Sports-Column Repost #2

On the Mark: Griner Must Be Released Safe and Sound
By Mark Lorenzana

(Originally posted on MAY 13, 2022, in PNM)

It was a regular season game between the Los Angeles Sparks and the now-defunct Miami Sol of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), specifically the sixth season of the then-fledgling league. The date: July 30, 2002.

In that game, the home team was struggling against Miami at Staples Center in Los Angeles. Then, after a missed three-pointer from a Sol player, Sparks starting center and superstar Lisa Leslie — who was coming back on defense late in the play — found herself alone in the backcourt and the receiving end of an outlet pass from her teammate, power forward Latasha Byers, who had rebounded the miss.

The six-foot-five Leslie, now a WNBA Hall of Famer, proceeded to drive to the basket uncontested, took off, then slammed the ball one-handed. The Staples Center crowd erupted.

It was, after all, the first time in WNBA history that a player had actually dunked in a game.

Michael Cooper, former Los Angeles Lakers legend and the Sparks’ head coach at that time, remembers that play all those years ago, as Leslie was dribbling the ball, intent on jamming it home. “I was on the bench,” says Cooper. “And I said to myself that it was the right moment.”

“I did this dunk without thinking that I was the first one,” Leslie points out. “I had done it and the team reacted. We wanted to go for this match, but we lost it.”

The Sparks would indeed lose that game, but it’s safe to say that nobody even remembers the final score. Nobody would remember that game; everybody remembers the moment.

That was the first dunk ever by a WNBA player, but it wouldn’t be the last. Since then, six other players have thrown down dunks of their own. None of them would come close, however, to Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, who holds the most slams in WNBA history since her debut for the Mercury in 2013, the team that drafted her. Griner has dunked the ball 23 times: 17 times in the regular season, once in the playoffs and five times in the WNBA All-Star Game.

That Griner seems to dunk the ball with ease only underscores her supreme athletic ability. The six-foot-eight center, however, is much more than that. On offense, she has a wide array of moves that helps her score with ease: a dependable face-up jumper, a go-to jump hook in the paint that’s virtually unstoppable and reverse layups that she’s comfortable releasing from either hand. With her length, she’s also a defensive monster who averages close to three blocks a game for her career (she averaged four blocks a game in her third season, a WNBA record) and a tenacious rebounder (she grabbed nearly 10 rebounds a game last season for the Mercury, a career high).

Her current career averages of 17.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.8 blocks are impressive individual statistics for sure, but what’s important is that she has parlayed these stats into a WNBA championship in 2014 for her team, in only her second season, and the Phoenix Mercury’s third title overall. Griner has also helped the United States women’s basketball team win two Olympic gold medals (in 2016 in Río de Janeiro and in 2020 in Tokyo) and two FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup championships (in 2014 in Turkey and 2018 in Spain).

What’s curious, though, is why a player of Griner’s caliber — easily one the best centers in the league and in women’s basketball in general — needs to play in Russia during the offseason.

I was made aware of this situation long ago, not because of Griner, but through the WNBA player I idolize the most and who fans officially voted to be the greatest WNBA player of all time — Phoenix Mercury guard and Griner’s teammate Diana Taurasi. I come from a basketball-crazed nation, the Philippines, the home of the second-oldest basketball league in the world (second only to the National Basketball Association or NBA), the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA).

I grew up watching both the PBA and the NBA with my father, and when the WNBA came along, I was also instantly hooked. (Full disclosure: The past several years, however, since I moved here to Mexico City, I’ve only sporadically watched the WNBA and the PBA and even downgraded my NBA League Pass account so I could only follow my favorite team, the Dallas Mavericks. The boxing and mixed martial arts scene here in Mexico had taken its hold on me, and I’m also trying my best to be well versed in Formula One racing and fútbol. There are only so many sports you can try to cram — while actually enjoying them — into your free time.)

So I was surprised, many years ago, when I read in the news that Taurasi had been playing for Dynamo Moscow — a Russian women’s basketball club in the Russian Premier League — aside from her full-time job in the WNBA. Back then, even now, this was virtually unheard of in the NBA. Sure, there are a lot of American basketball players who decide to pack their bags and play in Europe or Asia (in China, Japan, Taiwan and even as “imports” in the Philippines), but mostly those are players who don’t make it into the NBA. Full-time NBA players are prohibited from playing for overseas leagues in the offseason.

But even if, for instance, the NBA did allow their players to moonlight as reinforcements in other leagues during the offseason, I suspect nobody would take the bait anyway. Mostly because, moneywise, NBA players are doing pretty well.

Consider this: With a 10-day contract in the NBA, a player can earn as much as $130,000. In contrast, in the 2020-2021 WNBA season, Griner’s salary for the entire year was $215,000. Serbian Nikola Jokić of the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, this year’s NBA regular-season MVP, is set to sign a supermax extension this summer to the tune of $273 million for five years — that’s an average of $54 million a year.

Griner and Taurasi, certified WNBA superstars, won’t earn as much as even the least-used NBA bench player or journeyman. If they want to earn more, and they do, they don’t have a choice but to play overseas during the offseason. Which they — and other WNBA players — have been doing for many years now.

In 2014, Griner had signed up with Russian basketball team UMMC Ekaterinburg, playing alongside Taurasi. She has renewed her contract with the Russian team every year thereafter. In Feb. 17 of this year, she was detained by the Russian Federal Customs Service at a Moscow airport for allegedly having in her possession vape cartridges with cannabis oil. The news only broke close to a month later, in March, in a report by the New York Times. The charges against her have a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

Shortly thereafter, two of Griner’s teammates on Team USA Basketball and fellow WNBA players had broken their silence on the superstar player’s imprisonment in Russia, in a story by the Associated Press.

“People are saying she’s six-foot-nine, she’s different. It’s really not about that,” said Minnesota Lynx player Angel McCoughtry. “It could have been any of us.”

“The big thing is the fact that we have to go over there. It was BG (Brittney Griner), but it could have been anybody,” said Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm, who earns over $1 million to play in Russia. “WNBA players need to be valued in their country and they won’t have to play overseas.”

There has been speculation that Griner could be the last basketball star to play for Russia, and a sports columnist from USA Today has even suggested outright that the best way WNBA players can support Griner is for them to no longer play in “authoritarian countries in the offseason,” adding that “that’s how we got here in the first place.”

But even though several of Griner’s colleagues have already spoken out, along with Phoenix Mercury fans who felt Griner’s absence during the opening night of the WNBA, as well as Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul who says everyone in Phoenix misses her, some in the sports community are questioning why there hasn’t been enough noise and outrage for Griner’s release from Russia.

Lisa Leslie, in an interview with I Am Athlete in March of this year, has said that people and players associated with the WNBA have been advised not to “make a bug fuss” about Griner’s status.

“What we were told, and again this is all sort of passed along through hearsay, but what we were told was to not make a big fuss about it so that they could not use her as a pawn, so to speak, in this situation in the (Russian) war (with Ukraine),” Leslie said.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. government said that it has reclassified Griner as “wrongfully detained” by Russia.

“The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is among the highest priorities of the U.S. government,” the State Department said. “The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner. The U.S. government will continue to undertake efforts to provide appropriate support to Ms. Griner.”

Here’s hoping that Brittney Griner is released soonest — safe and sound — to the loving arms of her family, friends and teammates.

 
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