The emotion was raw and real, the piercing pain in every word palpable. Phoenix Mercury star Skylar Diggins-Smith was explaining the devastation of playing a professional basketball game in Connecticut hours after seeing Brittney Griner, her teammate, someone she considers a sister, caged in a Russian courtroom and condemned to a nine-year prison sentence.
“It’s a helpless feeling. It’s heavy,” Diggins-Smith said Thursday in the bowels of Mohegan Sun Arena. “We can break down and cry in front of y’all, so you can see how we feel. I don’t know what else to say about it. This is our sister. This is not some random Jane off the street.
“It’s not anything we’re politicizing. It’s a human being, and this is our real-life friend, real-life sister, so imagine if your real-life friend or real-life sister was out there. I don’t expect everybody to get it.”
The groundswell of support for Griner, one of the greatest players in women’s basketball, from the WNBA sisterhood has been remarkable and admirable. But it has not come without its own emotional trauma, never was that more apparent than Thursday night’s 77-64 victory by the Connecticut Sun over Griner’s team.
Griner’s detention in Russia since Feb. 17 has brought great media attention to the WNBA, and the intentions are good. But it’s not the attention anyone in the league wants or would’ve wished for. So, the best way to support Griner’s cause is to support the women playing the sport she loves. Go to a game. Turn on your TV and watch the WNBA. Invest in their league.
The WNBA is not a sideshow or basketball background noise to the Griner saga. It’s a high-level professional league with talented performers who are persevering through a season unlike any other. Diggins-Smith was genuinely perturbed there were no basketball questions.
Players are trying to honor Griner not just with words and ubiquitous T-shirts (WE ARE BG), but with the product on the court.
“Yeah, you just got to go out there and do the best you can do, not taking anything for granted, knowing that this is where she would want to be,” said Sun center Jonquel Jones, the reigning WNBA MVP who played with Griner in Russia. “She would be in this game literally, so I just didn’t want to take anything for granted. But it was definitely tough to get up and get excited about the game for sure.”
Griner’s tortuous turn through the Russian legal system came to its inevitable conclusion Thursday when she received a nine-year sentence after pleading guilty to bringing cannabis oil into the country while she was playing for the European powerhouse team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, a club she has played for since 2015.
Negotiations between the United States, which has declared Griner “wrongfully detained,” and Russia for her release can now proceed in earnest. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov already have spoken, and Lavrov signaled Russia is ready to discuss a deal.
Pregame there was a 42-second silence of solidarity with the Mercury and Sun linking arms at center court and chants of “Bring her home!” from the crowd. Tons of staffers were wearing the black and orange BG shirts, including Sun coach Curt Miller.
The paradox of securing Griner’s release is that the more public agitation and support there is the more the Russian government feels it has a valuable piece to extract concessions. Her cause célèbre status both hurts and helps.
Hope replacing heartbreak would be a welcome change for WNBA players, especially her Mercury teammates. The team has foundered without Griner, entering Saturday in ninth place in the 12-team league, and the toll of rehashing her plight in every WNBA locale was apparent.
“We come out here, and we’re still supposed to play this [expletive] game,” said Diggins-Smith. “Nobody wanted to even play today. How are you supposed to approach the game and approach the court with a clear mind and the whole group is crying before the game?
“[It’s] because you try to honor her, and you try to come out and still play hard for her.”
The normalcy of basketball as a haven and refuge has been a casualty of this crisis. Scroll through the bios of WNBA players, and you’ll find that playing abroad is common as players supplement their income.
Commissioner Cathy Engelbert is working to create higher salaries. Top players can get marketing deals from the league worth as much as $250,000 and team marketing deals worth $100,000. Three players have marketing deals with the league and 29 have team marketing deals. The top WNBA base salary is $228,000.
Still, according to WNBA research, roughly 1 percent of corporate spending is dedicated to women’s sports and less than 5 percent of media coverage.
So, the way to support Griner is to support the WNBA.
The Russian team Griner played for was gold-plated, paying players more than $1 million. Jones, who played for UMMC Ekaterinburg the prior two seasons, said she never thought anything like Griner’s ordeal was possible.
“Never,” she said. “My experiences over there have been so good. Our team was top-notch. They treated us like the professionals that we are. We loved going over there because of that. We always felt safe there.”
For those who remain steadfast that Griner is to blame for her imprisonment, Jones said there was never any advice or guidance given by the Russian team. She said that it’s common for players to carry CBD.
“After the whole thing with BG we looked up stuff online, and we found out that CBD was even illegal in Russia,” Jones said. “That’s something that we all have in our bags that we use to help our bodies compete, and it has no effects on you any other way. It’s just trying to make your body feel good [in recovery]. There wasn’t anything the team told us. We just tried to do our thing and be respectful of what was going on over there.”
Players know that it easily could’ve been one of them in Griner’s shoes.
Sometimes it’s the supporters who need our support. That’s the case with the WNBA players Griner left behind.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.