The 2022 FIBA World Cup will be the first major competition the US women’s basketball team will compete in without Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner since the 2012 Summer Olympics. The World Cup, which begins in Sydney on Wednesday, will be a poignant sign to the women’s basketball world that one of its most iconic stars of the past decade faces an uncertain future in a Russian prison.
Griner has been in jail since February, when she was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport with vape cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage. Griner was prescribed medicinal cannabis in the United States to relieve pain from chronic injuries, but it’s illegal in Russia. She was sentenced to nine years in prison in August and is now awaiting the possibility of a prisoner exchange between the US and Russia, along with fellow American Paul Whelan.
“She really has [been a stalwart of USA Basketball] and that’s what our players have been dealing with all season,” said US coach Cheryl Reeve of the Minnesota Lynx. “We think of her every day and we will honor her. Nobody will wear 15. So just find ways to continue to make sure she knows she’s being thought of and that our players are thinking of her on a daily basis.”
Griner, the No. 1 WNBA draft pick in 2013, has been an avid participant in USA National Basketball Team events since she was rostered for the 2014 World Championship, which she teamed with just weeks after winning the WNBA -The Mercury played the title. At last year’s Tokyo Olympics, Griner averaged 16.5 points, leading the USA with Las Vegas Aces’ A’ja Wilson, and 7.2 rebounds.
“She’s a huge part of our sisterhood,” said Seattle Storm guard Jewell Loyd, who was Griner’s US teammate in Tokyo. “Meeting you over the past few years has been great. She was just great for me and my family. And it’s just heartbreaking to know that she’s still over there and not here.
“So it’s a little extra motivation I think for everyone who steps on the pitch and knows them to play for them. Because she gave it her all every time she was part of a basketball team, and definitely USA Basketball.”
The Lynx’s Sylvia Fowles, Seattle’s Tina Charles and Griner are veteran centers who have long stood out in America’s inside game. But none of them will play at this World Cup.
Fowles, who turns 37 next month, has retired, while Charles, 33, appears to have ended her US basketball career. Fowles won gold medals at four Olympic Games and one World Championship, while Charles won three gold medals each. Griner, who turns 32 in October, has won two gold medals at each event.
“Obviously not having BG here is an irreplaceable void.”
Breanna Stewart on how the US women will miss Brittney Griner at the World Cup
These three players are all more traditional low-block threats. The 6-foot-9 griner has made 6 of 17 3-point attempts in her WNBA regular-season career, and the 6-6 Fowles made one attempt in 2010. The 3-pointer was a much bigger part of Charles’ 6-4 game since she made 174 in the regular season. Charles is the only one of the three to have made a 3-pointer at the Olympics or the World Championships; She had three Treys at the Tokyo Games.
Without that trio, 2022 WNBA MVP Wilson, 26, and Seattle forward Breanna Stewart, 28, are the most experienced Post players on the current US roster. The 6-5 Wilson just won the WNBA title with the Aces on Sunday and will arrive in Australia late. The 6-4 Stewart led the United States in rebounding (10.0 RPG) at the Tokyo Games, where she averaged 15.0 points.
Newcomer post players on the US team are 6-5 C/F Shakira Austin, 22, who just finished her rookie season with the Washington Mystics, and Connecticut Sun teammates, 6-3 forward Brionna Jones, 26, and 6-2 forward Alyssa Thomas, 30, who finished second this WNBA season.
They are all talented posts, but the United States will not be the same size or international experience without Fowles, Charles and Griner. And while Fowles and Charles weren’t expected to be part of that US team, Griner was. “Obviously not having BG here is an irreplaceable void,” Stewart said. “We really just hope she gets home as soon as possible, hope she’s doing as well as she can given the circumstances, but we know she’s such a big part of US basketball that as she dominates court and is a caring person off the court.
“It’s tough because you have those moments where it’s like, ‘She should be here, she would be here,’ and at the same time it’s bigger than basketball. Getting her home safe and sound and back with her family is the No. 1 priority.”
Aside from no American wearing Griner’s jersey number from past competitions, what will Team USA do to honor her? FIBA has some restrictions on political statements made during the event and Americans are aware of that. But Griner’s WNBA peers see this as a humanitarian issue involving their colleague and friend.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, met with President Biden Friday to discuss what is being done to try to release Griner.
“I think we’re going to continue to speak up, continue to reinforce her name and put as much pressure on the White House as we can,” Stewart said. “It was amazing that Cherelle was able to meet with President Biden and hopefully that means things continue to move forward to bring her home.
“But I think the best way to represent and honor them is to win the gold medal.”
ESPN’s Alexa Philippou contributed to this report.
https://www.espn.com/olympics/story/_/id/34632366/how-brittney-griner-absence-impacts-team-usa-2022-fiba-world-cup How Griner’s absence affects Team USA at 2022 FIBA World Cup