CHICAGO (AP) — Brittney Griner was everywhere Sunday — before, during and after the WNBA All-Star Game.
Everywhere except where the league’s best players felt she should be — playing alongside them on the court.
A’ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart and the rest of the WNBA All-Stars wore Griner’s name and her No. 42 on the back of their jerseys for the second half of Team Wilson’s 134-112 victory over Team Stewart. It was another moment in the league’s continued push for Griner’s release from her detention in Russia.
“BG’s one of us. She’s our sister,” Wilson said, “and at the end of the day, we’re going to do whatever we can to amplify the platform that we have to make sure that everyone is doing what they need to do to make sure that she gets home safely.”
Griner, 31, has been detained since February after police at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage. The eight-time All-Star pleaded guilty Thursday to drug possession charges that could see a sentence of to up to 10 years in prison.
Griner was announced as an honorary All-Star starter before Sunday’s game, drawing cheers from the crowd of 9,572 at the home of the defending champion Sky. The players lined up along the sideline to show off their Griner jerseys before the start of the second half.
Team Wilson guards Sabrina Ionescu and Courtney Vandersloot hugged Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife, before play resumed.
“We just wanted to make sure at some point that we were able to, on national television, obviously in front of a (big) crowd, put Brittney’s name in the forefront,” Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird said. “That was our way of honoring her.”
It was the last All-Star Game for Bird and Sylvia Fowles, two pillars of the league who plan to retire after this season. Fowles had the day’s biggest highlight, picking up a steal and throwing down a dunk for Team Wilson with 4:04 left in the first half.
“It was just in the moment,” Fowles said. “I didn’t really think about it.”
Bird received a huge ovation when she checked out with 2:10 left, and acknowledged the cheers with a wave.
“That moment was really special,” Bird said.
Las Vegas aces guard Kelsey Plum was named MVP after she scored 30 points for Team Wilson in her first All-Star appearance. Sabrina Ionescu had 19 points, six assists and six rebounds, and Chicago Sky forward Candace Parker finished with 15 points and eight boards.
Plum matched the league’s All-Star Game scoring record. Maya Moore also scored 30 points in 2015.
“What a way to send off Syl and Sue,” Plum said. “I think for me, I just personally wanted to go out and have a ton of fun.”
Jonquel Jones, the reigning WNBA MVP who plays for the Connecticut Sun, had 29 points and 13 rebounds for Team Stewart. Jones also made the game’s first 4-point shot with 7:04 left in the first quarter.
“I practiced them yesterday and shot it a lot in the warmups,” Jones said. “I felt comfortable and confident shooting them.”
It was the first WNBA All-Star Game in Chicago, and the league landed in the Windy City at perhaps its strongest position since it began play in 1997. Viewership is up, some major corporate partners have signed on and a wave of promising young stars like Wilson, Ionescu and Plum are moving to the forefront.
Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced this year’s WNBA Finals teams will travel on charter flights, and the league is increasing its postseason bonus pools by almost 50% to $500,000. Next season will be extended to 40 games, up from 36 this year, and Engelbert said the league has been meeting with potential ownership groups for expansion teams.
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“We continue to work really hard on the transformation of the business to improve the player experience,” Engelbert said.
Engelbert also is doing whatever she can to help Griner and her family. Griner’s guilty plea could be an effort by her and her advisers to expedite the court proceedings.
“She remains a huge priority for us, continues to have our full support,” Engelbert said. “Fully focused on getting her home safely and as soon as possible.”