Even from a Russian jail cell, Brittney Griner was the MVP of WNBA All-Star Weekend

Both All-Star squads played the second half wearing Brittney Griner’s No. 42 in solidarity.

Both All-Star squads played the second half wearing Brittney Griner’s No. 42 in solidarity.
Photo: Getty Images

CHICAGO — Some things are impossible to ignore.

With four circles placed on the court, for the first time in WNBA All-Star Game history, a 4-pointer was a real thing. And for much of the first quarter it seemed like every player on the court let one fly. And so they did. Over, and over, and over again. And as each member of the starting lineup took turns hoisting shots from the logos placed a few steps past half court, you couldn’t help but ponder one question:

Would Brittney Griner have tried one?

On Saturday, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson announced that he’s planning to travel to Russia in the coming weeks in hopes of finding a deal to bring her home, as she’s been in detention in Russia since mid-February. As hopeful as we can be about that upcoming trip, the WNBA and its players did all that they could to make sure that this weekend was about No. 42.

“We’re thinking of Brittney Griner at this time and she remains a huge priority for us. She continues to have our full support and we’re fully focused on getting her home safely and as soon as possible,” said league commissioner Cathy Engelbert during her pregame press conference.

The warmups had her name and number on the back. She was named an honorary starter. And as you looked around Wintrust Arena it was impossible to not see, hear, or feel something that reminded you of the elephant in the room — that one of the WNBA’s greatest players is in a foreign jail cell during a weekend in which the league is celebrating it’s best and brightest.

Despite the fun that was had throughout the weekend, there was a cloud hanging over the center of the women’s basketball world, a contrast to how sunny and beautiful the summer days were outside. After halftime, both teams came out to pose for a picture as they all donned Griner’s jersey for the second half of the game.

“When one of your own is obviously being wrongfully detained, wrong accused, and whatnot, it’s all hands on board,” said Becky Hammond before the game. Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife, sat courtside a few seats from Hammond as she made her All-Star Game debut as a head coach.

“It’s a family,” said Hammond. “Not only has the WNBA and its players, but also the NBA, bringing a national light to it only helps maybe put some pressure on the Russian government to do the right thing and let her go.

“It’s time for her to come back.”

Last week, Phoenix Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard said out loud what so many have been thinking.

“If it was LeBron, he’d be home, right?” she asked. “It’s a statement about the value of women. It’s a statement about the value of a Black person. It’s a statement about the value of a gay person. All of those things. We know it, and so that’s what hurts a little more.”

As I’ve written in the past, Black people have it hard. Black women have it harder. Black gay women have it the hardest. It’s tough being a triple minority in America, but especially in Russia.

Despite “how far we’ve come,” it’s impossible to discuss Griner’s situation without realizing that who she is plays a huge role in this. And during a weekend when the identities of the women in the WNBA were celebrated and uplifted, Griner’s absence was a reminder that equality is still so far from being the norm.

Sunday was also a reminder of how far that WNBA has come, as it keeps getting better as the game evolves. Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles were honored as two of the best that have ever done it, playing in their final All-Star game in their last season. The highlight of the game was Fowles’ dunk in transition during the second quarter. Las Vegas’ Kelsey Plum walked away with the MVP trophy, tying the record for most points scored in a single WNBA All-Star Game, matching Maya Moore’s 30 points from 2015 as Team Wilson, which featured Plum, defeated Team Stewart 134-112. Plum was voted a starter in her first All-Star Game, as she was one of nine former No. 1 overall picks that were featured in the game.

But in the end, the entire weekend was about who didn’t get a chance to take the floor. And while we hope and pray that Brittney Griner returns home sooner than later, this past weekend the basketball world made sure she received her flowers. 

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