'That's our sister': WNBA players vow to keep Brittney Griner in spotlight

The day before she led the Las Vegas Aces to the franchise’s first-ever WNBA championship, two-time MVP and perennial All-Star A'ja Wilson made a promise related to the offseason and Olympic teammate Brittney Griner, who remains wrongfully detained in Russia after being convicted of drug possession and smuggling and sentenced to nine years.

As the sports world turns its attention to football season, Wilson vowed that the WNBA will not forget about Griner – and players won’t let Americans forget about her either.

"That’s our sister," Wilson said. "It’s something that shouldn’t be swept under the rug. The Black woman already gets swept under the rug enough – and I’ll be damned if they allow that to happen to BG."

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The FIBA Basketball World Cup tipped off Thursday in Sydney, Australia, with the U.S. defeating Belgium, 87-72, in the first game of pool play. Griner, a two-time Olympian, would almost certainly be on the American roster were she available. Breanna Stewart, who's played in multiple USA Basketball events with Griner, said the best way for America to represent Griner over the coming week "is to win the gold medal for her." U.S. coach Cheryl Reeve said Griner's absence "is on our minds every day, it's really heavy." To honor her, USA Basketball decided no other player will wear No. 15, Griner's jersey when she suits up for the red, white and blue.

After the World Cup concludes, many players will head to Europe for the winter basketball season to both supplement their WNBA income and get more games under their belt (the WNBA plays a short 36-game regular season schedule). Despite Griner's situation, dozens of American pros, including at least one woman, are headed to Russia to play.

Griner, one of the most dominant basketball players in the world, was on her way back into Russia in February – where she’s played each of the last nine winters – when she was detained at the Moscow airport and accused of carrying vape cartridges that contained cannabis oil in her luggage.

That was more than 200 days ago. Since then, Griner’s imprisonment has garnered international attention and been a constant talking point on both daily sports and political television shows. Her initials and jersey number "BG42" were painted on every WNBA court, her situation mentioned during the broadcast of every league game. During the WNBA’s All-Star game in Chicago, players all wore No. 42 jerseys in the second half to honor Griner, as her wife Cherelle sat courtside. The next week, a photo surfaced of Griner, behind bars, holding a picture of that All-Star tribute.

Brittney Griner holds up a photo of players from the WNBA All-Star Game wearing her number while sitting in a cage in a Russian court room prior to one of her hearings.

But with the WNBA season wrapped and most of America’s attention turning to football and the upcoming midterm elections, some are worried Griner’s situation could fade from the American consciousness.

Players, coaches and others in the larger women's basketball community are determined to not let that happen.

"We need to be Brittney’s voice right now," said South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, who led the Olympic team last summer and has repeatedly posted to social media about Griner's detainment. "We need to continue, in our own way, to shine a light on her … we need to do it for her family and her wife."

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the length of Griner’s detention is “totally unacceptable” but added that she understands “the geo-political complexity of the situation” and knows “we’ve got to be patient.” She stressed that getting Griner home both quickly and safely is everyone's top priority.

Engelbert gets a weekly update from the U.S. state department on the effort to bring Griner back and is in regular contact with Griner’s camp. Last week, Cherelle Griner met in person with President Joe Biden for the first time, telling CNN that talking with the president "allowed me to have confidence in what he’s doing." In a statement released late Friday, Cherelle said "I’ve felt every minute of the grueling seven months without her."

And while she expressed hopefulness at the prospect of her wife returning home, Cherelle also acknowledged to CNN that things are spiraling: Recent letters from Russia have revealed to Cherelle, "(Brittney’s) not well. She’s losing it."

Dominant on court, kind and giving off it

Players and other members of the women’s basketball community aren’t just committed to keeping Griner front of mind, but educating the public on who she is off the court, and humanizing her plight.

A physical, intimidating presence anytime she’s in a basketball jersey, Griner burst onto the basketball scene in 2010 as a freshman at Baylor. A shot-blocking sensation who thrilled crowds with her dunking ability, Griner led the Lady Bears to the 2012 NCAA title and a perfect 40-0 record. She is the only player in the history of NCAA, man or woman, to score 2,000 points and block 500 shots.

She’s continued her dominance in the pros. After being drafted No. 1 overall in 2013, Griner led Phoenix to the 2014 WNBA title. Since 2014 she’s played each winter with UMMC Ekaterinburg, winning three Russian National League titles and four Euroleague championships.

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley says Brittney Griner won't be forgotten. Griner is currently imprisoned in Russia.

But for as good a basketball player as she is, Griner is often happiest when she's on her skateboard or four-wheeler. She's an outdoor junkie. In 2020, ESPN told the story of how Griner saved the life of a man seriously injured in an ATV accident. That was the first time many outside the basketball world were exposed to Griner the person instead of just Griner the basketball player.

Though she is relatively private, Griner started to share more about her off-court life last winter, when she revealed she’d left the 2020 bubble season early because she needed a mental health break. She sought counseling, and has been open about the benefits of therapy and how it’s helped her game.

Since her arrest, even more of Griner’s off-court personality has been revealed to the wider public. For years she’s been quietly committed to giving back to the Phoenix community, founding BG’s Heart & Sole Shoe Drive in 2016. The nonprofit distributes free shoes to houseless people around Phoenix; this summer, every other WNBA team took up the cause, raising money for the Phoenix Rescue Mission and collecting nearly 7,000 pairs of shoes to share with community members in need.

The multidimensional gentle giant

That Griner is so committed to looking out for others is no surprise to anyone who knows her, according to Engelbert. The commissioner likes to describe the imposing, 6-foot-9 Griner as “a gentle giant,” and gushed about how Griner welcomed her to the league in 2020, helping “orient” Engelbert as she got to know players in the WNBA’s COVID bubble that summer.

"She’s multidimensional," Engelbert told USA TODAY Sports. "A lot of people see her just as a basketball player — a player who was dominant in college and now has this epic pro career. What they don’t see is the human side in all that, the community-mindedness (she has) and how she’s socially conscious and an advocate for all kinds of underrepresented groups. That’s Brittney."

Wilson, who played with Griner last summer during the Tokyo Olympics, called her "just a big kid." As a rookie in 2018, Wilson was struck by how down-to-earth Griner was, never putting on a show or a facade to impress people.

"BG was like, ‘Nah, I’m gonna eat my Flaming Hot Cheetos and I’m gonna drink my soda and I’m gonna keep it straight,’" Wilson recalled, laughing. “And that was such an eye-opening statement for me because I’m like, 'Oh my God, I can be normal — like I can eat my Chick-fil-A and have fun (like her).’"

"She's very comfortable in her skin," Staley added. "I love when people know who they are, don't shy away from that and just walk in their truth. It's so liberating to see."

Griner's supporters are well-aware of the hateful, snarky comments that have surfaced on social media since Griner's arrest, with some even going so far as to say Griner got what she deserved. The people saying those things, Staley told USA TODAY, don't have a clue.

"The stuff that people comment about Brittney, it’s really ignorant," Staley said. "If those people were half the person she is, if they were just a fraction of who she is as a person, our world would be much less divided … she is selfless, a giver and honestly, the most non-judgmental person I’ve ever met."

Wilson echoed that sentiment, saying Griner is always “a joy to be around,” constantly asking about her teammates’ friends and family. She wants people to know that’s the Griner players are fighting to bring home.

Griner is allowed to write letters, and sent one recently to Engelbert. The commissioner was moved by Griner’s words.

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"I think she’s really grateful we’re all thinking about her," Engelbert said. "I think she feels the love from here, and she was expressing that in the letter. It was inspiring."

Staley, who has also written to Griner, understands that people in Griner’s camp might need to be careful about who they talk to and when, as the U.S. government works behind the scenes to negotiate Griner’s release. But that doesn’t mean everyone else has to stay quiet.

"Everyone needs to understand that we’re not going to be silent," Staley said. "And I want Brittney to know that too — we’re here, and we’re going to keep fighting for you."

Follow Lindsay Schnell on Twitter at @Lindsay_Schnell.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: As WNBA season ends, players vow to keep Brittney Griner in spotlight