Women’s basketball in Russia used to offer WNBA players an offseason dream – first-class treatment, million-dollar contracts, elite competition.
But with the WNBA and the U.S. government pleading for the release of Phoenix Mercury star Brittany Griner — who was sentenced Thursday to nine years in a Russian prison on drug and racketeering charges — the prospect of a return to Russia became a non-starter. Her former colleagues in Chicago.
Griner played under Sky coach James Wade for two seasons and won the EuroLeague and Russian Cup with Sky stars Ali Quigley, Courtney Vandersloot and Emma Messeman.
All three Sky players cut short their exile with UMMC Ekaterinburg when Russia invaded Ukraine in March. They returned to America when the war changed the political axis of the country.
Now, Griner’s former teammates and coaches — who describe her as “a gentle giant, a caring friend and a quietly powerful force in women’s basketball” — are worried about her absence as a Skye near the end of the WNBA regular season.
“It’s always at the top of your mind when you wake up and when you go to bed,” Wade said Friday before a 93-83 win over the Washington Mystics at Wintrust Arena. “This is one of the darkest clouds I can remember in the league.”
Like many other games this season, Friday’s win was overshadowed by the sadness and anger brought about by Griner’s try. Sky players wore shirts and hats with Griner’s image on them. Mystics players issued a media blackout after the game, and Alisha Clark briefed Griner on his release, criticizing Russia for using her as a “political lobbyist.”
For Sky’s players and coaches, who have made a living in Russia during the season, Griner’s ordeal is a stark contrast to their treatment in the country before the invasion of Ukraine.
Vaud described Griner’s ruling as easy to pass off as typical of the Russian legal system. But this is not part of the situation for basketball players and coaches who frequent the Russian Premier League – especially in Yekaterinburg.
UMMC Ekaterinburg is the definition of a super team, compiling rosters not restricted by the salary cap and winning 10 Russian championships and five Euroleague titles over the past decade.
The team has the ability to insulate players from aspects of Russian life, allowing them to immerse themselves in real fan support without having to face the many realities of the country’s politics.
Quigley and Vandersloot signed with teams in Russia the year they were married in the U.S. They lived as a married couple for four seasons without incident, despite strict Russian laws against “LGBT propaganda.” In an Instagram post before Thursday’s sentencing, Vandersloot described Yekaterinburg as a “second home” to her and Quigley before the war in Ukraine.
As Russia battles culture wars over human rights issues and free speech, players have had a safe environment throughout the Premier League season.
“You know Russian politics is always different, but outside of politics we lived a normal life,” Mieseman said. “We have a good relationship with the fans and they really care about us. But at the same time, you know you can’t really talk about politics. It doesn’t even really happen. In America, everyone talks about politics, but it’s harder there.
Griner’s lawsuit has shattered the illusion of safety — and may close the door on an era of women’s basketball in Russia.
The EuroLeague banned all Russian clubs in June, effectively banning UMMC and other teams from the top tier.
Lucrative Russian contracts have provided an attractive — and often necessary — financial supplement for star WNBA players. Griner has reportedly signed a $1 million annual contract to play for UMMC, a three-year, $664,544 deal with the Mercury. But right now, players in the WNBA, including the top stars in the sky, are not at risk of a comeback.
Vandersloot signed a new contract with Sopron Basket in Hungary earlier this year. Quigley has yet to sign a new contract but refuses to return to Russia. Messeman plans to transfer to another team after her contract with UMMC expires. Now the center knows she will never play in the Russian league again.
It was an important decision, but one that disappointed Mieseman and other former UMMC players.
“This is not just a picture of Russia,” Mieseman said. “That’s one of the images, it’s one of the great images, maybe one of the only messages that people in America will see. But we know behind the curtain. We know the people. … I hope (it will be opened) because not only our players, but also the Russian fans deserve it.