CHICAGO – Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles are playing in the WNBA All-Star Game for the last time. Candace Parker and Kahleah Copper are looking for some bragging rights. Some of the league’s biggest stars get to try for a 4-point shot.
And everyone is thinking about one person: Brittney Griner.
Griner’s continued detention in Russia is front and center as the WNBA holds one of its marquee events in Chicago for the first time. Bird and the rest of the All-Stars wore T-shirts with Griner's name and No. 42 for practice Saturday, and the league also plans to continue its push for Griner's release during Sunday's game at the home of the defending champion Sky.
“I think for all of us, we just want to always keep BG’s name at the forefront in everything we do,” Bird said. “Yeah, every now and then we’ll answer questions about All-Star and talk about the basketball, but you’re going to see her name on the back of all of our shirts, and so like I said, it doesn’t really shift. We want it to always be there.”
Griner, 31, pleaded guilty Thursday to drug possession charges in a case that could see her sentenced to up to 10 years in prison. That same day, Bird watched her fiancée, soccer star Megan Rapinoe, receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House.
Rapinoe had BG and a rose stitched on her jacket for the occasion, and Bird sported a “WE ARE BG" pin. Bird said she didn't get any “personal time” with President Joe Biden, but she said Rapinoe "has taken the opportunities in those moments when she’s been able to speak to the President to talk about BG, so I do know that.”
Griner was first detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February, when she was returning to play basketball in Russia. Police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage. Speaking through an interpreter, Griner told the court Thursday she had no intention of committing a crime and acted unintentionally because she had packed in a hurry. The trial was then adjourned until Thursday.
Griner’s guilty plea could be an effort by her and her advisers to expedite the court proceedings.
“Obviously she’s part of our family and our No. 1 priority is getting her home,” All-Star guard Arike Ogunbowale said. “She shouldn’t be there. She’s been there too long. So obviously we’re going to talk about her any chance we get.”
Griner’s detention comes at a low point in relations between the United States and Russia. The State Department’s designation of Griner as wrongfully detained put her case under the supervision of its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator.
Biden called Griner's wife, Cherelle, on Wednesday to assure her that he’s doing all he can to win Brittney's release as soon as possible. They spoke after Biden read a letter from Brittney Griner in which she said she feared she’d never return home.
“We talk about ‘We are BG’ and what that means to us,” All-Star guard Skylar Diggins-Smith said. “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.”
Griner is an honorary starter for her eighth All-Star selection. It's No. 13 for Bird and No. 8 for Fowles, two pillars of the WNBA who plan to retire after this season.
Bird will play alongside Seattle Storm teammate Breanna Stewart on Team Stewart, while Fowles joins longtime friend Parker and Las Vegas Aces star A'ja Wilson on Team Wilson. Parker and Courtney Vandersloot will go up against Copper and Emma Meesseman in a matchup of Sky teammates.
“I definitely want to beat them,” Copper said. “I’ve been talking trash to Candace all week, so definitely looking forward to winning.”
Copper is among a group of WNBA shooters who could take aim from a 4-point circle — one of three rule changes for the game. The shot clock has been trimmed to 20 seconds, and no free throws will be attempted until the final two minutes and overtime if necessary. Players will be credited with the maximum available points in free-throw situations before that time period.
The WNBA “might have created some monsters” with the 4-point shot, Diggins-Smith cracked.
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