CHICAGO — As she played in her final WNBA All-Star Game Sunday, Seattle guard Sue Bird wanted anyone watching to know where the hearts and minds of the league’s players were: with Phoenix center Brittney Griner. Every All-Star wore jerseys with Griner’s name and No. 42 for the second half of Sunday’s game at Wintrust Arena.
Team A’ja Wilson beat Team Breanna Stewart 134-112 in the home of the defending WNBA champion Chicago Sky. In the first half, the players wore All-Star jerseys with their own names. Then at halftime, they switched to the jerseys honoring Griner, who was named an honorary All-Star starter.
Griner, who was drafted No. 1 in 2013, has been detained in Russia since mid-February, when she was stopped at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport and accused of having vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. Griner pleaded guilty Thursday, telling a judge that she had packed them “inadvertently” while asking the court for mercy.
Bird, who is in her 19th WNBA season, played alongside Griner in the past two Olympics.
“We just wanted to make sure at some point that we were able to — on national television, obviously in front of a sold-out crowd — put Brittney’s name in the forefront,” said Bird, who will retire at season’s end. “Hopefully at some point she sees a picture or something, letting her know that she is always on our minds and in our hearts.
“It’s also a way to have other people see her name. Maybe someone turned on the TV and doesn’t know about the story and is like, ‘Oh why are they all wearing the same jersey number?’ In those moments it brings awareness, and it constantly reminds the Biden administration that we are supporting them and whatever they need to do to get Brittney home.”
Sources told ESPN earlier this week that Griner’s guilty plea was strategic: It could help facilitate a prisoner swap to bring Griner home, possibly along with fellow U.S. detainee Paul Whelan. According to ESPN’s T.J. Quinn, the guilty plea is not expected to end her trial in Khimki, Russia, anytime soon. Griner faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of large-scale transportation of drugs.
Griner, 31, competed in the All-Star Game last year in Las Vegas as part of Team USA, and then helped lead the Mercury to the WNBA Finals. Without her, Phoenix is currently in ninth place in the league at 10-14, just outside a playoff spot. The regular season ends Aug. 14.
The Mercury’s representative at the All-Star Game, guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, said that Griner’s absence affects her and the Mercury daily. Diggins-Smith was Griner’s teammate last year with Phoenix and also on the U.S. Olympic team. WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said before Sunday’s game that bringing Griner home was her “top priority.”
Winning All-Star captain Wilson, who also was Griner’s Olympic teammate last year, spoke after the game about how much Griner means to her peers.
“We’re the most unified league in the world,” said Wilson, who plays for the Las Vegas Aces. “She’s our sister, and at the end of the day, we’re going to do whatever we can to amplify the platform that we have make sure that everyone does what they need to do to make sure she gets home safely.
“Not a day goes by that I’m not thinking about Brittney Griner. So wearing her jersey and letting the world know that we’re not whole without her, I think that’s a statement in itself.”
Wilson, the 2020 MVP, was the leading All-Star vote-getter and finished with 10 points and five rebounds Sunday. Her Las Vegas teammate, guard Kelsey Plum, was the game’s MVP, scoring 30 points. Their Aces coach, Becky Hammon, led Team Wilson.
Hammon was an All-Star in her WNBA playing days and competed for Russia’s national team in the Olympics.
“Not only the WNBA and its players but also the NBA bringing a national light to [Griner’s situation] only helps,” said Hammon, in her first season as a WNBA head coach after eight years as an NBA assistant with San Antonio. “Maybe put some pressure on the Russian government to do the right thing and let her go. The more allies that we have, and the more people speaking up and fighting, the better.”