The profound grief throughout the WNBA following Brittney Griner’s conviction and sentencing was understandable.
So, too, Becky Hammon’s fury.
Asked her thoughts about the nine-year sentence imposed Thursday on the two-time Olympic champion and eight-time WNBA All-Star, Hammon initially said, “I certainly have a lot of thoughts on it.” She paused briefly, then called Griner’s detainment since Feb. 17 “heartbreaking” and “beyond concerning.”
“Athletes really have to think twice now about where they go because all the sudden you can just be snatched and become a prisoner of war or a political pawn,” the Las Vegas Aces coach said.
That statement alone would have been striking enough.
But Hammon is no ordinary coach. She once was a Russian citizen. A noteworthy one, at that, playing on two Olympic teams.
Hammon might be the highest-profile coach in the WNBA – she is making at least $1 million a season after Aces owner Mark Davis lured her away from the NBA, where she’d been a longtime assistant to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich – but she is sparing with both her opinions and her words. When the former point guard does speak, then, her thoughts have added weight.
But it was what Hammon did next that was simply jaw-dropping: She took direct aim at Vladimir Putin.
“It’s hard to play against an opponent that doesn’t play by the rules. Or makes their own rules,” Hammon said. “Wrongfully detained a person, he wrongfully invaded a whole country. I don’t think he – he (doesn’t) play by the rules.”
Russia’s justice system is so corrupt it’s impossible to know whether Griner actually did what she’s accused of – bringing vape cartridges filled with hashish oil in her luggage. Putin, however, knew he was about to invade Ukraine, and that that would make Griner a very valuable bargaining chip. It’s about time someone called him out on his role in her detainment.
But as Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza can tell you, crossing Putin can be dangerous.
Navalny, a longtime critic of the Russian dictator, nearly died in 2020 after being poisoned by what international experts determined were Russian agents. Navalny survived, but is now serving time in a maximum-security prison after being convicted in a show trial. Kara-Murza, another opposition politician, has been jailed since April for his criticism of the war in Ukraine.
Hundreds of ordinary citizens who have criticized the government also have been jailed during Putin’s regime.
Being outside Russia won’t necessarily keep you from Putin’s grasp, either. Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal were both living in the United Kingdom when they were poisoned by Russian agents. Skripal lived. Litvinenko did not.
Before you scoff at the comparisons, believing Putin has bigger concerns than what a basketball coach thinks of him, remember that Hammon is no ordinary coach.
When USA Basketball wouldn’t give her the time of day, Hammon, who like Griner and many others spent her offseasons playing in Russia, accepted an offer to represent Russia at the 2008 Olympics.
“I love our country. I love what we stand for. This is an opportunity to fulfill my dream of playing in the Olympics,” Hammon told ESPN.com in 2008.
Russia won the bronze medal in Beijing, with Hammon scoring a team-high 22 points in the third-place game. She also played in the 2012 Olympics in London, where Russia finished fourth.
So Hammon’s criticism of Putin, and the role he’s played in Griner’s detainment, will hit differently than if it had been said by, say, Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve. And Hammon no doubt knows that.
But hearing that Griner could be forced to spend the next nine years in a Russian prison unleashed a despondency that has been building in the WNBA for six months now.
When the Phoenix Mercury, Griner’s team, and the Connecticut Sun took the floor for Thursday night’s game, the faces of the players were still wet with tears. Skylar Diggins-Smith said afterward the Mercury hadn’t even wanted to play, but they have no choice other than to go on with life as “normal.”
“What’s going on right now with Brittney is real life,” Hammon said. “It’s hard. It’s hard on our girls. It’s hard on this whole league, quite frankly. It’s hard on the whole league.”
And on this day, it was too much to take.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: WNBA coach’s history with Russia gives criticism of Putin extra weight