The USA’s 87-72 win over Belgium in the first game of the Women’s Basketball World Cup was overshadowed by the absence of forward Brittney Griner, who has been sentenced to nine years in prison for possession of cannabis oil.
The USA players honored their friend and teammate by choosing not to wear his No. 15 jersey. Team USA traditionally wears numbers four through 15, but it’s recalling a player who has been such a big part of the team since he first took part in 2013.
“It’s on our mind every day, and we’re going to honor it,” U.S. coach Cheryl Reeve told ESPN. “Nobody’s going to wear 15. So finding ways to make sure he’s thinking and our players are thinking every day.”
Griner has dominated the US national team in the sport. The 2013 WNBA No. 1 draft pick has helped the U.S. win two Olympic gold medals and two World Cup gold medals.
“It’s a big part of our sisterhood,” said Griner’s Olympic teammate Jewell Lloyd. “Getting to know him over the last two years has been great. It has been nothing but amazing for me and my family. And it’s just heartbreaking to know that he’s still there and he’s not here.’
The start of the tournament comes a week after Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, met with US President Joe Biden to plead his wife’s case as the US negotiates the release of WNBA star and former US Marine Paul Whelan.
Griner was arrested in February for having vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in his luggage, and pleaded guilty to drug charges, saying he accidentally rushed the drugs. His legal team in Russia has appealed the nine-year sentence.
Griner’s teammates and other WNBA players have also shown solidarity with the eight-time All-Star by boycotting playing in Russia this offseason.
Many WNBA players supplement their offseason salaries by signing with European teams, including Russian teams that pay more than $1 million per season, far more money than the players would earn if they stayed in the United States.
But this winter, players are refusing to sign with Russian teams, instead opting to play for other clubs across Europe.
Breanna Stewart, who played with Griner both on the national team and on the same Russian club team in Yekaterinburg, admitted that it was not an easy decision.
“Honestly, my time in Russia has been wonderful, but mainly because BG is still in bad custody, nobody is going there until they get home,” said the Seattle Storm forward. “I think we’re going to continue to talk, to continue to raise his name, to put as much pressure on the White House as we can.
“It was amazing to meet President Cherelle Biden, and hopefully that means things are moving forward for her back home.
“But I think the best way to represent and honor him is to win a gold medal.”