By Alasdair Howorth, CNN
Team USA’s 87-72 opening game victory over Belgium at the Women’s Basketball World Cup was overshadowed by the absence of forward Brittney Griner, who has been sentenced to nine years in Russian jail for possessing cannabis oil.
The USA’s players honored their friend and teammate by electing to not wear her No. 15 shirt. Traditionally, Team USA wears the numbers four to 15 but instead is remembering a player who has been such a big part of the national side since her first involvement in 2013.
“She’s on our minds daily, and we’ll honor her,” US head coach Cheryl Reeve told ESPN. “No one will wear 15. So just finding ways to continue to make sure she knows that she’s being thought of and our players are thinking of her daily.”
Griner has been central to the US team’s dominance in the sport. The 2013 WNBA No. 1 draft pick has helped the US win two Olympic gold medals and two gold medals at the World Cup.
“She’s a big part of our sisterhood,” Griner’s Olympic teammate Jewell Lloyd said. “Getting to know her over the past couple years has been great. She has been nothing but amazing to me and my family. And it’s just heart-breaking to know that she’s still over there and she’s not here.”
The tournament start comes a week after Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, met with US President Joe Biden to plead her wife’s case as the US negotiates the release of the WNBA star and former US Marine Paul Whelan.
Griner was detained in February for carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage and pleaded guilty to drug charges, saying she accidentally packed the drugs in a hurry. Her 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 during the offseason.
Many WNBA players supplement their salaries in the offseason by signing with European teams, including Russian teams that reportedly pay upwards of $1 million per season — much more money than the players would make by staying in the US.
But this winter, players are refusing to sign with Russian teams, instead opting to play for other clubs across Europe.
Breanna Stewart, who has played with Griner both for the national team and on the same Russian club team, Yekaterinburg, admitted that it was not an easy decision.
“Honestly, my time in Russia has been wonderful, but especially with BG still wrongfully detained there, nobody’s going to go there until she’s home,” the Seattle Storm power forward said. “I think we’re going to continue to speak out, to continue to amplify her name, put pressure as much as we can on the White House.
“It was amazing that Cherelle was able to meet with President Biden, and hopefully, that means that things are continuing to move forward with getting her home.
“But I think the best way to represent her and honor her is going and winning the gold medal.”
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