Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison by a Moscow court after being convicted of drug trafficking after cannabis oil cartridges were found in her luggage at a Russian airport in February.
Since then, almost 170 days later, the WNBA star has been held in Moscow.
The sentence, although somewhat expected understandably hit the Phoenix Mercury hard, with many reacting angrily to what they consider a grave injustice.
A few hours after the verdict was announced on Thursday, her team faced the Connecticut Suns. As an emotional tribute, players from both teams formed a circle in the middle of the court for 42 seconds, honouring Griner‘s jersey, while fans chanted for her to be brought back to the United States.
“Nobody wanted to play,” said Skylar Diggins-Smith, one of the Mercury stars. “How are we supposed to approach this game if the whole team is crying before you play?
“We want to honour Brittney, to go out there and keep playing hard for her.
“It’s nothing we’re politicising. We’re talking about a human being, our friend, our sister in real life. I don’t expect everyone to care. But we really care.”
Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard also detailed how the team were waiting for a verdict together and how the players are all devastated after hearing of the decision.
“All the players were in the locker room watching the verdict as we were getting ready to do our shooting drills,” Nygaard stated.
“And then you just go out and play? Basketball doesn’t seem to be the most important thing today.
“None of our tough days are as tough as any of Brittney‘s days. We have her on our minds every day. But today is very, very difficult.”
WNBA and the NBA statement on Griner
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA commissioner Adam Silver criticised Griner‘s conviction in a statement.
“The verdict and sentence are unjustified and unfortunate, but not unexpected. She continues to be unjustly detained,” the statement read.
The two organisations joined the call made by US president Joe Biden, who demanded that Russia release Griner and pledged that his government would continue to work to secure her return to the country.
At the end of July, the Biden administration sent a proposal to Russia to secure the release of Griner and former marine Paul Whelan, through a prisoner exchange with Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence in the US.