March 10, 2022
Column: Brittney Griner didn’t want to go overseas this season
How one quote echoes in the mind of our Phoenix Mercury reporter
PHOENIX — The last time I talked to Brittney Griner was on her birthday, but it was not an ideal one for her.
Her birthday is Oct. 18, which fell one day after the Mercury’s season-ending loss in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals. At the time, she admitted it had been a rough day, reliving the pain of the loss and going through the “highs and lows.”
And even when friends reached out to say Happy Birthday, it came with caveats about the loss in the Finals. It kept the pain from the loss fresh all throughout that day.
“I just have to keep reliving it, everyone’s talking about it,” Griner said.
Griner was doing exit interviews to wrap up her time with the Mercury before preparing to head to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia, the EuroLeague team she’s played for since 2014. She expressed hope about the core of the team’s future — saying she was “meshing really well now” with Diana Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Brianna Turner.
But when Danny Thompson of The 3 Point Conversion asked Griner if she had thought about this being her last season going overseas and not pulling the “double duty,” Griner said she absolutely had been thinking about that.
“It is getting harder and harder,” Griner said. “I’m not really looking forward to it, honestly —having to leave my family and go overseas again. Definitely going over this offseason, and then just taking it year-by-year.”
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As we sit here on March 10, I can’t help but keep thinking back to that exact quote over and over again. As U.S. Congressman Colin Allred told ESPN, Griner has now been detained in Russia since Feb. 17 after Russian customs officials say they found cartridges of hashish oil in her luggage.
ESPN’s story does a really sharp job of answering some of the basic questions about Griner’s situation and getting into some of the dozens of complicating factors all at play right now. I would highly recommend reading the breakdown from longtime women’s basketball reporter Mechelle Voepel and investigative reporter T.J. Quinn.
As someone who covered the Mercury from the first training camp to the final exit interview of 2021 (which was Griner’s), knowing the trepidation she expressed before going overseas only compounds all concerns about her well-being even further.
This is all happening after a 2020 bubble year where she left the Mercury partway through the bubble. She talked openly throughout 2021 about how much she needed that break both physically and mentally, starting from the first day she arrived back in Phoenix.
Perhaps no moment made it clearer about how much better she was feeling overall than her first dunk of 2021, which kicked off year where she set a league record with five dunks in the regular season and threw down the first dunk in the WNBA Finals ever.
Griner even said so after the game: “Even the year before the bubble, you could see it coming over on my face. It was just a lot. With everything going on in the world and personally, it was just a lot. I was not myself. I’m always happy, cracking jokes. A big kid — since Baylor, everybody’s seen that. I wasn’t myself, didn’t recognize myself.
“Now, looking in the mirror and just being happy every day. Coming to the gym and I’m there early every day. I’m just sitting there hours before practice. I’m in a really good place and that’s where I’m trying to stay.”
She stayed there all throughout 2021, finishing runner-up in the MVP voting after averaging 20.5 points and a career-high 9.5 rebounds per game. Her free-throw percentage was the highest it’s ever been (84.6%) and her field goal percentage was a near-career high (57.5%) despite shooting more shots outside the pain than ever before. (Oh, and she hit four 3-pointers, two more than she had her whole career before then).
She also grabbed the most defensive rebounds she’s ever had in the WNBA in a single season and averaged her fewest fouls per game ever, in both the regular season and the playoffs. Oh, and speaking of the playoffs, her per game averages: 35.1 minutes, 21.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.6 blocks in 11 games.
Even after the Mercury lost, it was clear that Griner was peaking. I asked in that exit interview on her birthday about how close she felt she was to being the player she’s always felt she could be.
Griner’s answer: “I got more. Yeah, a little bit of it, a little bit of that player. But we’re getting there. We’re getting there. When it all meshes, everything will fall in line that we expect in a year, in a Phoenix Mercury season.”
Griner wrapped up that night by going out to a dinner with her wife and some Mercury teammates, a dual celebration of her birthday and of the season they’d just put together. Surely, some were going to be moving on and going to different teams, but they would always have this season, these moments.
At the time, Griner expressed hope that she would be able to request a stay in the U.S. until November to get a little time to rest. Instead, four days later, Griner joined UMMC Ekaterinburg in Valencia, Spain for the FIBA Europe SuperCup Women, where she played 13 and a half minutes and scored four points in a 75-68 loss. It’s likely that Griner went to play because of the way contracts are structured to give bonuses for winning trophies like the SuperCup.
Roster management is more unusual in European basketball than in the U.S. and players are permitted breaks to head home, which is why Griner only played in five of UMMC’s 13 games. While the regular season was originally scheduled to end on Feb. 1, a game between UMMC Ekaterinburg and MBA Moscow was postponed to Feb. 23 “due to disruptions related to COVID-19,” per EuroLeague Women’s release.
Griner was assuredly returning to Russia for that game on Feb. 17, the day Congressman Allred told ESPN she was taken in. In the time since she’s been detained, Russia launched its illegal invasion of Ukraine, which has only isolated Russia from the rest of the world even more.
But for as much as those actions are justifiably warranted, given Russia’s criminal actions in Ukraine, it’s also made it a far trickier situation for gaining Griner’s release. And the tricky part is this: the more attention Griner is given, the more likely she becomes a political pawn.
I can’t help but think about how she’s somewhere she wasn’t sure she wanted to go in the first place.