PHOENIX – When will Brittney Griner be set free?
That painful question hangs over the Phoenix Mercury, just as it is expected to hang over the coming WNBA season.
Last week, at a home preseason game pitting Phoenix against the Seattle Storm, hip-hop blared and gyrating dance squads revved up the crowd. When the teams took the court, the public-address system cracked with some of the most well-known players in women’s basketball. Sue Bird. Breanna Stewart. Tina Charles. They were joined by the Mercury’s 39-year-old virtuoso, Diana Taurasi, who was in street clothes for the preseason game but who plans to be ready when the regular season begins Friday.
Griner, the Mercury’s seven-time All-Star center, will not. Since February, she has been in custody after Russian custody officials at a Moscow area airport said they found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.
Her glaring absence struck an awkward note. On the court looming over the court in Phoenix, Griner’s image flashed along with his teammates’ promotional videos. Dozens of fans in the crowd wore Mercury jerseys emblazoned with his name and number, 42.
This was the first time Mercury had played since Griner was taken into Russian custody, yet there was no official acknowledgment of his absence by the players, no moment to silence the reckon with one of the league’s most beloved performers, is known to teammates and fans as BG
The silence is by design.
The WNBA is arguably the most progressive and outspoken American sports league. Its players have long taken public issues on issues such as race, gender equality, politics and reproductive rights. In the days after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, WNBA players boycotted games. During the early, cloistered days of the pandemic, they wore black shirts that said, “Say her name,” referring to Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman shot and killed by police in Louisville, Ky.
But with Griner detained in Russia, her whereabouts and specific details on how she is relaying away only to an inner circle of friends, family and advisers, the league is taking a stealthier approach.
Instead of raising a ruckus, the players are quiet.
Instead of clamoring for change, they keep their mouths shut.
Following are the leaders of Griner’s advisers, who have determined it best to let behind-the-scenes diplomacy work. With Griner facing up to 10 years in prison, they have argued the wisest move is to keep a low profile right now. At the moment, it makes sense, the reasoning goes, not to give President Vladimir V. Putin leverage in using Griner as a bargaining chip in negotiations while his military wages war against Ukraine.
“We’re absolutely outspoken about everything we can possibly do,” Mercury guard Kia Nurse, who is entering her fifth year at the WNBA, said at the team’s training facility last week. “But we’re also very good at admitting that we don’t know everything, and we’re not the experts on every topic.”
“We’re following the process,” said the nurse, before noting the week’s hopeful news. On Wednesday, the State Department announced that a former US Marine, Trevor R. Reed, had obtained his freedom in a prisoner swap after nearly three years of Russian detention.
Among the Mercury players, Reed’s return delivered a refreshing optimism that Griner could next.
But the deal for Reed also sparked renewed calls from activists outside her camp who wonder aloud if enough is being done to bring Griner home. Why, they ask, wasn’t she included in the swap? Why is everyone in the league remaining so circumspect? Shouldn’t loud and visible protests for Griner help pressure some action?
In Phoenix, more than a few fans told me they didn’t feel Griner’s case was getting enough attention. Or if an NBA star were in Russian custody – waiting for a hearing, as Griner is, and facing a possible lengthy prison sentence, as Griner is – his calls for release would be thunderous, insistent and nonstop.
“Having her missing, it feels like we’re missing a limb,” said Dacia Johnson, an ardent Mercury fan who wore a Griner jersey. “And the way the team and the league remain so quiet makes it worse. There was not a word about her at the beginning of this game. I ‘m really upset about that. “
What if Devin Booker was in Russian custody, she wondered, referencing the high-scoring guard for the Phoenix Suns?
“If this was a booker, and not a gay, 6-foot-9-inch black female? If this was someone from men’s sports, I think they would have something in his honor, even if it was a moment of silence. “
Johnson seemed as emotional about Griner as the player’s teammates, who looked stricken with sadness every time I brought up Griner’s name. Still, the Mercury players stuck to the script. They talk of how much they love BG how special she is. How she is like a member of their family, and constantly in their thoughts and prayers. Behind careful words was raw pain.
“That’s my sister, so I love her,” said Skylar Diggins-Smith, who won gold alongside Griner at last summer’s Olympics in Tokyo. Diggins-Smith’s straightforward words were weighted as her voice quaked with frustration and anguish in her eyes. She continued: “I think about her every day, and I can’t wait until she gets back here with us.”
We are in uncharted language.
As the season begins, the WNBA is still wrestling with ways to honor Griner that won’t hurt her. The league’s teams plan to expand to Griner’s Heart and Sole Charity, which gives shoes to those in need, beyond Phoenix. Other ideas are in consideration, too.
But fans like Johnson and his girlfriend, Autumn Gardner, want boldness from the league that has come to make it known. As the preseason game against the Storm wound its conclusion, a 4-point Mercury loss, Gardner didn’t just say Griner’s name. She yelled it. “BG!” She chanted, loud and insistent enough to reach down to the court. “BG! BG! BG! “