October 3, 2022

UNCASSVILLE, Connecticut – Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard and her coaching staff stood at an empty Mohegan Sun Arena Thursday at a loss.

Mercury was scheduled to face the Connecticut Sun at 7 p.m. Her players were supposed to be on the field and play their regular games, but no one showed up.

Instead, the Mercury players returned to the locker room, glued to the TV screen as they watched teammate Britney Greiner’s conviction and conviction on drug charges and possession earlier that day in a Russian court thousands of miles away. “It was like you were waiting for a bomb to fall,” said Diamond Deshilds, a Mercury guard.

They watched with teary eyes as Greiner fought through her tears and begged a Russian court not to “end her life” for an “outright mistake.” Greiner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian criminal colony and fined 1 million rubles, or about 16 thousand dollars. The referee opens the door to Griner’s return to the United States through a prisoner exchange, but for the players, the news was still heartbreaking to hear.

“And we’re still supposed to play this game,” Mercury goalkeeper Skylar Diggins Smith said after the game, adding an expletive. “No one even wants to play today. How are we even supposed to handle the match and approach the field with a clear mind when the whole group is crying before the match?”

Nygaard said the team eventually went through a “version” of the shootout, but that nothing came naturally to the day or match. The most unusual moment of the night for Nygaard occurred moments before the alarm, as the lights dimmed and players, coaches and referees held their arms in solidarity for 42 seconds – matching Griner’s jersey number. Fans chanted “We are my life” and “Bring her home.”

“You tied my arms with a judgment, so you know you’ll never see that again,” said Nygaard, smiling.

Griner has been held in Russia since February 17 after customs officials said they found cannabis oil, a cannabis derivative, in Griner’s luggage at an airport near Moscow when she was flying into the country to play for UMMC Yekaterinburg, the women’s professional basketball team. Greiner said during her drug trial that cannabis oil, in her e-cigarette pen, was mistakenly filled in. Players across the WNBA and other professional athletes campaigned fiercely for her freedom. In May, the US State Department said it had determined that Greiner was “unjustly detained” and that its officials would work to secure her release. Experts said a prisoner exchange is the most likely path to Greiner’s release. The White House recently said it had made a “substantial” proposal.

Meanwhile, Griner’s teammates and fans continued their public campaign of support.

As fans filled the arena Thursday night, they were greeted by Connecticut Sun dancers and ring staff wearing “We Are BJ” T-shirts. Griner’s purple and orange No. 42 Mercury T-shirts filled the runways along with variations of clothing with messages calling for her freedom. Mercury players wore “We are BG” jerseys to the pre-game warm-up sessions, as did the Connecticut coaching staff and several Sun players. Sun Point protector Jasmine Thomas, who was injured outside, wore a hooded sweatshirt with Griner’s image on the front and number 42 on the back.

Sharon White, a Sun fan and season ticket holder since 2002, was among those to wear Mercury’s colors. She was wearing a purple shirt featuring Griner’s name and number, which she said she wore to every match regardless of the opponent.

“When I get home, I wash it and wear it again, even when they’re not playing,” White said, adding that her friends often make fun of her for wearing the T-shirt. White said she cried as she watched Greiner’s ruling on Thursday.

“It just hurts – I love her as a player, and it’s just such a sad situation,” White said, wiping tears from her eyes. She added, “She doesn’t need to be there. When she comes home, she doesn’t need to go back. I think none of our players should go there.”

Many WNBA players travel abroad during the recession to play on international teams to increase their income. Greiner appeared holding a photo of the UMMC Yekaterinburg team from behind bars on Thursday.

Among those pictured was Junkel Jones, the Sun forward who won the NBA Most Valuable Player award last season. Jones, like Greiner, played for the Russian team for several years.

Jones said she never expected something like Grenier’s arrest to happen. After Greiner’s arrest, Jones said she learned that even CBD oil, which she always carries with her to help recover from pain and injuries, is illegal in Russia.

“My experience there was very good,” Jones said. “Our team was top notch. They treated us like the pros we are. We loved going there because of it. So we always felt safe. We never really felt anything was going to happen. So, to see it happen to one of my teammates and be so close.” From him and realize it could have been me, that puts him in perspective.”

The excitement for Thursday’s game was tough, Jones said; The moment of solidarity made her even more emotional.

“It was like, ‘Dang, we did, now I have to play basketball; Jones said. “So you just have to get out there and do the best you can and don’t take the moment for granted, knowing that’s where you want to be.”

Mercury lost the game 77-64, with a score of 18-0 in the third and fourth quarters, making the match unattainable. Diggins was the game’s top scorer with 16 points, and Jones finished with 14 points. But for both sides, the numbers didn’t seem to matter.

“We will wake up tomorrow, and BG will remain in the Russian prison,” said Nygaard. “It’s day 169 or something tomorrow, and the clock goes on, and we just want her to go home.”

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