On Thursday, Phoenix Mercury Head Coach Vanessa Nygaard and the rest of her coaching staff were perplexed as they stood in the empty Mohegan Sun stadium.
The Mercury were scheduled to face the Connecticut Sun at seven o’clock in the evening, and her players were meant to be on the court engaging in their customary pregame shoot-around, but nobody showed up. The game was cancelled.
Instead, the Mercury players were back in the locker room, transfixed to the television screen as they watched their teammate Brittney Griner get found guilty of cocaine smuggling and possession earlier that day in a court located thousands of miles away in Russia. Diamond DeShields, a security for the Mercury, described the situation as “like you’re waiting for a bomb to drop.”
They watched as Griner fought back her own emotions and begged a Russian court not to “end her life” for a “honest error.” Their eyes welled up with tears as they saw the scene. Griner was handed a one million ruble (about $16,000) fine in addition to a nine-year term in a Russian correctional colony for his crime. The punishment makes it possible for Griner to be repatriated to the United States through a prisoner exchange, but hearing the news was still very upsetting for the players.
Skylar Diggins-Smith, a guard for the Mercury, was overheard saying after the game, with an obscenity added, “And we’re still supposed to play this game.” Nobody even wanted to play on such a miserable day. When everyone in the group is sobbing just before the game, it’s hard to imagine how we’ll be able to concentrate on the task at hand or play our best on the court.
Nygaard said that the players had ultimately participated in a “version” of the shoot-around, but nothing about the day or the game had a usual feel to it. The part of the evening that was the most out of the ordinary for Nygaard was just before the game started, when the lights went out and all of the players, coaches, and officials linked arms in solidarity for 42 seconds, which was the same number as was on Griner’s shirt.
Griner has been detained in Russia since the 17th of February after Russian customs officials claimed to have discovered hashish oil, a cannabis derivative, in her luggage at an airport near Moscow while she was travelling to the country to play for UMMC Yekaterinburg, a professional women’s basketball team. Griner was travelling to Russia to play for UMMC Yekaterinburg. Griner testified during her trial on drug charges that an accident occurred during the packaging of the hashish oil that was included in a vape pen. In May, the United States Department of State said that it had concluded that Griner was “wrongfully held” and that its authorities would endeavour to liberate her. The department also stated that it had found that Griner was “wrongfully detained.”
In the interim, Griner’s fellow players and fans have kept up their public show of support for her.
Fans who attended the game on Thursday were welcomed as they entered the stadium by Connecticut Sun dancers and arena staff members who were wearing T-shirts that said “We are BG.” The stands were packed with people wearing Griner’s purple and orange No. 42 Mercury jerseys as well as a variety of other clothes with inscriptions demanding that she be set free. During pregame warmups, members of the Connecticut coaching staff and numerous players from the Sun wore the “We are BG” jersey, as did some Mercury players.
One of the people there sporting Mercury colours was Sharon White, who has been a fan of the Sun and a season-ticket holder since 2002. She was sporting a purple T-shirt with Griner’s name and number printed on it. She said that she wears this clothing to every game that she attends, regardless of who the opponent is.
During the offseason, many women’s national basketball association players go abroad to play for foreign teams in order to augment their income. On Thursday, Griner was seen holding up a photograph of her UMMC Yekaterinburg team shot as she was confined to her cell.
One of the people featured is Jonquel Jones, a forward with the Sun who was honoured with the Most Valuable Player award by the Women’s National Basketball Association during the previous campaign. Jones, much like Griner, has spent a significant amount of time competing for the Russian national team.
Jones said that she had absolutely no idea that anything like Griner’s arrest would take place. Following Griner’s arrest, Jones said that she had heard that even cannabidiol oil, which she always takes with her to assist with recovery from pain and injuries, was banned in Russia. Jones uses the oil to help speed up the healing process when she has been injured.
The Mercury were defeated by the Sun by a score of 77-64 after an 18-0 run by the Sun in the third and fourth quarters put the game out of reach for the Mercury. Diggins ended with 16 points, which was good enough for the game’s high score, while Jones came in second with 14 points. On the other hand, it seemed like neither side cared about the figures.