PHOENIX – The purple-and-orange throng snaked its way through the maze of barricades that fill downtown Phoenix these days, excitement growing with each step toward the Footprint Center.
Their voices, no longer drowned out by traffic and tractors, created the type of palpable buzz inside the arena that only a season opener can generate.
Underneath flowed a current of fear and sorrow for the one person missing.
Brittney Griner, a seven-time All-Star and key cog in two trips to the WNBA Finals, was not with the Phoenix Mercury for their opener against the Las Vegas Aces Friday night. As the Mercury and the rest of the WNBA moved forward into the season, Griner nears the three-month mark of her detention in Russia, with no timetable for her release.
“It's horrible what happened to her, knowing as well as some of us fans have gotten to know her,” said MJ Hill, a Mercury season-ticket holder since the WNBA's first season in 1997 who wore a “Free BG” t-shirt. “She's a kind and gentle person, and it's horrible to think about where she is and what she's going through.”
Griner was detained Feb. 17 after authorities at the Moscow airport said they found vape cartridges that allegedly contained oil derived from cannabis in her luggage, which could carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. The Biden administration determined Griner is being wrongfully detained. A hearing in a Russian court is set for May 19.
The WNBA and and U.S. officials have worked toward Griner's release, but have yet to make any headway with the Russian government.
“There is not a day that goes by that I’m not working on this in some way, talking with a variety of folks at the U.S. government, her agent, family, others who are experts in this area who can help us navigate a very complex and quite frankly, like I said at our draft, unimaginable situation," WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in Seattle.
The WNBA and Mercury were at first reticent to say anything in fear of exacerbating Griner's situation, but have become more vocal as her detention has spanned longer. Several players have spoken out about Griner's detention, including Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart, who has tweeted daily about her.
“BG is on my mind every day,” Stewart said before the Storm's game against the Minnesota Lynx Friday night. “You have these moments where you just can’t believe that she’s still in Russia wrongfully detained. Hoping we get her home. The WNBA isn’t the WNBA without BG.”
The WNBA is acknowledging Griner this season with a floor decal with “BG” and her No. 42 in all 12 arenas across the league as she continues to be detained.
Washington placed its decal on the blue sideline between the benches at the Mystics’ arena in the nation’s capital, placed next to a “Black Lives Matter” decal. Some Indiana Fever substitutes would sit on the ground near the “BG42” while waiting for a break in the action so they could enter the game.
“We all have concern for the situation, something that normally would be handled a lot quicker,” Washington coach Mike Thibault said. ”(It) certainly hasn’t been and I think everybody sees what’s happening. She’s in everybody’s thoughts.”
Mercury players wore black t-shirts with “We Are BG” in white letters during warmups and introductions. Guard Sophie Cunningham addressed the crowd before the game against Las Vegas.
“We're still hopeful she'll be back with us soon, but until then we'll be kicking butt and winning games,” she said.
Griner's absence seemed to take a toll on the Mercury once the game started, both emotionally and on the floor. Phoenix, which was missing two other key players to injuries, fell into a big early hole and lost 106-88.
“In the first half, we didn't give a lot of resistance,” Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith said. “We know we've got to get better. That's the first time all of us out there. They were more physical, they got to their spots, shared the basketball and we were lacking on both sides of the floor”
Chicago Sky season-ticket holder Montie Apostolos wore a white hoodie Friday night with “Free Britney Griner Now!” in front and “WOMENHOOPTOO MOVEMENT” in back. She also had a sign with “Free BG#42” with a ball going through the net.
“I’m concerned about her emotional well being,” said Apostolos, whose niece, Jewell Loyd, plays for the Seattle Storm. "I want her to know that we love her and that we’re pushing everyday as far as we can to make sure — keeping it out there, keeping it in front, that they still know — and hopefully, she’ll get the word. And hopefully, she’s gonna be freed.”
A 6-foot-9 center, Griner and WNBA career scoring leader Diana Taurasi have been the key players for a Mercury franchise that won the 2014 WNBA title and reached the final last season, losing to the Chicago Sky.
Griner is a six-time All-Star, won consecutive WNBA Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2014-15 and is the most prolific dunker in WNBA history. A two-time gold medalist, she had one of the best seasons of her nine-year WNBA career in 2021, leading the WNBA in blocked shots while finishing second in scoring and sixth in rebounding.
Griner again was expected to play a key role for the Mercury this season after the team bolstered its roster with the additions of Tina Charles and Diamond DeShields.
AP sports writers Howard Fendrich in Washington, D.C., Tim Booth in Seattle and Andrew Seligman in Chicago contributed to this report.
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