Griner’s ordeal in Russia weighs on teammates’ minds


FILE – Phoenix Mercury’s Brittney Griner, left, watches practice with teammate Diana Taurasi Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Phoenix. Since arriving at Moscow airport in mid-February, Griner has been arrested by police after she reported finding vape cartridges allegedly containing cannabis oil in her luggage. Still in prison, she awaits trial next month on charges that could result in up to 10 years in prison. Taurasi also spent years playing in Russia for UMKC Yekaterinburg owner Shabtai Kalmanovich and spoke of the luxurious living conditions and lavish travel he would provide. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)


As the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury training facility was filled with laughter and the echo of bouncing basketballs during the team’s preseason training, there was no denying that the presence and spirit of the 6-foot-9 center Brittney Griner was missing.

“I definitely wake up in the middle of the night sometimes, worrying about blood sugar,” Mercury freshman coach Vanessa Nygaard said.

“BG” is one of the nicknames for Griner, who remains in Russia after being detained after arriving at a Moscow airport in mid-February. Russian authorities said a search of his luggage revealed vaping cartridges that allegedly contained cannabis-derived oil, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

“We just have to keep praying for her,” her Mercury teammate Sophie Cunningham said. “We hope she is well. That’s all we know, you know as much as we do. Nobody wants to be in his situation. We miss her like crazy.

The two-time Olympic gold medalist recently had her detention extended until May 19.

His arrest came at a time of heightened political tensions around Ukraine. Since then, Russia has invaded Ukraine and remains at war.

Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi, who also played in Russia, said Monday afternoon that the sensitive nature of Griner’s situation – which is being played out on a diplomatic stage rather than a basketball court – made things even worse. more difficult.

Taurasi and Cunningham want to show their support – verbal and otherwise – but realize their words carry weight. No one wants to say anything that could potentially complicate the situation.

“I spent 10 years there, so I know how things work,” Taurasi said. “It’s delicate.”

Griner’s ordeal continues as WNBA teams opened preseason camp Sunday and Monday. The WNBA is also taking a cautious approach in its support of Griner, although commissioner Kathy Engelbert said there will be a league-wide charity initiative led by the Mercury to support Griner’s philanthropic project, called BG’s. Heart and Sole Shoe Drive.

Cunningham stressed that his concerns were about Griner the person, not how the situation affected Mercury’s season.

“She’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 good as a human being. She has a big scene, a lot of people know her, so we want her to be good. she is on the ground.

“Everyone who loves her just wants her to be safe at home.”

Griner, one of several top WNBA players playing 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.

His detention in Russia highlighted why many top American female basketball players feel the need to go abroad to supplement their income. WNBA salaries have increased in recent years, but there are still plenty of financial incentives to play in other countries during the offseason.

In the early 2000s, top WNBA players could increase their earnings to around $125,000 by entering into a marketing deal with the league. Today, elite players can make around $500,000 with their salaries, bonuses and WNBA marketing contracts. By playing in Russia, however, they can earn an additional $1-1.5 million.

Nygaard hopes that these financial disparities will soon end.

“I see people all the time, they’re like, ‘Man, I can’t believe they’re not paying these WNBA players. I can’t believe they’re underpaid,’” Nygaard said. “Well, when was the last time you bought subscriptions? When was the last time you purchased gear for the WNBA?

“If people are serious about keeping our athletes here and making sure female athletes are paid a higher rate, then they need to put their money behind our league. Support us.

Griner is not the only American detained in Russia. Navy veteran Trevor Reed was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2020 for assaulting police officers in Moscow. And Michigan corporate security chief Paul Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage charges his family and the US government say are false. US officials have publicly called on Moscow to release them.


AP Basketball Writer Doug Feinberg contributed to this story.

Lynn A. Saleh