COLLEGE PARK, GEORGIA – With one of the more hyped rosters coming into the 2022 WNBA season, the 2-5 Phoenix Mercury looked to climb one game closer to .500 before digging an early-season hole too big to overcome later in the year against a young Atlanta Dream squad who suffered back-to-back losses to the Washington Mystics.
The team was welcomed to Atlanta’s third sellout of the season crowd at Gateway Arena, which features quite a few away-team fans, as well. The nationally televised game was advertised as featuring the league’s best young player, Rhyne Howard, against one of the all-time greats in Diana Taurasi. The game was meant to be a festive occasion, as Diamond DeShields scored a game-high 23 points in her hometown. However, there was one glaring omission from the event. Mercury’s star center, and one of the game’s greatest players ever, Brittney Griner was on day 101 of sitting in a Russian jail. Griner, who plays in Russia during the WNBA offs-season for $1 million a year, was arrested allegedly because of hashish oil in a vape pen in her luggage. The arrest happened just before Ukraine, an American ally, was invaded by Russia and relations between the countries grew tense. The White House officially declared Griner’s extended detention as wrongful.
As Griner’s 100th day detained came and went, the WNBA began to speak out more specifically. WNBPA President Nneka Ogwumike dedicated her post-game press time to advocate for the Biden administration to bring Griner home, for fans to sign the petition and for media members to keep reporting updates for the public. Although Phoenix center Briana Turner has posted consistently about Griner on Twitter, the entire roster has remained relatively tight-lipped about the situation all season.
“I mean that’s my sister, so I love her,” said Phoenix guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, who’s played with Griner the past two seasons. “It’s toughest for the people like me. Not toughest, it’s toughest on her family and the people who have to hear these things.”
Taurasi, who has played with Griner every season of her professional career, including the 2016 and 2021 Olympics together, and who also plays in Russia during the off-season, hasn’t publicly commented on Griner this season.
Media availability for the Mercury got canceled on days 99 and 100 of Griner’s detainment, and as Turner and DeShields arrived to talk to media after the game in Atlanta on May 29, the arena’s fire alarm went off, which terminated the interviews. A team representative who did speak, though, was head coach Vanessa Nygaard.
How do you all focus on basketball during a time like this?
I think that’s constantly the thought process of all of our players. Everyone’s aware of the situation. Their sister is in a Russian jail. We need the Biden administration to take it seriously to help bring this Black woman home. We’ve seen them bring back a couple of White men, and we want to see them bring BG home. That needs to be an important emphasis for them.