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Brittney Griner’s Tearful WNBA Teammates Play On After Her Conviction

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UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Phoenix Mercury Coach Vanessa Nygaard and her coaching staff stood within the empty Mohegan Sun arena on Thursday, puzzled.

The Mercury were set to tackle the Connecticut Sun at 7 p.m., and her players were alleged to be on the court going through their normal pregame shoot-around, but nobody showed up.

As an alternative, the Mercury players were back within the locker room, glued to the tv screen watching their teammate Brittney Griner’s conviction and sentencing on drug smuggling and possession charges earlier that day in a Russian court hundreds of miles away. “It was such as you’re waiting for a bomb to drop,” Mercury guard Diamond DeShields said.

They watched with tear-filled eyes as Griner fought through her own tears and pleaded with a Russian court to not “end her life” for an “honest mistake.” Griner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony and fined 1 million rubles, or about $16,000. The sentence opens the door for Griner to be returned to the USA through a prisoner swap, but for the players, the news was still heartbreaking to listen to.

“And we’re still alleged to play this game,” Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith said after the sport, adding an expletive. “No person even desired to play today. How are we even alleged to approach the sport and approach the court with a transparent mind when the entire group is crying before the sport?”

Nygaard said the team had eventually undergone a “version” of the shoot-around, but nothing in regards to the day or game felt normal. Essentially the most atypical moment of the night for Nygaard happened moments before tipoff, because the lights dimmed and players, coaches and referees locked arms in solidarity for 42 seconds — matching the variety of Griner’s jersey. Fans chanted “We’re B.G.” and “Bring her home.”

“I even linked arms with a referee, so you already know you’re never going to see that again,” Nygaard said with a smile.

Griner has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17 after customs officials said they found hashish oil, a cannabis derivative, in Griner’s luggage at an airport near Moscow when she was traveling to the country to play for UMMC Yekaterinburg, an expert women’s basketball team. Griner said during her trial on drug charges that the hashish oil, in a vape pen, had been packed by mistake. Players across the W.N.B.A. and other skilled athletes have campaigned fiercely for her freedom. In May, the U.S. State Department said that it had determined that Griner was “wrongfully detained” and that its officials would work to free her. Experts have said a prisoner swap is the most certainly path for Griner’s release; the White House recently said it had made a “substantial” proposal.

Within the meantime, Griner’s teammates and fans have continued their public campaign of support.

As fans filled the sector on Thursday night, they were greeted by Connecticut Sun dancers and arena staff members wearing “We’re BG” T-shirts. Griner’s purple and orange No. 42 Mercury jerseys filled the stands together with variations of clothing with messages calling for her freedom. Mercury players donned the “We’re BG” shirts in pregame warm-ups, as did the Connecticut coaching staff and several other Sun players. Sun point guard Jasmine Thomas, who has been out injured, wore a hooded sweatshirt with an image of Griner on the front and her No. 42 on the back.

Sharon White, a Sun fan and a season-ticket holder since 2002, was amongst those wearing Mercury colours. She was wearing a purple T-shirt that featured Griner’s name and number, which she said she wears to each game whatever the opponent.

“Once I get home, I wash it and I wear it again, even once they’re not playing,” White said, adding that her friends often make fun of her for the way much she wears the shirt. White said she had cried as she watched Griner’s verdict on Thursday.

“It just hurts — I really like her as a player, and it’s just a tragic situation,” White said, wiping tears from her eyes. She added: “She doesn’t have to be there. When she comes home, she doesn’t need to return. I believe none of our players should go over there.”

Many W.N.B.A. players go overseas in the course of the off-season to play for international teams to complement their income. Griner was shown holding up an image of her UMMC Yekaterinburg team photo from behind bars on Thursday.

Amongst those in the image were Jonquel Jones, the Sun forward who won the W.N.B.A.’s Most Worthwhile Player Award last season. Jones, like Griner, has played for the Russian team for several years.

Jones said she had never expected something like Griner’s detention to occur. After Griner’s arrest, Jones said she had learned that even cannabidiol oil, which she all the time carries together with her to assist with recovery from pain and injuries, was illegal in Russia.

“My experiences over there have been so good,” Jones said. “Our team was top notch. They treated us just like the professionals we’re. We loved going over there due to that. So we just all the time felt protected. We never felt like anything would ever occur. So to see it occur to one in all my teammates and be so near it and understand that it could’ve been me, it puts it into perspective.”

Jones said getting excited for Thursday’s game had been difficult; the moment of solidarity made her much more emotional.

“It was like, ‘Dang, we did that, and now I got to go play basketball; my friend continues to be locked up overseas,’” Jones said. “So you only form of go on the market and do the most effective that you could do and never take the moment as a right, knowing that that is where she would need to be.”

The Mercury lost the sport, 77-64, with an 18-0 Sun run within the third and fourth quarters that put the sport out of reach. Diggins was the sport’s leading scorer, with 16 points, and Jones finished with 14. But for either side, the numbers seemingly didn’t matter.

“We’ll get up tomorrow, and B.G. will still be in a Russian jail,” Nygaard said. “It’s day 169 or something tomorrow, and the clock continues, and we just want her to come back home.”

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