Thousands join Mercury in supporting Orlando community

PHOENIX — Rosha Whitaker arrived at Talking Stick Resort Arena two hours before Saturday’s tipoff of the Phoenix Mercury’s Pride Night game against the Dallas Wings.

She sat in a chair in the arena’s Casino Arizona Pavilion, waiting to donate blood.

“The Orlando shooting brought to mind that I haven’t donated since college,” Whitaker said, referring to the killing of 49 people at an LGBT club in Orlando, Florida, early the morning of June 12.

This was the third consecutive year the Mercury hosted Pride Night to celebrate the LGBT community and to promote equality. The event held added meaning, taking place just one week after the shootings in Orlando.

The Mercury added a blood drive and various fundraising efforts to benefit the OneOrlando Fund. A silent auction featured in-game experiences and limited-edition autographed merchandise. The Mercury also sold an official “Mercury PRIDE” t-shirt at the team store, with proceeds going to the fund.

“It’s always been important to us,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. “Not just for the Phoenix Mercury but for the WNBA. It’s tragic what happened in Orlando and there should be no discrimination. You think you’re making steps forward and things like this happen. We love our fans. Fans are fans, no discrimination here. They’ve been great supporters of us and always will be.”

Vince Kozar, Mercury vice president of operations, said Pride Night is one of several efforts by the team in support of the LGBT community throughout the year. The Mercury have a partnership with ONE Community, a coalition of businesses and individuals who support diversity. The team is a regular participant in the annual Phoenix Pride Parade and Phoenix Pride Festival. Mercury center Brittney Griner served as the parade’s grand marshal in 2014. That same year, two LGBT Mercury season ticket holders held their wedding at Talking Stick Resort Arena.

Griner, one of the most prominent faces of the LGBT community in Arizona, said she is proud of the franchise she has called home since the team drafted her No. 1 overall in 2013.

Britney Griner, Phoenix Mercury player and LGBT community advocate, playing in the Phoenix Mercury pride night game. (Photo by Landon Brown/Cronkite News)

Britney Griner, Phoenix Mercury player and LGBT community advocate, playing in the Phoenix Mercury pride night game. (Photo by Landon Brown/Cronkite News)

“Tonight meant everything to me,” Griner said of the game that attracted 10,235 fans, the team’s largest home crowd since its home opener on May 20. “The Mercury does a great job creating a safe environment for the LGBT community to come out and support. Our organization and league has it, it means that they really do care. It means everything to have a pride night.”

Jason Collins, the former NBA player who was the first openly gay male athlete in any of the four major American professional sports leagues, said the night was an opportunity to help promote acceptance and equality throughout the community.

“It’s an honor to be here,” said Collins, who spoke to the crowd at halftime. “With nights like this, it creates visibility. People like me coming into speak, that’s how conversations get started and how they continue. We need to continue to talk about these issues to try and create a culture in sports where people feel comfortable in their authentic life.”

Jason Collins, former NBA player and LGBT community advocate, was voted top 100 most influential people by TIME magazine. Collins was interviewed at halftime by Ann Meyers Drysdale. (Photo by Landon Brown/Cronkite News)

Jason Collins, former NBA player and LGBT community advocate, was voted top 100 most influential people by TIME magazine. Collins was interviewed at halftime by Ann Meyers Drysdale. (Photo by Landon Brown/Cronkite News)

Center Penny Taylor said the Mercury, along with the entire WNBA, provide a place for people to be who they are without penalty.

“We have such a great fan base that is so supportive night in and night out,” Taylor said. “I think with the events around the country, people want to show their community spirit and come together. The WNBA is such a great place to come and celebrate being yourself, women’s sports and everyone that enjoys an inclusive attitude. The Mercury and the WNBA has always been great at that. In my mind, we move forward. Forward thinking, forward moving and inclusive of every body.”

Griner, who in 2013 came out publicly as a lesbian, is passionate about bringing acceptance and peace throughout the LGBT community.

“It’s horrible. Anybody that does something like that is horrible,” Griner said of the Orlando shootings. “Everybody that was at that nightclub was just trying to find a place they can go and be who they are and not have to anyone judging you. It turned into a massacre. Nothing has changed. There are still people that have their negative views about us and our community. It makes us stronger every time. We aren’t going anywhere.”