CHICAGO — The arena erupted at the sight of Sylvia Fowles dunking in her last WNBA All-Star Game — played in the city where she began her career, no less. There was epic trash talking between teammates turned opponents for the day. Breanna Stewart even had her baby daughter sitting with her on the bench.
This was a day for the WNBA to celebrate itself, and revel everyone did. Yet for all the fun and laughter, it was the inescapable reminder of who wasn’t here — who hasn’t been here all season — that will be the lasting memory of this All-Star Game.
Brittney Griner was everywhere, in everyone’s thoughts, even as the eight-time All-Star remains imprisoned half the world away.
“BG is one of us. She’s our sister,” said A’ja Wilson, captain of the winning team Sunday. “We’re going to do whatever we can to amplify the platform we have to make sure everyone is doing what they need to do to make sure she gets home safely.”
RUSSIAN PRISON: What life is like for Brittney Griner
“It’s not easy. Not a day goes by that I’m not thinking about BG,” Wilson added. “We’re not whole without her.”
Since it became public that Griner was in a Russian prison, authorities there claiming to have found vape cartridges in her luggage when she arrived Feb. 17, the WNBA and its players have kept up a constant drumbeat about her case. Griner’s initials and number are on every WNBA court this season. Players post daily reminders of the number of days she’s been imprisoned.
When Sue Bird’s partner, U.S. soccer player Megan Rapinoe, received the presidential Medal of Freedom on Thursday, she did so with Griner’s initials embroidered on the lapel of her suit jacket.
With the All-Star Game being played on ABC, this was the WNBA’s biggest opportunity yet to rally the public to join in calls for her release. They did not miss.
Griner had already been named an honorary starter for Sunday’s game, and she was introduced after both teams. Her wife, Cherelle, sat courtside with Griner’s sister and nephew. The players’ warm-up T-shirts had Griner’s name and No. 42 on the back.
And before the second half began, the players returned to the court together. They had changed their jerseys so everyone was now wearing Griner’s, and they stood together in a powerful moment of silence, letting everyone who was watching know that “We are BG” is more than just a slogan.
“We just wanted to make sure at some point that we were able to, on national TV, in front of a sold-out crowd, to put Brittney’s name at the forefront. That was our way of honoring her,” Bird said after what was her final All-Star appearance.
“It’s also a way to have other people see her name,” Bird added. “In those moments, it brings awareness. And it constantly reminds the Biden administration that we’re supporting them and whatever they need to do to bring Brittney home, we’re behind them.”
If the WNBA isn’t already planning it, the league should consider auctioning those jerseys off and donating the proceeds to Griner’s charity that provides shoes to the homeless in Phoenix.
Few other organizations, and certainly no other sports league, are as effective at using their voices for the greater good as the WNBA.
This is the league that was pointing out the disproportionate police violence against Black and brown people years before George Floyd was murdered. This is the league that effectively flipped control of the U.S. Senate, campaigning for the Rev. Raphael Warnock after his opponent, former Atlanta Dream owner Kelly Loeffler, criticized the players’ social justice efforts.
If anyone can sway opinion, or motivate action, that will hasten Griner’s release, it is the W.
“When women get their mind set on something, we are always going to achieve what we need to get done because we are just stubborn,” Fowles said. “I think the message this weekend is just making sure that everybody is aware of what’s going on, but at the same time that we still have a lot of work to get done to try to get BG back home.”
There were a lot of memorable moments from this All-Star weekend. The most enduring will be Griner’s absence, and the dedication and resolve her WNBA sisters have shown in trying to bring her home.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.