David Brandt
Sports Reporter based in Phoenix
davidbrandtAPdbrandt@ap.org

Griner’s ordeal in Russia weighs on minds of teammates

April 19, 2022 GMT
FILE - Phoenix Mercury's Brittney Griner, left, watches practice with teammate Diana Taurasi on Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Phoenix. Since arriving a Moscow airport in mid-February, Griner has been detained by police after they reported finding vape cartridges allegedly containing cannabis oil in her luggage. Still in jail, she is awaiting trial next month on charges that could bring up to 10 years in prison. Taurasi also spent years playing in Russia for UMKC Ekaterinburg owner Shabtai Kalmanovich, and spoke of luxurious living conditions and the lavish trips he would provide. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)
FILE - Phoenix Mercury's Brittney Griner, left, watches practice with teammate Diana Taurasi on Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Phoenix. Since arriving a Moscow airport in mid-February, Griner has been detained by police after they reported finding vape cartridges allegedly containing cannabis oil in her luggage. Still in jail, she is awaiting trial next month on charges that could bring up to 10 years in prison. Taurasi also spent years playing in Russia for UMKC Ekaterinburg owner Shabtai Kalmanovich, and spoke of luxurious living conditions and the lavish trips he would provide. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)
FILE - Phoenix Mercury's Brittney Griner, left, watches practice with teammate Diana Taurasi on Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Phoenix. Since arriving a Moscow airport in mid-February, Griner has been detained by police after they reported finding vape cartridges allegedly containing cannabis oil in her luggage. Still in jail, she is awaiting trial next month on charges that could bring up to 10 years in prison. Taurasi also spent years playing in Russia for UMKC Ekaterinburg owner Shabtai Kalmanovich, and spoke of luxurious living conditions and the lavish trips he would provide. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)
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FILE - Phoenix Mercury's Brittney Griner, left, watches practice with teammate Diana Taurasi on Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Phoenix. Since arriving a Moscow airport in mid-February, Griner has been detained by police after they reported finding vape cartridges allegedly containing cannabis oil in her luggage. Still in jail, she is awaiting trial next month on charges that could bring up to 10 years in prison. Taurasi also spent years playing in Russia for UMKC Ekaterinburg owner Shabtai Kalmanovich, and spoke of luxurious living conditions and the lavish trips he would provide. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)
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FILE - Phoenix Mercury's Brittney Griner, left, watches practice with teammate Diana Taurasi on Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Phoenix. Since arriving a Moscow airport in mid-February, Griner has been detained by police after they reported finding vape cartridges allegedly containing cannabis oil in her luggage. Still in jail, she is awaiting trial next month on charges that could bring up to 10 years in prison. Taurasi also spent years playing in Russia for UMKC Ekaterinburg owner Shabtai Kalmanovich, and spoke of luxurious living conditions and the lavish trips he would provide. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)

PHOENIX (AP) — While the practice facility for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury was filled with laughter and the echoes of bouncing basketballs during the team’s preseason workout, there was no denying the presence and spirit of 6-foot-9 center Brittney Griner was missing.

“I definitely wake up in the middle of the night sometimes, worrying about BG,” first-year Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said.

“BG” is one of the nicknames for Griner, who remains in Russia after being detained following her arrival at a Moscow airport in mid-February. Russian authorities said a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges that allegedly contained oil derived from cannabis, which could carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

“We’ve just got to keep praying for her,” Mercury teammate Sophie Cunningham said. “We hope she’s well. That’s all we know, you guys know as much as we do. No one wants to be in her situation. We miss her like crazy.”

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The two-time Olympic gold medalist recently had her detention extended to May 19.

Her arrest came at a time of heightened political tensions over Ukraine. Since then, Russia has invaded Ukraine and remains at war.

Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi, who also has played in Russia, said Monday afternoon that the sensitive nature of Griner’s situation — being played out on a diplomatic stage rather than a basketball court — has made things even more difficult.

Taurasi and Cunningham want to show their support — verbal and otherwise — but realize their words carry weight. Nobody wants to say anything that could potentially complicate the situation.

“I spent 10 years there, so I know the way things work,” Taurasi said. “It’s delicate.”

Griner’s ordeal continues as WNBA teams opened preseason camp Sunday and Monday. The WNBA also is taking a cautious approach in its support of Griner, though Commissioner Kathy Engelbert said there will be a league-wide charity initiative spearheaded by the Mercury to support Griner’s philanthropic project, called BG’s Heart and Sole Shoe Drive.

Cunningham stressed her concerns are about Griner the person and not about how the situation affects the Mercury’s season.

“It’s BG, there’s no one like her in the whole world,” Cunningham said. “We definitely miss her, but it’s not even about basketball anymore. We just want her to be well as a human being. She has a big stage, a lot of people know her, so we want her to be on the court.

“Everyone who loves her just wants her to be home safe.”

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Griner, one of many top WNBA players who play in Russia during the league’s offseason, was returning to the country after the Russian League took a break for the FIBA World Cup qualifying tournament.

Her detainment in Russia has highlighted why many top U.S. women’s basketball players feel the need to go overseas to supplement their income. WNBA salaries have risen in recent years, but there’s still ample financial incentive to play in other countries during the offseason.

In the early 2000s, top WNBA players could boost their incomes to about $125,000 by entering a marketing deal with the league. Today, elite players can take home about $500,000 with their salaries, bonuses and WNBA marketing contracts. By playing in Russia, however, they can earn another $1 million to $1.5 million.

Nygaard hopes those financial disparities will soon come to an end.

“I see people all the time, they’re like ‘Man, I can’t believe they don’t pay those WNBA players. I can’t believe they’re underpaid,’” Nygaard said. “Well, when was the last time you bought season tickets? When is the last time you bought gear for WNBA?

“If people seriously care about keeping our athletes over here and making sure female athletes are paid at a higher rate, then they need to put their dollars behind our league. Support us.”

Griner is not the only American detained in Russia. Marine veteran Trevor Reed was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2020 on charges alleging that he assaulted police officers in Moscow. And Michigan corporate security executive Paul Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government have said are false. U.S. officials have publicly called for Moscow to release them.

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AP Basketball Writer Doug Feinberg contributed to this story.