Griner’s absence hits team’s emotions as season starts

Sports

PHOENIX, ARIZONA – OCTOBER 13: Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury celebrates with fans following Game Two of the 2021 WNBA Finals at Footprint Center on October 13, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Mercury defeated the Sky 91-86 in overtime. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(NewsNation) —The WNBA will begin its twenty-sixth season this weekend with several intriguing storylines, including the potential retirement of Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles, the return of Becky Hammon as a coach and the absence of Brittney Griner.

There is no bigger headline engulfing the league than Griner.

The Mercury’s All-Star center remains in Russia after being detained following her arrival at a Moscow airport on Feb. 17. Russian authorities said a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges that allegedly contained oil derived from cannabis, an offense that could carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. Griner’s status has been changed to “wrongfully detained” and she has a hearing scheduled for May 19.

But Griner’s presence will be felt even in her absence.

The league plans to honor Griner and keep her ongoing situation front and center with a floor decal that will feature her initials along with her number 42. It will appear on the home court of all 12 teams starting with Friday’s season openers. The regular season ends Aug. 14.

Griner’s teammate Skylar Diggins-Smith said Griner’s ordeal was taking an emotional toll on the team.

“It’s hard. And it sucks when you guys keep asking us because it’s emotional to deal with,” Diggins-Smith. “It’s triggering. But we love our sister. We miss our sister. We’re going to continue to play in her honor until she gets back,”

The State Department will be handling Griner’s case, said department spokesperson Ned Price.

“Her case will now be handled and is now handled by Ambassador Roger Carstens, our special presidential envoy for hostage affairs,” Price said. “Those efforts to secure their release are ongoing, just as our efforts to secure the release of Americans who are detained around the world.”

Former UN Ambassador and hostage negotiator Bill Richardson is also working on Griner’s case at the request of her family.

“Now we have two more that we have to get out,” Richardson said on NewsNation’s “Banfield” last week. “We have Paul Whelan another former marine who’s been wrongfully detained and Brittney Griner the basketball player who was picked up at an airport, so we’ve got more to do.”

Before Griner’s arrest, the Mercury made many moves in the offseason to put the team in contention to win another championship after losing to Chicago last season in the Finals. Phoenix added Tina Charles and Diamond DeShields to the roster to compliment Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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