UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Phoenix Mercury Coach Vanessa Nygaard and her teaching workers stood within the empty Mohegan Solar area on Thursday, puzzled.
The Mercury have been set to tackle the Connecticut Solar at 7 pm, and her gamers have been speculated to be on the court docket going via their regular pregame shoot-around, however nobody confirmed up.
As a substitute, the Mercury gamers have been again within the locker room, glued to the tv display watching their teammate Brittney Griner’s conviction and sentencing on drug smuggling and possession costs earlier that day in a Russian court docket 1000’s of miles away. “It was such as you’re ready for a bomb to drop,” Mercury guard Diamond DeShields mentioned.
They watched with tear-filled eyes as Griner fought via her personal tears and pleaded with a Russian court docket to not “finish her life” for an “trustworthy mistake.” Griner was sentenced to 9 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 US via a prisoner swap, however for the gamers, the information was nonetheless heartbreaking to listen to.
“And we’re nonetheless speculated to play this recreation,” Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith mentioned after the sport, including an expletive. “No person even needed to play at the moment. How are we even speculated to method the sport and method the court docket with a transparent thoughts when the entire group is crying earlier than the sport?”
Nygaard mentioned the crew had ultimately gone via a “model” of the shoot-around, however nothing concerning the day or recreation felt regular. Essentially the most atypical second of the evening for Nygaard occurred moments earlier than tipoff, because the lights dimmed and gamers, coaches and referees locked arms in solidarity for 42 seconds — matching the variety of Griner’s jersey. Followers chanted “We’re BG” and “Convey her house.”
“I even linked arms with a referee, so you already know you are by no means going to see that once more,” Nygaard mentioned with a smile.
Griner has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17 after customs officers mentioned they discovered cannabis oil, a hashish spinoff, in Griner’s baggage at an airport close to Moscow when she was touring to the nation to play for UMMC Yekaterinburg, knowledgeable ladies’s basketball crew. Griner mentioned throughout her trial on drug costs that the cannabis oil, in a vape pen, had been packed by mistake. Gamers throughout the WNBA and different skilled athletes have campaigned fiercely for his or her freedom. In Could, the US State Division mentioned that it had decided that Griner was “wrongfully detained” and that its officers would work to free her. Consultants have mentioned a prisoner swap is the most certainly path for Griner’s launch; the White Home lately mentioned it had made a “substantial” proposal.
Within the meantime, Griner’s teammates and followers have continued their public marketing campaign of assist.
As followers crammed the world on Thursday evening, they have been greeted by Connecticut Solar dancers and area workers members sporting “We’re BG” t-shirts. Griner’s purple and orange no. 42 Mercury jerseys crammed the stands together with variations of clothes with messages calling for her freedom. Mercury gamers donned the “We’re BG” shirts in pregame warm-ups, as did the Connecticut teaching workers and several other Solar gamers. Solar level guard Jasmine Thomas, who has been out injured, wore a hooded sweatshirt with an image of Griner on the entrance and her No. 42 on the again.
Sharon White, a Solar fan and a season-ticket holder since 2002, was amongst these sporting Mercury colours. She was sporting a purple T-shirt that featured Griner’s title and quantity, which she mentioned she wears to each recreation whatever the opponent.
“Once I get house, I wash it and I put on it once more, even after they’re not enjoying,” White mentioned, including that her mates typically make enjoyable of her for the way a lot she wears the shirt. White mentioned she had cried as she watched Griner’s verdict on Thursday.
“It simply hurts — I really like her as a participant, and it is only a unhappy scenario,” White mentioned, wiping tears from her eyes. She added: “She does not must be there. When she comes house, she does not want to return. I believe none of our gamers ought to go over there.”
Many WNBA gamers go abroad through the low season to play for worldwide groups to complement their earnings. Griner was proven holding up an image of her UMMC Yekaterinburg crew photograph from behind bars on Thursday.
Amongst these within the image have been Jonquel Jones, the Solar ahead who gained the WNBA’s Most Helpful Participant Award final season. Jones, like Griner, has performed for the Russian crew for a number of years.
Jones mentioned she had by no means anticipated one thing like Griner’s detention to occur. After Griner’s arrest, Jones mentioned she had discovered that even cannabidiol oil, which she all the time carries together with her to assist with restoration from ache and accidents, which was unlawful in Russia.
“My experiences over there have been so good,” Jones mentioned. “Our crew was prime notch. They handled us just like the professionals we’re. We cherished going over there due to that. So we simply all the time felt protected. We by no means felt like something would ever occur. So to see it occur to considered one of my teammates and be so near it and perceive that it may’ve been me, it places it into perspective.”
Jones mentioned getting excited for Thursday’s recreation had been troublesome; the second of solidarity made her much more emotional.
“It was like, ‘Dang, we did that, and now I acquired to go play basketball; my buddy remains to be locked up abroad,’” Jones mentioned. “So that you simply type of go on the market and do one of the best that you are able to do and never take the second as a right, realizing that that is the place she would need to be.”
The Mercury misplaced the sport, 77-64, with an 18-0 Solar run within the third and fourth quarters that put the sport out of attain. Diggins was the sport’s main scorer, with 16 factors, and Jones completed with 14. However for either side, the numbers did not appear to matter.
“We’ll get up tomorrow, and BG will nonetheless be in a Russian jail,” Nygaard mentioned. “It is day 169 or one thing tomorrow, and the clock continues, and we simply need her to come back house.”