- Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.
Members of the Phoenix Mercury and Connecticut Sun stood arm-in-arm in a circle at halfcourt before Thursday night’s WNBA game at Mohegan Sun Arena to observe “a 42-second moment of solidarity” for Mercury center Brittney Griner.
A Russian court sentenced Griner to nine years in prison earlier Thursday after she was found guilty of drug trafficking. She was arrested Feb. 17 for bringing cannabis into the country, where she has long competed during the WNBA’s off-season.
Many players on both teams wiped away tears during the emotional pregame ceremony, which called for the release of Griner and other Americans being detained in Russia.
As the players locked arms at halfcourt, the Sun’s public address announcer said the teams hoped “to recognize the gravity of the moment and collectively send [Griner] strength.”
“We’re inspired everyday by BG’s strength, and we are steadfastly committed to keeping her top of mind publicly until she is safely back on American soil,” the PA announcer said. “We invite all of you here tonight to stand and link arms in solidarity with us. Bringing Brittney and all other detainees home is the sole objective. We are and will remain focused and unified in bringing them home safely.”
Griner is missing her first WNBA season this year since being drafted by Phoenix with the No. 1 pick in 2013.
On Thursday morning, Mercury players were getting ready for their shootaround in Uncasville, Connecticut, when Griner’s verdict was announced. They were watching on their cellphones, Phoenix coach Vanessa Nygaard said.
“None of our tough days are as tough as any of the BG’s days, right?” Nygaard said before the game. “So we always keep that in mind, and we’ve carried this with us for the season every day. But today is really, really tough.
“We had the players in the locker room watching the verdict as we were preparing to do our shootaround. And then just to go out there and do basketball … basketball just doesn’t seem like the thing today. It just doesn’t seem super-important. Of course, we are prepared. The players are very professional, came out did what they needed to do, and we prepared for the game.
“But going back and listening to her words today, seeing how she’s treated in Russia, hearing her apologies … it’s just heartbreaking.”
Thursday’s verdict was expected, and the Mercury were prepared for it. Still, seeing Griner locked in a courtroom cell listening to the verdict deeply upset the Mercury and other players across the WNBA.
“I was really amazed by her courage and her strength as I was listening to it today,” Nygaard said. “I couldn’t imagine being in that situation, and she was so courageous. She showed great strength and great humility.”
It is expected Griner’s best chance at a quicker return to the United States is if a prisoner exchange is negotiated with Russia.
“We weren’t hanging our hopes on the Russian justice system,” Nygaard said. “We know that the Biden administration and all of our government officials are going to work hard to bring her home and that’s the path she’s going to come home.
“And so we’re confident that — though it’s hard to hear this news today and we know she’s wrongfully imprisoned; she’s been declared that by our government — we know she will be returning home with their hard work.”
Nygaard, a former WNBA player in her first season as Phoenix’s coach, said other detained Americans are a major concern, too, for the Mercury.
“I think we’ve seen tremendous response by the Biden administration and just even the offer of the trade already that’s occurred, there’s been so much groundswell of support for BG,” Nygaard said. “It’s an unusual situation for sure. What I do know is that our government has really put themselves behind BG and are working really hard to bring her and all other Americans [home].
“We’re learning a lot more about wrongly detained Americans than we ever have from this situation. And I know there are many other families experiencing this feeling, too, but we’re hopeful that soon this will be resolved.”
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