The injustice of playing without Brittney Griner, of living in freedom in the United States while their teammate is detained in Russia, has been felt by the Phoenix Mercury for months.
That feeling was naturally exacerbated on July 4, a holiday meant to celebrate independence as Griner remains in wrongful custody across the world. And then a letter from Griner to President Joe Biden was released, as the WNBA star described her terror at being held in Russia, appealing to the United States government to do something on behalf of her and the other detainees.
“I mean, it made me cry,” Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard said Tuesday. “Just hearing her words, talking about her father being a Vietnam vet, her new perspective on freedom, her wanting to be with her family and her teammates, her not knowing if she’ll ever be free again, on our day of freedom, hearing those words from such a beloved person.”
Griner’s trial for allegedly smuggling vape cartridges with hashish oil into Russia began Friday, July 1, 134 days after she was taken into custody at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow. Legal experts have referred to the proceedings as a show trial or a sham for many reasons, among them the fact that Russia has already offered to trade Griner for a Russian prisoner in America, thereby rendering her a hostage instead of an actual criminal defendant.
The details of Griner’s case, as revealed on the first day of her trial, lend further credence to the idea that the Russian government is holding her for political leverage. Griner is accused of having 0.7 grams of hashish oil; according to Yahoo News, “an individual possessing less than 6 grams of cannabis or two grams of hash can be fined or jailed for up to 15 days. Possessing any more than that becomes a more serious criminal offense.” Nevertheless, Griner has been detained more than four months for an amount that generally leads to a fine, a month or less in jail, and deportation.
Griner’s family and friends continue to advocate to the Biden administration on her behalf, hoping to make Griner’s release a higher priority. A recent failed phone call between Griner and her wife Cherelle has caused some to lose faith in the government’s response, given the government’s inability to do something as simple as providing staffing at the embassy phone line.
“We implore upon the White House, Biden administration, Vice President Kamala Harris, to do something, to show action that shows that she is high priority, because that’s not what’s happening,” WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike said last week. “That’s not what we’re seeing. Words can only go so far. We have to feel the action, and every day without BG is just every day of a reality we don’t want to be a part of. But we’re going to continue to raise awareness and bring attention to the White House and what needs to be done.”
The WNBA and its players continue to amplify Griner’s name, be it in the decals on their courts, the “We Are BG” pins and shirts they wear, or the mentioning of Griner on every TV broadcast. Ogwumike credited the NBA and its players union for publicizing Griner during the NBA Finals with the teams’ warm-up shirts. But the league and its fans are almost creating an echo chamber — they know what the situation is and what needs to be done, now more people need to get on board.
It’s a strange reality that the Russians have deemed Griner important enough to be a political prisoner — perhaps given her standing as a superstar on the best women’s basketball team in Russia, UMMC Ekaterinberg — but the United States hasn’t prioritized Griner enough to figure out a way to bring her home.
After the first day of the trial, Chicago Sky head coach James Wade, who has served as an assistant coach for Ekaterinberg, expressed disgust at how Griner has been failed to this point. He said that if Tom Brady were the one who had been detained, Brady would be back in the United States by now.
“It’s a statement about the value of women,” Nygaard said in response to Wade’s comments. “It’s a statement about the value of a black person, it’s a statement about the value of a gay person, all of those things, and we know it, and so that’s what hurts a little more.”
The state of the Phoenix Mercury as a basketball team is impossible to untangle from Brittney Griner’s detainment. So many internal struggles have befallen this team, including a bench spat between Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi, and then Diggins-Smith apparently calling Nygaard a clown on Twitter after Nygaard challenged the validity of an All-Star game without Taurasi when Diggins-Smith had been selected. There were locker room issues with Tina Charles, who eventually sought a divorce from the team and left the Phoenix frontcourt shorthanded.
Maybe these issues would still exist if Griner was around. The transition from Sandy Brondello to Nygaard could still be a coaching downgrade. Charles may never have been the right fit in a frontcourt that already had Griner and Brianna Turner. Taurasi and Diggins-Smith both have hot tempers, and they may have had disagreements anyway.
But maybe the Mercury are just on edge because they’re constantly thinking about Griner being held against her will, a punishment that doesn’t seem to fit the crime. People around the team have said that the vibe around the locker room just isn’t the same as what it was in recent years. Maybe Charles would have thrived next to her Olympic teammate, rather than a dramatically different center in Turner — Liz Cambage certainly wouldn’t have scored so easily against Phoenix had Griner been defending her Monday. Nygaard was hired to coach a team built around a 6’8 post behemoth, and she hasn’t had that opportunity.
“It looms, right, it looms,” Nygaard said. “It’s an undercurrent in everything we do. Their good friend, also a person that was by all accounts full of joy, and fun, and uplifting, and happy, and caring is not in our locker room with our group, and they’re missing her. So it’s an undercurrent of everything we do, and we just have to carry on.”
One of the many tragedies of Griner’s situation is that even if she does return soon, there’s no assurance that her personality or spirit — let alone, her game — will be what it once was. The player who brought joy to everyone she interacted with is now in consistent fear and terror. She was begging for her freedom on a day when more than 300 million people in the United States were celebrating theirs.
It’s been a season from hell for the Mercury, and their playoff berth or backcourt dynamics are hard to focus on when their teammate’s liberation is at stake. The victory that they are fighting for, the one outlined in the excerpts of Griner’s letter Monday, will have to come off the court.