CHICAGO — There were dozens of Brittney Griners who took the Wintrust Arena court on Sunday morning for the 2022 WNBA All-Star festivities.
“If it’s one of us, it’s all of us,” WNBA Players Association (WNBPA) president Nneka Ogwumike said Friday night on the orange carpet.
And in the second half of the game, it was all of them. Players from both teams came out of the locker rooms with new jerseys that featured Griner’s name and No. 42 on them. They started the game with warm-up T-shirts featuring the like, but played the first half with their own jerseys.
“That was our way of honoring her,” WNBPA vice president Sue Bird said after Team Wilson’s victory. “Hopefully, at some point, she sees a picture or something and letting her know that she is always on our minds and on our hearts. But it’s also a way to have other people see her name. Maybe someone turns on the TV and doesn’t ‘t know about the story and is like, ‘Oh, why are you all wearing the same jersey number?’ And in those moments it brings awareness, and what that does is it constantly reminds the Biden administration that we’re supporting them, and whatever they need to do to get Brittney home, we’re behind that.”
Griner’s presence and name were spoken throughout the weekend in Chicago, from a news conference with Al Sharpton to players uplifting her name to even Chance the Rapper wearing her Phoenix Mercury jersey during a concert aired publicly on AT&T’s social channels. Her wife, Cherelle Griner, sat courtside for the All-Star Game. It was all hard to miss during one of the handful of nationally televised contests the WNBA has this season.
“This is a perfect time,” Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale said ahead of the competition on Saturday at a pop-up court at McCormick Place. “ESPN, ABC, we’re on prime time, so any time we can say her name, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Griner was named an honorary All-Star starter while she has remained detained in Russia since February. It is her eighth selection and the Wintrust Arena crowd gave a standing ovation when her name was announced. The WNBA champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist pleaded guilty to a drug charge on Thursday in a Russian court, a move that was expected as part of the strategy to bring her home. It was the day before the festivities, which many players praised as some of the best they’ve seen, began in Chicago.
“I really want to just start and just reiterate, obviously, we’re thinking of Brittney Griner at this time,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in opening remarks to the media ahead of the game. “She remains a huge priority for us [and] continues to have our full support. Fully focused on getting her home safely and as soon as possible of course. She’s always with him, and our thoughts are with her this weekend.”
Her name and the “Bring BG home” design were seen on T-shirts and pins around the arena’s neighborhood throughout the weekend. WNBA event staff around the court wore the warm-ups so that Griner’s name faced out to nearly 10,000 in a sold-out arena.
“Obviously [she’s] on our minds,” Mercury teammate Skylar Diggins-Smith said. “That’s our priority in this league. We talk about ‘We are BG’ and what that means to us, just trying to embody her spirit, carry her legacy on and just stay alert for her as far as what we can do in our efforts to help bring her home and really get that message out there.”
Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon said she hopes the awareness on a national level will “maybe put some pressure on the Russian government to do the right thing and let her go.”
Griner was detained shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine in a war that is ongoing, stroking fears the star would become a political prisoner. Her status as a trailblazer in the LGBTQ+ community, as well as being a Black American, is seen by some as a reason she was arrested and in danger. Russian customs officials said she was detained for vape cartridges containing hashish oil that were allegedly found in her luggage. Her legal team has called it an “insignificant amount” after her guilty plea. She faces 10 years in prison.
The invasion prompted the WNBA and player agents to help the rest of the league’s players on Griner’s UMMC Ekaterinburg team leave Russia. The team has since been kicked out of EuroLeague play and its stars have already signed elsewhere, mainly in Turkey, for the 2022-23 WNBA offseason. Griner is one of the many who play overseas to offset lower salaries in the W that maxed out at $119,000 as recently as 2019.
That group includes Belgian Emma Meesseman, who played with Griner there for a number of years and said the name on the shirt is for others to keep her name top of mind. The players already do and are worried, she said.
“She’s a very strong person, but these circumstances, you just hope it doesn’t break her,” Meesseman said of Griner, who has been public about mental health in recent years. “I was very happy to hear from her in the letter and to read that she’s hanging in there.
“I can only hope it’s going to be over very fast, that we can see her, we can see she’s OK. It means a lot for us to think about her here basically every single day. It’s not just now in All-Star, it’s every single day.”
The WNBPA set up a news conference on Friday ahead of the orange carpet alongside Sharpton and Griner’s wife, Cherelle. The union has shown its power over the past few years and knows how to work collectively towards a goal. Updates on the number of days Griner has been detained are constant on players’ social profiles and Stewart has done it every day.
Stewart, who played with Griner at Yekaterinburg and has one of the largest individual platforms in the league, said the union has been able to step in, coordinate messaging and “be a major facilitator for us to use our voice.”
“We’re all in this fight together to bring her home and I think when you have, like Sue said earlier, those strength in numbers, it makes a bigger splash,” Stewart said. “And we get attention and we’re getting people’s attention and we need to continue to ask President Biden and the White House to bring her home.”
Outside of awareness, pressure and a cohesive message there isn’t much the league, players association or any fan can do. Griner’s trial will continue as is customary in Russia, even with a guilty plea. The players will continue to think about her daily, far past All-Star weekend and even a WNBA Finals if she is still not home. And that’s a very likely possibility, according to foreign policy experts.
“Not a day goes by that I’m not thinking about Brittney Griner,” Aja Wilson, named team captain for leading the fan vote, said. “And so wearing her jersey and letting the world know that we are not whole without her, I think that’s a statement in itself. When we’re playing on ABC and ESPN [we’re] showing that it’s real and understanding that we’re not going to stop until everyone understands how serious this really is.”