Tuesday, September 20, 2022

With Brittany Griner in Russian prison, WNBA players leave popular off-season destination. CBC Sports

Brittany Griner’s highly publicized legal crisis in Russia and the country’s invasion of Ukraine have led to top WNBA players opting to take their talents elsewhere this off-season.

For the past few decades, Russia has been the preferred off-season destination for WNBA players to compete because of the high salaries that can exceed US$1 million and the resources and facilities teams have to offer them.

It’s all over suddenly.

“Honestly my time in Russia has been amazing, but especially with BG still unfairly detained, no one is going to go there until she’s home,” says Brenna Stewart, a griner said the team mate.

Russian team that paid millions to both. “I think, you know, now people want to go abroad and if the money isn’t too different, they want to live in a better place.”

Griner was arrested in February, then detained and later pleaded guilty to drug possession charges amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Griner was sentenced last month to nine years in prison.

Now, Stewart and other WNBA all-stars, including Jonquel Jones and Courtney Vanderslut — who also earned millions of dollars playing in Russia — are heading elsewhere this winter. All three played for Ekaterinburg, the same Russian team as Griner.

The club has won five EuroLeague titles over the past eight seasons and has been playing there for nearly two decades alongside former greats Delisha Milton Jones and Diana Taurasi.

playing close to family

About a dozen WNBA players competed in Russia last winter and none of them are going back this year.

Stewart is going to Turkey to play for Fenerbahçe after the World Cup tournament. Top players can earn a few hundred thousand dollars playing in Turkey, which is much less than their Russian salary. Playing in Turkey makes Stewart even closer to his wife’s family in Spain.

“You want a better lifestyle, a better court experience and continue to appreciate other countries,” Stewart said.

Like Stewart, Vandersluot is also not going back to Russia, opting to play in Hungary where he obtained citizenship in 2016.

“I’m Hungarian. I thought it would be special because I haven’t played there since I got my citizenship,” Vandersluot said.

The 33-year-old guard said a lot would have to change before he ever considered going back to Russia to play, even though he has many fond memories of the Russian people.

“The thing about it is, we were treated so well by our club and built such a strong relationship with them, I would never shut the door on that,” she said. “The whole situation with BG makes it really hard to think that it’s safe for anyone to go back there.”

Jones will play for Mersin with Stewart in Turkey. Six foot six Jones said she would consider moving back to Russia if things turn political and Griner returns to America.

Players ‘cautious’ when deciding where to play

Griner’s position is also taking a toll on the minds of young WNBA players.

Rhyne Howard, the 2022 WNBA rookie of the year, is playing in Italy this winter, marking her first overseas experience. She said she was careful when deciding where she wanted to play.

“Everyone is going to be a little cautious because this situation is happening,” she said.

It’s not just American players who are not going to Russia anymore. Chicago Sky forward Emma Messemann, who stars for the Belgium national team, played in Russia alongside Stewart, Jones and Vanderslut. She is also going to Turkey this off-season.

The WNBA is also trying to make staying at home a better option for players in the off-season. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in the WNBA Finals that top players could earn up to $700,000 this year between base salaries, marketing agreements and award bonuses.

While only a select few players can access that amount, about a dozen have decided to make league marketing agreements this off-season.

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