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Brittney Griner’s absence looms over Team USA training camp

The U.S. women's basketball team is practicing in Minneapolis. (Eric Gay/AP)

MINNEAPOLIS — As the U.S. women’s national basketball team holds training camp this week in conjunction with the NCAA women’s Final Four, the absence of two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner looms large.

Griner has been detained in Russia since mid-February after being arrested at Sheremetyevo Airport near Moscow for allegedly having vape cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage. That could result in a 10-year prison sentence.

“I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that anyone even remotely close to her or knows her or has played with her before doesn’t feel it,” said Kelsey Plum, who won Olympic gold with the three-on-three team. “It’s absolutely heartbreaking. I was just talking to [Breanna Stewart] the other day — Stewie’s like: ‘Every day, I just have a moment where I’m like, man, BG’s out on the other side, and there’s nothing [to do about it]. Can’t communicate with or anything like that.’

“So it’s been really hard, and I can’t imagine what her family [is going through].”

With a WNBA star detained, tensions brew over players going overseas

Griner plays for UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason and was returning to Russia when she was arrested Feb. 17. Russian state news agency TASS recently reported that her detention was extended until May 19. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine added another wrinkle to the situation; relations between the United States and Russia are particularly strained, with President Biden recently saying Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power.” U.S. and WNBA officials — and Griner’s family — have been reluctant to comment on Griner’s situation in hope of keeping it from becoming a celebrity-political cause, which could make it more difficult to obtain her release.

That has led to a delicate balance between people not wanting to speak publicly and others who feel the silence means Griner is not receiving enough support.

WNBA star Brittney Griner's detention in Russia for the alleged possession of vape cartridges containing hash oil has been extended until May 19. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters/Reuters)

The WNBA regular season begins May 6.

A large number of WNBA players spend the offseason playing overseas to supplement their salaries, but some are wondering whether the risk is worth it in the wake of Griner’s detention. Aerial Powers used to play overseas but has stopped in the past few years.

“I’m guessing that some of them will be a little nervous,” Powers said. “Even when the news came out that people that were in her cell were also Americans, the first thing I thought was, ‘Dang, I wonder if their family even knew they were in there?’ ”

Olympic gold medalist and Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins was playing in Ukraine this offseason before the Russian invasion. The team played in Bulgaria for a week and then in Turkey for another before the squad was disbanded. Atkins called Griner’s situation “scary” and said it makes her consider additional factors moving forward.

Opinion: Why I’m so concerned for WNBA star Brittney Griner

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said during a March 23 news conference that a U.S. Embassy official was granted a visit with Griner and that she “is doing as well as can be expected.”

“I’m just praying for her safety and her sanity, really,” Atkins said. “She’s just such a good human, man. BG’s such a dope person. I’m just [waiting] for her to return home, to see her smile, her charisma, just her being her. So I hope this experience doesn’t change who she is as a person.”

Atkins spent about four months in Ukraine and was hesitant to speak deeply about the war. She pointed out that her situation and experience differed from those of teammates and others who live in the besieged country.

“The Ukraine that I know and the Ukraine that’s being hurt and hatred toward today is not what I know,” Atkins said. “It’s not really my story to tell because I got to come home to my family. I have teammates that still don’t have a home. I have teammates that are living with friends. I have teammates that can never go back to their home.”

The situation again put the spotlight on WNBA salaries. The most recent collective bargaining agreement made more money available to players, but a disparity remains between what players earn domestically and what they can earn overseas.

“The league has been working toward supplementing that difference, but it doesn’t happen overnight,” Plum said.

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