'Every day I'm praying for her': Indiana Fever advocate for Brittney Griner's safe return

James Boyd
Indianapolis Star
FILE - Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner pauses on the court during the second half of a WNBA basketball game against the Seattle Storm, Sept. 3, 2019, in Phoenix. The Biden administration has determined that Griner is being wrongfully detained in Russia, meaning the United States will more aggressively work to secure her release even as the legal case against her plays out, two U.S. officials said Tuesday, May 3, 2022.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

INDIANAPOLIS — Kelsey Mitchell took a break from getting extra shots up after practice Monday at Gainbridge Fieldhouse and walked down the court to speak to the media. On her way over, the Indiana Fever guard passed by a pair of "BG 42" decals on the floor that she hopes aren't there very long. The logos, which will appear on every WNBA court this season, are to recognize Phoenix Mercury superstar Brittney Griner, who wears No. 42.

"Once she touches the United States, it's gonna be a great feeling," Mitchell said. "Hopefully we can get this off (the court) and have her here physically."

Griner was arrested at a Moscow-area airport in February and has been detained in Russia ever since. Russian authorities claimed she brought vape cartridges containing hashish oil into their country, which is illegal, but recently the U.S. reclassified Griner as "wrongfully detained." This new classification means "the U.S. government will no longer wait for Griner's case to play out through the Russian legal system and will seek to negotiate her return," according to ESPN's T.J. Quinn.

It also gives the WNBA the greenlight to speak openly about Griner's situation, and Mitchell and the Fever plan to take full advantage until the future Hall of Famer is back stateside.

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"I know BG personally. She kind of took me under her wing when I was at USA (Basketball). So it kind of hits home a little different," Mitchell said. "Got a chance to meet her family, interact with her, so knowing what she's going through is pretty tough. But at the end of the day, all we can do is support her here and allow everybody else to take care (of her detainment) and make sure she gets home."

Indiana's Kelsey Mitchell dribbles up the court as the Indiana Fever host the Chicago Sky in a preseason game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on April 30, 2022.

Mitchell and Griner are the second and fourth all-time leading scorers, respectively, in NCAA Division I women's basketball history, and have squared off several times in the WNBA. Mitchell said she can't wait to match up again with her friend, but right now Griner's wellbeing is the No. 1 priority.

Fever coach Marianne Stanley shared the same message, noting that while the WNBA will be more vocal about Griner, it still most defer to the U.S. government regarding high-level diplomacy.

A floor decal in front of the scorer's table pays tribute to Phoenix Mercury's Brittney Griner before a WNBA basketball game between the Mercury and the Las Vegas Aces, Friday, May 6, 2022, in Phoenix. Griner has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17 after authorities at the Moscow airport said they found vape cartridges that allegedly contained oil derived from cannabis in her luggage. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

"Everybody in the world knew that she was being held unjustifiably, so we all wanted to take it to the streets so to speak, but I think you have to listen to the people who have the experience to understand the diplomatic side of things, the consular side of things. They're the experts," Stanley said. "We know basketball. We know activism, but we don't know the delicacies or the intricacies of what happens when something like this occurs.

"I like the fact that the league has chosen to be more demonstrative in (Griner's situation) and they feel like it's safe to do that. It's in her best interest to do that now. Prior, it wasn't in her best interest, so I think the smart thing thankfully has been that everybody's listened to the experts."

Mitchell said she's remained in contact with Griner's family through former Fever forward Emma Cannon, who recently signed a replacement contract with the Mercury.

Fever rookie NaLyssa Smith has a relationship with Griner as well through their illustruous careers at Baylor. Griner was a three-time Big 12 Player of the Year and led the Bears to the 2012 national title. Smith was a two-time Big 12 Player of the Year and a member of the 2019 national championship team.

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Indiana's NaLyssa Smith shoots a free throw as the Indiana Fever host the Chicago Sky in a preseason game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on April 30, 2022.

"She means a lot to Baylor. When you think of Baylor women's basketball, you think of Brittney Griner just because she had that legacy at Baylor," Smith said. "So I hope they're encouraging people at Baylor to also talk about it. I know coach (Nicki) Collen, she had her jersey up and they put a message out, so I'm just encouraging everybody to talk about it and bring awareness to it."

Griner began contacting Smith last year after Baylor games, encouraging her to continue honing her craft so that she could join Griner in the WNBA. Smith said she appreciated the support, and now it's her chance to return the favor.

"We were supposed to get in the gym and workout after she came back from overseas," Smith said. "So it's such a tragic event that she hasn't come home yet. Every day I'm praying for her and hoping she can come home."

Follow IndyStar Pacers beat writer James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid. Reach him via email: jboyd1@gannett.com.