PHOENIX, Ariz. — The home of the Phoenix Mercury is a newly remodeled downtown arena. Near where fans entered to watch the team play the L.A. Sparks, a shoe-drive that star player Brittney Griner has organized with the Phoenix Rescue Mission, went on in her absence Thursday night.
Zariyah Odom dropped off footwear and carried a sign that said “Bring Brittney Home.”
“I donated three times, but one of the times I collected 94 shoes,” said the soon-to-be 7th grader, who loves basketball.
The Mercury is an original WNBA franchise that’s won three more championships than their NBA brother, the Phoenix Suns. And it’s now crunch time for the Mercury to reach the playoffs for the 10th straight season.
But this season players have had to win without Griner’s unique abilities. She’s missed the entire season, detained in Russia after cannabis oil was found in her luggage in February.
“[Griner’s teammates] are all obviously affected, as you see on social media. But they’re trying their best to do their best,” said Odom.
Fans and players long for Griner to return home safely. New hope came this week when it became known that the United States has offered to trade Russia an imprisoned arms dealer for Griner and another American.
The PA announcer often calls Mercury fans the X-Factor, and he rallied them to their feet as the game was about to start.
Season ticket holder Patty Talahongva sat near midcourt wearing a T-shirt from Griner’s first game with the team in 2013. It’s not the only souvenir she brought.
“So this is a signed photo of Brittney Griner’s face,” she said.
Talahongva has met Griner more than once and has photos to prove it. She said Griner will autograph just about anything fans ask her to.
“She is not forgotten, and people care about her. We want her back safe and sound. And we want to see her back on the court, if that’s possible,” said Talahongva.
“What I would say to Brittney is that X-Factor has your back,” she said.
World-champion racquetball player Rhonda Rajsich is another season-ticket-holding fan of Griner. Rajsich says she has been paid pennies on the dollar compared to a male counterpart, so she knows it’s why elite women basketball players like Griner have to also play abroad.
“It’s completely out of line. Completely out of balance and needed to be rectified about 15 years ago,” said Rajsich during a halftime interview in which she expressed hope that Russia will accept the U.S. offer and release Griner.
“Do whatever you have to get her home. She’s been gone way too long already,” said Rajsich.
The second half of the game grew heated among the players, but it was never really close. The Mercury notched their second win in a row and were led in scoring by the seemingly ageless Diana Taurasi, who is 40 years old.
At a postgame news conference, Taurasi called the U.S. pitch to free Griner a huge step.
“You know these things, as we know, and as we see now, aren’t as cut and dry as we would think it would be,” said Taurasi, who has been named the greatest WNBA player of all time by ESPN and is expected to retire soon.
Mercury fans hope that Griner makes it home first.