Women’s basketball in Russia used to offer an offseason dream for WNBA players — first-class treatment, million-dollar contracts, elite competition.
But as the WNBA and US government plead for the release of Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner — who was sentenced Thursday to nine years in a Russian prison after being convicted of drug possession and smuggling — the prospect of returning to Russia became a non-starter for her former teammates in Chicago.
Griner played under Sky coach James Wade for two seasons in Russia and won EuroLeague and Russian Cup titles with Sky stars Allie Quigley, Courtney Vandersloot and Emma Meesseman.
All three Sky players made an exodus when Russia invaded Ukraine in March, cutting short their season with UMMC Ekaterinburg. They returned to the US as the war shifted the political axis in the country.
Now, Griner’s former teammates and coaches — who describe her as a “gentle giant,” caring friend and quietly powerful force in women’s basketball — feel haunted by her absence as the Sky near the end of the WNBA regular season.
“It’s always at the top of your mind when you get up and when you go to sleep,” Wade said Friday before the Sky’s 93-83 victory against the Washington Mystics at Wintrust Arena. “This has been one of the darkest clouds we’ve had over the league that I can remember.”
Like every other game this season, Friday’s win was blanketed by the grief and anger brought on by Griner’s trial. Sky players wore shirts and hoodies bearing a portrait of Griner. Mystics players enacted a media blackout after the game, and Alysha Clark made a brief statement calling for Griner’s release of her and decrying Russia’s use of her as a “political pawn.”
For Sky players and coaches who carved out a life in Russia during offseasons, Griner’s ordeal paints a stark contrast to the treatment they received in the country before the invasion of Ukraine.
Wade noted that it’s easy to pass off the Griner verdict as the norm in the Russian legal system. But this isn’t part of the status quo for basketball players and coaches who frequent the Russian Premier League — especially in Yekaterinburg.
UMMC Ekaterinburg is the definition of a super team, compiling stacked rosters unencumbered by the salary cap to win 10 Russian championships and five EuroLeague titles in the last decade.
The team also can afford to shelter players from aspects of Russian life, allowing them to soak in the support of a rabid fan base without facing many realities of the country’s politics.
Quigley and Vandersloot both signed with teams in Russia the same year they married in the US, living without consequence for four seasons as a couple despite strict Russian laws against “LGBT propaganda.” In an Instagram post ahead of Thursday’s verdict, Vandersloot described Yekaterinburg as a “second home” for her and Quigley before the onset of the Ukrainian war.
While Russia battled cultural wars over human rights issues and free speech, players enjoyed a safe environment throughout the Premier League season.
“You always know Russian politics are different, but we lived a normal life there outside of politics,” Meesseman said. “We have (a) good relationship with the fans and they really took care of us. But at the same time, you just know that you can’t really talk about politics. It doesn’t really even happen. In America, everybody talks about politics, but over there it’s more difficult.”
Griner’s prosecution shattered the illusion of safety — and it could slam the door on an era of women’s basketball in Russia.
The EuroLeague in June suspended all Russian clubs, effectively closing off UMMC and other teams from their highest tier of competition.
Lucrative Russian contracts provided an attractive — and often necessary — financial supplement for star WNBA players. Griner reportedly signed a $1 million annual contract to play for UMMC, far eclipsing her three-year, $664,544 deal with the Mercury. But now, players throughout the WNBA, including the Sky’s top stars, aren’t risking a return.
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. Meesseman already planned to move to another team after her contract expired with UMMC. Now, the center knows she’ll never again play in the Russian league.
It was a necessary decision but one that saddens Meesseman and other former UMMC players.
“This is not the only image of Russia,” Meesseman said. “It’s one of the images, it’s one of the big images, it’s probably one of the only messages people in the US see. But we know behind the scenes. We know the people. … I can only hope it’s going to (open up) again for our players but also for Russian fans because they deserve it.”