Team USA’s 87-72 opening game victory over Belgium at the Women’s Basketball World Cup was overshadowed by the absence of forward Brittany Griner, who has been sentenced to nine years in prison in Russia for possession of marijuana oil.
The USA players honored their friend and teammate by choosing not to wear his No. 15 shirt. Traditionally, Team USA wears numbers 4 through 15 but instead is commemorating a player who has been such a big part of the national team since his first participation in 2013.
“He’s on our mind every day, and we’ll respect him,” USA head coach Sherrill Reeve told ESPN. “No one wears 15. So he knows he’s being thought of and finding ways to make sure our players are thinking about him every day.”
Griner was at the heart of the US team’s dominance in the game. The 2013 WNBA No. 1 draft pick helped the United States win two Olympic gold medals and two World Cup gold medals.
“She’s a big part of our sisterhood,” said Jewel Lloyd, Griner’s Olympic teammate. “It’s been great getting to know him over the last few years. He has been nothing but amazing to me and my family. And it’s heartbreaking to know that he’s still there and he’s not here.”
The tournament begins a week after Griner’s wife, Cheryl Griner, met with US President Joe Biden to sue his wife as the US negotiates the release of WNBA star and former US Marine Paul Whelan.
Griner was arrested in February for carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in his luggage and pleaded guilty to drug charges, saying he accidentally packed the drugs in a hurry. His legal team in Russia appealed the nine-year sentence.
Griner’s teammates and other WNBA players also showed solidarity with the eight-time All-Star by boycotting games in Russia during the offseason.
Many WNBA players sign contracts with European teams to supplement their salaries in the offseason, including Russian teams that pay more than $1 million per season – far more than the players would earn by staying in the United States.
But this winter, players are refusing to sign contracts with Russian teams, opting instead to play for other clubs across Europe.
Brenna Stewart, who played with Griner on the national team and the same Russian club team, Yekaterinburg, admitted it wasn’t an easy decision.
“Honestly, I had a great time in Russia, but BG in particular is still unfairly detained there, nobody’s going there until he comes home,” said the Seattle Storm power forward. “I think we’re going to continue to talk, to get his name out there, to put as much pressure on the White House as we can.
“It was amazing that Cheryl was able to meet with President Biden and hopefully, that means that things are moving forward with getting her home.
“But I think the best way to represent him and honor him is to win a gold medal.”