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 p.m., and her gamers have been presupposed to be on the courtroom going by way of 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 expenses earlier that day in a Russian courtroom hundreds 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 by way of her personal tears and pleaded with a Russian courtroom to not “finish her life” for an “sincere 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 by way of a prisoner swap, however for the gamers, the information was nonetheless heartbreaking to listen to.
“And we’re nonetheless presupposed to play this recreation,” Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith mentioned after the sport, including an expletive. “No one even wished to play as we speak. How are we even presupposed to method the sport and method the courtroom with a transparent thoughts when the entire group is crying earlier than the sport?”
Nygaard mentioned the crew had ultimately gone by way of a “model” of the shoot-around, however nothing in regards to the day or recreation felt regular. Essentially the most atypical second of the night time 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 B.G.” and “Convey her house.”
“I even linked arms with a referee, so you realize you’re 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 by-product, in Griner’s baggage at an airport close to Moscow when she was touring to the nation to play for UMMC Yekaterinburg, an expert girls’s basketball crew. Griner mentioned throughout her trial on drug expenses that the cannabis oil, in a vape pen, had been packed by mistake. Gamers throughout the W.N.B.A. and different skilled athletes have campaigned fiercely for her freedom. In Might, the U.S. State Division mentioned that it had decided that Griner was “wrongfully detained” and that its officers would work to free her. Specialists have mentioned a prisoner swap is the almost certainly path for Griner’s launch; the White Home not too long ago 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 night time, they have been greeted by Connecticut Solar dancers and area workers members carrying “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 a number of 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 carrying Mercury colours. She was carrying a purple T-shirt that featured Griner’s identify 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 once they’re not enjoying,” White mentioned, including that her pals 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 like her as a participant, and it’s only a unhappy scenario,” White mentioned, wiping tears from her eyes. She added: “She doesn’t have to be there. When she comes house, she doesn’t want to return. I feel none of our gamers ought to go over there.”
Many W.N.B.A. gamers go abroad in the course of the low season to play for worldwide groups to complement their revenue. Griner was proven holding up an image of her UMMC Yekaterinburg crew picture from behind bars on Thursday.
Amongst these within the image have been Jonquel Jones, the Solar ahead who received the W.N.B.A.’s Most Beneficial 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 along with her to assist with restoration from ache and accidents, 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 beloved 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 one among 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 tough; the second of solidarity made her much more emotional.
“It was like, ‘Dang, we did that, and now I bought 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 the most effective that you are able to do and never take the second without any consideration, figuring out that that is the place she would wish 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 each side, the numbers seemingly didn’t matter.
“We’ll get up tomorrow, and B.G. will nonetheless be in a Russian jail,” Nygaard mentioned. “It’s day 169 or one thing tomorrow, and the clock continues, and we simply need her to come back house.”