PHOENIX — When will Brittney Griner be set free?
That painful question hangs over the Phoenix Mercury, just as it is likely to hang over the coming W.N.B.A. season.
Last week, at a home preseason game pitting Phoenix against the Seattle Storm, hip-hop blared and gyrating dance squads revved up the crowd. When the teams took the court, the public-address system crackled with the names of some of the most well-known players in women’s basketball. Sue Bird. Breanna Stewart. Tina Charles. They were joined by the Mercury’s 39-year-old virtuoso, Diana Taurasi, who was in street clothes for the preseason game but who plans to be ready when the regular season begins Friday.
Griner, the Mercury’s seven-time All-Star center, will not. Since February, she has been in Russian custody after customs officials at a Moscow area airport said they found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.
Her glaring absence struck an awkward note. On the mammoth screen looming over the court in Phoenix, Griner’s image flashed alongside her teammates’ in promotional videos. Dozens of fans in the crowd wore Mercury jerseys emblazoned with her name and number, 42.
This was the first time the Mercury had played since Griner was taken into Russian custody, yet there was no official acknowledgment of her absence by the players, no moment of silence to reckon with the collective anguish for one of the league’s most beloved performers, who is known to teammates and fans as B.G.
The silence is by design.
The W.N.B.A. is perhaps the most progressive and outspoken American sports league. Its players have long taken public stands on issues such as race, gender equality, politics and reproductive rights. In the days after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, W.N.B.A. players boycotted games. During the early, cloistered days of the pandemic, they wore black shirts that said, “Say Her Name,” referring to Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman shot and killed by the police in Louisville, Ky.
But with Griner detained in Russia, her whereabouts and specific details on how she is faring relayed only to an inner circle of friends, family and advisers, the league is taking a stealthier approach.
Instead of raising a ruckus, the players are quiet.
Instead of clamoring for change, they keep their mouths shut.
They are following the lead of Griner’s advisers, who have determined it best to let behind-the-scenes diplomacy work. With Griner facing up to 10 years in prison, they have reasoned the wisest move is to keep a low profile right now. At the moment, it makes sense, the reasoning goes, not to give President Vladimir V. Putin leverage in using Griner as a bargaining chip in negotiations while his military wages war against Ukraine.
“We are absolutely outspoken about everything that we can possibly be,” Mercury guard Kia Nurse, who is entering her fifth year in the W.N.B.A., said at the team’s training facility last week. “But we are also very good at admitting that we don’t know everything, and we are not the experts on every topic.”
“We’re following the process,” Nurse said, before noting the week’s hopeful news. On Wednesday, the State Department announced that a former U.S. Marine, Trevor R. Reed, had gained his freedom in a prisoner swap after nearly three years of Russian detention.
Among the Mercury players, Reed’s return delivered a fresh dose of optimism that Griner could be next.
But the deal for Reed also sparked renewed calls from activists outside her camp who wonder aloud whether enough is being done to bring Griner home. Why, they ask, wasn’t she included in the swap? Why is everyone in the league remaining so circumspect? Wouldn’t loud and visible protests for Griner help pressure some action?
In Phoenix, more than a few fans told me they didn’t feel Griner’s case was getting enough attention. Or that if an N.B.A. star were in Russian custody — waiting for a hearing, as Griner is, and facing a possible lengthy prison sentence, as Griner is — the calls for his release would be thunderous, insistent and nonstop.
“Having her missing, it feels like we are missing a limb,” said Dacia Johnson, an ardent Mercury fan who wore a Griner jersey. “And the way the team and league remain so quiet makes it worse. There was not one word about her at the beginning of this game. I’m really upset about that.”
What if Devin Booker was in Russian custody, she wondered, referencing the high-scoring guard for the Phoenix Suns?
“If this was Booker, and not a gay, 6-foot-9-inch Black female? If this was someone from men’s sports, I think they would have had something in his honor, even if it was a moment of silence.”
Johnson seemed as emotional about Griner as the player’s teammates, who looked stricken with sadness every time I brought up Griner’s name. Still, the Mercury players stuck to the script. They spoke of how much they love B.G. How special she is. How she is like a member of their family, and constantly in their thoughts and prayers. Behind careful words was raw pain.
“That’s my sister, so I love her,” said Skylar Diggins-Smith, who won gold alongside Griner at last summer’s Olympics in Tokyo. Diggins-Smith’s straightforward words were weighted as her voice quaked with frustration and anguish shone in her eyes. She continued: “I think about her every day, and I can’t wait till she gets back here with us.”
We are in uncharted territory.
As the season begins, the W.N.B.A. is still wrestling with ways to honor Griner that won’t hurt her cause. The league’s teams plan to expand Griner’s Heart and Sole charity, which gives shoes to those in need, beyond Phoenix. Other ideas are in consideration, too.
But fans like Johnson and her girlfriend, Autumn Gardner, want boldness from the league that has come to be known for it. As the preseason game against the Storm wound toward its conclusion, a 4-point Mercury loss, Gardner did not just say Griner’s name. She yelled it. “B.G.!” she chanted, loud and insistent enough to reach down to the court. “B.G.! B.G.! B.G.!”