Brittney Griner was everywhere on Sunday – before, during and after the WNBA All-Star Game.
Everywhere except where the best players in the league thought she should be – playing alongside them on the pitch.
A’ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart and the rest of the WNBA All-Stars wore Griner’s name and number 42 on the back of their jerseys for the second half of Team Wilson’s 134-112 victory over Team Stewart. It was another moment in the league’s continued push for Griner’s release from custody in Russia.
“BG is one of us. She’s our sister,” Wilson said, “and ultimately we’re going to do everything we can to amplify the platform that we have to make sure everyone is doing what they need to do to make sure she gets home safely.
Griner, 31, has been detained since February after police at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport said they found vaping cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. The eight-time All-Star pleaded guilty Thursday to drug possession charges that could carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
Griner was announced as an honorary all-star starter ahead of Sunday’s game, drawing cheers from the crowd of 9,572 at defending champion Sky’s home. The players lined up along the sideline to show off their Griner shirts before the start of the second half.
Wilson team guards Sabrina Ionescu and Courtney Vandersloot hugged Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife, before play resumed.
“We just wanted to make sure that at some point we could, on national television, obviously in front of a (large) crowd, put Brittney’s name front and center,” Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird said. “It was our way of honoring him.”
It was the last All-Star Game for Bird and Sylvia Fowles, two league stalwarts who plan to retire after this season. Fowles had the biggest highlight of the day, landing a steal and throwing a dunk for Team Wilson with 4:04 left in the first half.
“It was just for now,” Fowles said. “I didn’t really think about it.”
Bird received a huge ovation when she left with 2:10 remaining and greeted the cheers with a wave.
“That moment was really special,” Bird said.
Las Vegas aces guard Kelsey Plum was named MVP after scoring 30 points for Team Wilson in his first All-Star appearance. Sabrina Ionescu had 19 points, six assists and six rebounds, and Chicago Sky forward Candace Parker finished with 15 points and eight boards.
Plum tied the league’s All-Star Game scoring record. Maya Moore also scored 30 points in 2015.
“What a way to dispatch Syl and Sue,” Plum said. “I think for me, I just wanted to go out and have a lot of fun.”
Jonquel Jones, the reigning WNBA MVP who plays for the Connecticut Sun, had 29 points and 13 rebounds for Team Stewart. Jones also had the first 4-point shot of the game with 7:04 left in the first quarter.
“I practiced them yesterday and shot a lot during the warm-ups,” Jones said. “I felt comfortable and confident photographing them.”
It was the WNBA’s first All-Star Game in Chicago, and the league landed in the Windy City at perhaps its strongest position since it began play in 1997. Viewership is on the rise , some major business partners have signed, and a wave of up-and-coming young stars like Wilson, Ionescu and Plum are coming to the fore.
Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced teams in this year’s WNBA Finals will travel on charter flights, and the league is increasing its postseason bonus pools by nearly 50% to $500,000. Next season will be extended to 40 games, up from 36 this year, and Engelbert said the league has met with potential ownership groups for expansion teams.
“We continue to work very hard on transforming the business to improve the player experience,” Engelbert said.
Engelbert also does everything she can to help Griner and her family. Griner’s guilty plea may be an effort by him and his advisers to expedite the legal process.
“She remains a huge priority for us, continues to have our full support,” Engelbert said. “Fully focused on getting home safely and as soon as possible.”
Jay Cohen can be reached at https://twitter.com/jcohenap
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