Brittney Griner’s Phoenix Mercury plays first game since Russian sentencing

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UNCASVILLE, Conn. – It started with a few isolated cries of “BG!” echoing throughout Mohegan Sun Arena in a 42-second moment of silence for Brittney Griner, the WNBA star sentenced to 9½ years in prison in Moscow on Thursday.

The length matched Griner’s jersey number. The No. 42 was absent from another game here as her team, the Phoenix Mercury, lost 77-64 to the Connecticut Sun.

Soon the scattered cries became a loud chant of “Bring her home!” repeated a dozen times, bursting into silence. In the stands, the supporters stick together; on center court, the teams did the same.

The 42 seconds were then over. But the fate of Griner, who has been detained in Russia since she was charged with illegally smuggling vape cartridges containing cannabis, remained a focus here.

The decision came as no surprise to legal analysts who have followed the case and are familiar with the Russian criminal justice system, but it still baffled people inside and outside the arena.

It was “a very emotional day for our whole team, but we know we don’t have our hopes in the Russian justice system,” Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard told reporters before the game. “We just want her to come home.”

Mercury star Skylar Diggins-Smith said reporters’ questions about “our real friend” languishing behind bars “only add to our trauma”. “Nobody even wanted to play today,” Diggins-Smith said.

In the stands, Ellyn Ruthstrom, of Melrose, Mass., said she and her partner, Kara Ammon, spoke about the particular risks Griner faces in Russia when they heard about the verdict earlier Thursday.

“We were just talking about the horror for a gay woman of color” to be imprisoned in Russia, Ruthstrom said. “He’s a political pawn.” Ammon and Ruthstrom praised the WNBA for keeping Griner’s predicament front and center.

As news of the sentencing spread, messages of “Free BG” echoed on Twitter and among sports stars.

Erica Wheeler from Atlanta Dream tweeted“My thoughts are with BG’s family and his wife! Today hits a different little man like it’s our sister! I can’t even imagine how his family feels! I pray that God protects his mind, but more importantly, keep fighting BG. …I have to take you home!

Lexie Brown, who plays for the Los Angeles Sparks, tweeted, “Anyone who returns to Russia to play is crazy.” She added, “It breaks my heart to see her right now.”

The NBA and WNBA commissioners have shared a joint statement. “Today’s verdict and sentencing are unwarranted and unfortunate but not unexpected and Brittney Griner remains wrongfully detained,” said Adam Silver and Cathy Engelbert. “The WNBA and NBA’s commitment to his safe return has not wavered and we hope we are close to the end of this process to finally bring BG back to the United States.”

Speaking on August 4, WNBA superstar Brittney Griner said she had no intention of breaking Russian law after a small amount of cannabis oil was found in her bags. (Video: The Washington Post)

Terri Carmichael Jackson, executive director of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, called the decision “unfair”. It’s a terrible blow. Whatever conversations [Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken] and its Russian counterpart must have, we are confident they have them at full deliberate speed. Because it’s time. It’s just time.

Elizabeth Rood, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, called Griner’s conviction and sentencing a “miscarriage of justice.” She spoke briefly, saying, “Secretary of State Blinken, President Biden’s National Security Team, and the entire U.S. government remain committed to bringing Ms. Griner home safely to her family and loved ones. his friends.”

Biden called for her immediate release, saying, “Today, U.S. citizen Brittney Griner was sentenced to a prison term that is yet another reminder of what the world already knew: Russia wrongfully detains Brittney. This is unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with his wife, relatives, friends and teammates.

Lindsay Kagawa Colas, Griner’s agent, called for a deal to be “done quickly” to free her and noted that American Paul Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence in Russia. He and Griner were mentioned as part of a prisoner exchange.

“Today’s sentencing of Brittney Griner was severe by Russian legal standards and proves what we have known all along, that Brittney is being used as a political pawn,” Colas said. “We appreciate and continue to support the efforts of [Biden and Blinken] to quickly strike a deal to bring Brittney, Paul and all Americans home. Bringing Brittney and Paul home is the only goal, and as such we must use every tool available. We have to stay focused and united. It’s a moment of compassion and a shared understanding that getting a deal to bring Americans home will be difficult, but it’s urgent and it’s the right thing to do.

“BG is an American. BG is an Olympian. BG is an ALL-STAR. BG is a daughter, a wife, a friend,” tweeted Carl Champion, a former ESPN host. “BG is an American. BG IS CAGED. BG is ours. Take her home.

The Reverend Al Sharpton, president and founder of the National Action Network, called Griner a “political pawn” and continued to seek permission to bring a delegation of clergy to visit Griner to assess his health.

“Brittney Griner’s nine-year prison sentence is a moral outrage and a legal atrocity in any court in the world. In most places, including the United States, what she pleaded guilty to and was charged with wouldn’t even have merited a misdemeanor. It is shameful and a dark day when world athletics is subject to politics and not due process,” said Sharpton.

“Let’s not forget that Brittney Griner not only entertained and won the hearts of many Americans, but for seven years she entertained and won the hearts of many Russians by playing basketball there. That’s why her coach of basketball and other players have come to testify for her. She and Paul Whelan are clearly pawns in a global political chess game that has nothing to do with them. They must be released immediately.

Initially, negotiations for Griner’s release were conducted quietly, but the passage of time led to more public calls for his release. Griner’s wife, Cherelle, has been increasingly outspoken in calling on Biden to take action, and the State Department reclassified Griner as “wrongfully detained” in May.

A two-time Olympic gold medalist and eternal star with the Mercury, Griner played for UMMC Yekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason and called Yekaterinburg her “second home” on Thursday. Moved by her relationship with her teammates and the growing popularity of the sport among young girls, she tearfully explained, “That’s why I kept coming back.

Now the focus is on negotiations to free Griner, which are complicated by a frosty relationship between the United States and Russia amid its invasion of Ukraine. Last week, Blinken spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and urged him to accept a deal involving Griner and Whelan.

Whelan, who was arrested in 2018 and convicted of espionage in 2020, said he was set up. The United States has not said whether it will offer Russian Viktor Bout, an arms dealer arrested during a US sting operation in Thailand in 2008, in exchange for their release.

Cindy Boren reported from Washington. Steven Burkholder reported from Connecticut.

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