WNBA star Brittney Griner holds a picture of her team as she stands inside a defendants' cage before a court hearing in Khimki, Russia
Los Angeles (AFP) - Phoenix Mercury and Connecticut Sun players linked arms in 42 seconds of silence before their game Thursday in solidarity with WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was sentenced earlier to nine years in prison in Russia.
The number honored Griner’s jersey number 42 and the gesture brought tears to the eyes of players from both teams and from fans at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, where the moment ended with chants of “Bring her home!”
Griner was convicted and sentenced in a Russian court earlier Thursday on charges of smuggling cannabis vape cartridges into the country.
The United States government has declared that Griner was wrongfully detained in Russia, and Sun player Brionna Jones said players from both teams wanted to show their support.
“We all have relationships with her, on the court, off the court,” Jones said. “So it was huge. It was an emotional moment for all of us out here. I think it was great that we came together and did that to show our unity – that everybody on this court, everybody in the league, is behind BG.”
Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard said before the game that watching their star center speak from a barred courtroom cell was devastating to the team – even though it was no surprise.
“We knew this was coming, we’ve been prepared for it,” Nygaard said, noting the low acquittal rates in Russian courts. “We weren’t hanging our hopes on the Russian justice system.
“I was really amazed by her courage and her strength as I was listening to it today,” Nygaard added. “She showed great strength and great humility.”
The verdict and sentence was widely condemned in the United States as “unjustified” and sparked urgent calls for the US government to bring Griner home.
WNBA star Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom in Khimki, Russia, where she was sentenced to nine years in prison on a drugs charge
“Today’s verdict and sentencing is unjustified and unfortunate, but not unexpected and Brittney Griner remains wrongfully detained,” said WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA commissioner Adam Silver in a joint statement.
“The WNBA and NBA’s commitment to her safe return has not wavered and it is our hope that we are near the end of this process of finally bringing BG home to the United States.”
The Mercury said in a statement that the verdict was “a sobering milestone in the 168-day nightmare being endured by our sister, BG.”
- ‘Every possible avenue’ -
While Griner stars for the Mercury, like many WNBA players, she competes in an overseas league as well.
The six-foot-nine (2.06-meter) center was returning to her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, from the United States when she was detained in February.
The Mercury said they were “heartbroken” for her, but had faith the administration of US President Joe Biden “will do what it takes to end her wrongful detention.”
In the wake of the verdict, Biden vowed to “pursue every possible avenue” to repatriate her.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week that Washington had made a “substantial proposal” to Moscow to free Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan, who was imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges.
White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said after the verdict the adminstration had again urged Russia to accept the offer.
Candy Desaulniers, a 60-year-old quality engineer who attended Thursday’s game, said she was disappointed but not surprised by the verdict but hoped that “this way they can start the process of a prisoner swap.
“I believe she will come home,” Desaulniers said.
Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard attends a press conference after her team's WNBA loss to the Connecticut Sun in a game on the same day that Mercury star Brittney Griner was convicted of a drugs charge in Russia and sentenced to prison
Griner’s agent, Lindsay Colas, said on Twitter that the sentence “goes to prove what we have known all along, that Brittney is being used as a political pawn.”
She praised the efforts of Biden and Blinken “to get a deal done swiftly to bring Brittney, Paul and all Americans home.”
Nygaard also praised the “tremendous” efforts of Biden and his administration in seeking the release of Griner and other Americans deemed wrongfully detained in Russia.
“What I do know is our government has really put itself behind BG and all other Americans – we’re learning a lot more about international wrongly detained Americans than we ever have,” she said.
“I know there are so many other families experiencing this feeling, too.”