shirt. White said she cried as she watched Griner’s verdict Thursday.

“It just hurts — I love her as a player and it’s just a sad situation,” White said, wiping tears from her eyes. He added: “He doesn’t need to be there. When he comes home, he doesn’t have to come back. I think none of our players should go there.”

Many WNBA players go overseas during the off-season to play on international teams to supplement their income. Griner was seen holding up a photo of her team photo at UMMC Yekaterinburg behind bars on 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 played for the Russian team for several years.

Jones said she never expected something like Griner’s arrest 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 just always felt safe. We never felt like anything was going to happen. So to see it happen to a teammate and be that close to him and realize it could have been me puts it into perspective.”

Jones said it was hard to get excited about 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 this is where he would want to be.”

The Mercury lost the game, 77-64, with an 18-0 Sun run in the third and fourth quarters putting the game out of reach. Diggins was the game’s leading scorer with 16 points, and Jones finished with 14. But for either side, 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 is ticking, and we just want him to come home.”

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