PHOENIX — While the practice facility for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury was filled with laughter and the echoes of bouncing basketballs during the team’s preseason workout, there was no denying the presence and spirit of 6-foot-9 center Brittney Griner was missing.
“I definitely wake up in the middle of the night sometimes, worrying about BG,” first-year Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said.
“BG” is one of the nicknames for Griner, who remains in Russia after being detained following her arrival at a Moscow airport in mid-February. Russian authorities said a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges that allegedly contained oil derived from cannabis, which could carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
“We’ve just got to keep praying for her,” Mercury teammate Sophie Cunningham said. “We hope she’s well. That’s all we know, you guys know as much as we do. No one wants to be in her situation. We miss her like crazy.”
The two-time Olympic gold medalist recently had her detention extended to May 19.
Her arrest came at a time of heightened political tensions over Ukraine. Since then, Russia has invaded Ukraine and remains at war.
Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi, who also has played in Russia, said Monday afternoon that the sensitive nature of Griner’s situation - being played out on a diplomatic stage rather than a basketball court - has made things even more difficult.
Taurasi and Cunningham want to show their support - verbal and otherwise - but realize their words carry weight. Nobody wants to say anything that could potentially complicate the situation.
“I spent 10 years there, so I know the way things work,” Taurasi said. “It’s delicate.”
Griner’s ordeal continues as WNBA teams opened preseason camp Sunday and Monday. The WNBA also is taking a cautious approach in its support of Griner, though Commissioner Kathy Engelbert said there will be a league-wide charity initiative spearheaded by the Mercury to support Griner’s philanthropic project, called BG’s Heart and Sole Shoe Drive.
Cunningham stressed her concerns are about Griner the person and not about how the situation affects the Mercury’s season.
“It’s BG, there’s no one like her in the whole world,” Cunningham said. “We definitely miss her, but it’s not even about basketball anymore. We just want her to be well as a human being. She has a big stage, a lot of people know her, so we want her to be on the court.
“Everyone who loves her just wants her to be home safe.”
Griner, one of many top WNBA players who play in Russia during the league’s offseason, was returning to the country after the Russian League took a break for the FIBA World Cup qualifying tournament.
Her detainment in Russia has highlighted why many top U.S. women’s basketball players feel the need to go overseas to supplement their income. WNBA salaries have risen in recent years, but there’s still ample financial incentive to play in other countries during the offseason.
In the early 2000s, top WNBA players could boost their incomes to about $125,000 by entering a marketing deal with the league. Today, elite players can take home about $500,000 with their salaries, bonuses and WNBA marketing contracts. By playing in Russia, however, they can earn another $1 million to $1.5 million.
Nygaard hopes those financial disparities will soon come to an end.
“I see people all the time, they’re like ‘Man, I can’t believe they don’t pay those WNBA players. I can’t believe they’re underpaid,’” Nygaard said. “Well, when was the last time you bought season tickets? When is the last time you bought gear for WNBA?
“If people seriously care about keeping our athletes over here and making sure female athletes are paid at a higher rate, then they need to put their dollars behind our league. Support us.”
Players say the Russian teams try to make them as comfortable as possible, including sometimes providing drivers and translators. The clubs also give players extra days off during breaks, knowing they have longer travel back to the U.S., if they go home.
Apartments provided by the teams are comparable with what the players are accustomed to in the WNBA, including Western-style kitchens and laundry facilities, and they also have access to streaming services and video calls.
Connecticut Sun guard Natisha Hiedeman, who spent this past season in Russia before returning to home in March, said her daily routine consisted of going to the gym and returning home. The only other place she went was the grocery store.
“It’s just challenging going out when you can’t communicate. Everything is 10 times harder,” she said. “I stayed in the house. I was fortunate that I had my dog out there, (to) do stuff with him.”
Griner is not the only American detained in Russia. Marine veteran Trevor Reed was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2020 on charges alleging that he assaulted police officers in Moscow. And Michigan corporate security executive Paul Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government have said are false. U.S. officials have publicly called for Moscow to release them.
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