July 31, 2023 

Brittney Griner misses Phoenix Mercury road trip to ‘focus on her mental health’

Griner's status for Phoenix's remaining games remains unclear

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner has had an incredible comeback season after missing all of 2022 because of what the U.S. government calls a wrongful detainment by Russia.

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But her return is something she called a “process” back in April for both physical and mental reasons. And as the Mercury took off for a two-game road trip to Chicago and Indiana, the team announced Griner would not join them on the trip “to focus on her mental health.”

“The Mercury fully support Brittney and we will continue to work together on a timeline for her return,” the team’s Saturday announcement said. Interim head coach Nikki Blue reiterated this support ahead of Sunday’s 104-85 loss to the Sky.

Griner has nearly completely returned to her previous level in her first season back, averaging 18.2 points and 6.7 rebounds per game in 20 games played this year. (In 2021, she was second in MVP voting when she averaged 20.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game). She was named an All-Star for the eighth time in her career and is likely going to be an All-WNBA player, perhaps even on the first team.

But the season has had some bumps off the court, like when Griner was verbally harassed in the Dallas Airport by an internet personality on the team’s first multi-city road trip, when they were going to Indiana. This led to Griner reportedly being given permission to fly charter for the rest of the season, something teams were set to only receive for the second leg of a road back-to-back, playoff games and the Commissioner’s Cup championship game. It still remains unclear if Griner’s permission to fly charter applies to just Griner, to the players only or to the entire Mercury traveling party.

Griner has left the team before due to mental health, doing so back in 2020 with nine games remaining in the WNBA’s bubble season. She did not return that season, but cited that departure as a key reason why she was able to return to her elite form in 2021.

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No indication has been made yet about Griner’s status for the remaining 15 games after Tuesday’s game in Indiana in the Mercury’s 2023 season — though Phoenix plays six of its next seven games at home, with four in a row starting on Thursday against Atlanta.

Of the remaining road trips Phoenix has, three are just for a single game to West Coast cities (Seattle on Aug. 13, Los Angeles on Aug. 23 and Las Vegas on Sept. 10) with one multi-city trip (Atlanta on Aug. 29, Connecticut on Aug. 31 and Minnesota on Sept. 3).

On the court, the Mercury will need Griner as often as possible if they want to cling to their narrow playoff hopes. After Sunday’s loss, Phoenix sits at 6-18, a half-game ahead of Seattle and Tuesday’s opponent Indiana (6-19 each) for last in the WNBA and 3.5 games behind Chicago (10-15) for the final playoff spot. The Mercury would have to leapfrog Los Angeles (9-16) to make the playoffs, too. Of note: in all four games Griner has missed this season, the Mercury have been blown out each time.

But Phoenix isn’t worrying Griner leaving the team in the short term, rather focusing on her being right mentally. To her longtime teammate Diana Taurasi, it’s a sign of the evolving conversation around mental health in sports.

“We really didn’t have that term (mental health) growing up,” Taurasi said. “So it’s obviously something that now — it’s in the forefront. There’s nothing more [important] than feeling like yourself.”

Backup center Megan Gustafson, who has emerged recently, will have to step up and fill Griner’s shoes. She did so more than adequately on Sunday, scoring 17 points and grabbing eight rebounds in 27 minutes of action.

“Megan has been BG’s backup and she’s actually done a really good job of stepping in,” Blue said. “I’m glad that she’s had a couple of games under her belt getting a lot of minutes and us running sets for her to be able to be successful. So I think she’s really embraced this role. She seems very comfortable out there. Her teammates have just had her back throughout this whole season and for her to be able to get these opportunities now, I’m excited for her.”

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Written by Jesse Morrison

Jesse Morrison covers the Phoenix Mercury for The Next. A native of Roanoke, Va., Jesse moved to Arizona in 2017 to attend the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, graduating in 2021 with a degree in sports journalism. Outside of The Next, Jesse works for Arizona Sports, co-hosting an Arizona State podcast, producing a radio show and writing for their website.

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