WNBA star Nine years of Brittney Griner prison phrase Thursday in Russia on drug possession and smuggling charges hit Chicago Sky players close to home.
Sky players have referred to Griner as family since training camp and have frequently spoken out against what legal experts believe to be a political stance of Russia’s legal system.
While the ruling could bring Griner one step closer to returning to the United States through a possible prisoner swap, the Sky and members of the WNBA raised concerns about the eight-time All-Star.
The Griner case has been a focal point since his arrest on February 17. The WNBA and NBA anticipated Thursday’s verdict and released a joint statement from commissioners Cathy Engelbert and Adam Silver.
“Today’s verdict and sentence are unjustified and unfortunate, but not unexpected and Brittney Griner remains in wrongful detention,” the statement read. “The WNBA and NBA’s commitment to his safe return has not wavered and we look forward to being near the end of this process of finally bringing BG home to the United States.”
The Sky learned of the verdict during practice at Deerfield. Sky coach and general manager James Wade did not address the situation with the team as a whole, but called certain players, including Courtney Vandersloot, aside to discuss the matter.
“It’s been a little heartbreaking,” Vandersloot said with tears streaming down his face. “Knowing everything we know, we expected it, but that doesn’t make it any easier. This is our friend, our teammate, and we really want her to come home. I can’t imagine what she feels after hearing that.”
Heaven’s connection to Griner runs deeper than it appears on the surface.
Griner first played for UMMC Ekaterinburg, a Russian basketball team for which many WNBA players have played in the off-season, in 2014. Over the next few years, Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, Emma Meesseman and Wade joined her in various times during his tenure at UMMC.
Wade has made multiple appearances on CNN to discuss what Griner means to him and those close to him. Griner previously attended her son’s birthday parties and Wade met her when he was an assistant coach at UMMC. He has been outspoken about the urgency needed at every level to get Griner home safely.
He kept a cool demeanor Thursday when discussing Griner’s status in Russia.
“It’s disappointing and heartbreaking to say the least,” Wade said. “She’s going through this right now, but hopefully soon this is just part of what she had to go through to get her home sooner.”
Quigley echoed that sentiment after practice.
“That’s what they say…the faster you get the sentence, the faster it will be for them to trade. We hope that’s the case,” Quigley said. “You never know, but that’s what we hope for and we’re trying to stay positive. Keep fighting for her. We don’t want to lose hope for her.”
Griner’s situation has changed the way WNBA players view Russia as an off-season landing spot. With the WNBA season lasting only five months, American players are looking to overseas leagues to fill financial holes the WNBA can’t offer. WNBA greats Diana Taurasi, Breanna Stewart, Candace Parker and Sue Bird have all played for UMMC in their careers.
Now players like Vandersloot and Meesseman are looking for opportunities outside of Russia due to the heated political climate. Quigley has not announced whether he will continue his career after this season, but Vandersloot will play for Sopron Basket in Hungary. Meesseman has played for UMMC since 2016 and indicated that he will not return to the team.
“Like Brittney Griner, I competed for several years in Russia,” Meesseman wrote in a Instagram post with photos of her and Griner. “We won several championships together and 4 Euroleague titles. I have fond memories of that time in Yekaterinburg and I hope that, out of respect for the sanctity of sport, and in the hope that this situation will be resolved and Russia can once again become a destination for international players to come and compete, Russia will have mercy. and show compassion for BG, our friend.”
Reverend Al Sharpton, who held a press conference with Griner’s wifeCherelle, during the WNBA All-Star Weekend in July in Chicago, released a statement denouncing Griner’s sentence, calling it a “moral outrage” and a “legal outrage.”
“In most places, including the United States, what she pleaded guilty to and was charged with would not even have merited a misdemeanor,” Sharpton said in the statement. “It is a shameful and dark day when world athletics is subject to politics and not due process.”
Sharpton noted how Griner’s teammates and UMMC director Maxim Rybakov testified on his behalf. Sharpton also referred to Griner and Paul Whelen, whom the United States designated as “wrongly detained” on espionage charges, as “clear pawns in a global political chess game that has nothing to do with them.”
President Joe Biden also issued a statement calling Griner’s verdict “unacceptable.”
“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is yet another reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney,” Biden said. “It is unacceptable and I call on Russia to release her immediately so that she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends and teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every avenue possible to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as quickly as possible.”
Sky has five regular season games left and will continue to think of his friend.
After Thursday’s verdict, that’s all they can do.
“It’s scary, but I’m confident we’re doing everything we can,” Parker said. “That was the statement every time, ‘She has to be sentenced, she has to be sentenced.’ Okay, now let’s take her home.”
James Kay is a freelance reporter for the Chicago Tribune.