‘Playing with fire’: Brittney Griner discusses WNBA travel, All-Star bid

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner was named a starter in the 2023 WNBA All-Star Game to extend her streak to nine consecutive selections – one shy of the league record. (Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

PHOENIX – The most powerful moment of Chicago’s 2022 WNBA All-Star Game last July unfolded at the beginning of the second half when black and orange No. 42 jerseys with “Griner” written on the back took the Wintrust Arena court.

Brittney Griner’s presence could be felt thousands of miles away from a Russian prison during her honorary selection, and despite logging a “DNP,” she played a large role in the annual WNBA showcase.

One year later, the Phoenix Mercury center is back in the United States and doing what she does best, earning an All-Star selection Sunday and a starting spot at this year’s All-Star Game.

“I hope I have better stats than I did last year,” Griner said jokingly. “I had zeroes across the board. In all seriousness, I’m honored any time I can get voted into All-Star. I know it’s going to be a great time.”

But Griner’s return and accolade don’t mean the road has been easy for the 11-year veteran. On June 10, Griner and her teammates were subjected to a heckler while navigating the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. Alex Stein, a comedian and YouTube personality, shouted inappropriate questions at Griner and posted the footage online.

Before the season, the WNBA expanded chartered flights from only being available for the two WNBA Finals teams to accommodations for the entire WNBA playoffs. Still, teams are forced to fly commercially during the regular season, which can lead to uncomfortable interactions like the one experienced by Griner and her teammates.

“I’ll say this. I think we should have already had the option to use a different airline, a more private airline, charter flights,” Griner said Monday. “It’s a shame that it had to get to rock bottom because I feel like waiting for something to happen and then making a change … you don’t know what that something’s going to be.

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“We’ve all seen what can happen in this world. And when you play the let’s wait and see game, you’re really playing with fire. You’re playing with people’s lives.”

Griner has persevered through hecklers, increased media attention, a coaching change and a pesky hip injury en route to her ninth All-Star selection, the most of this year’s starters. Since no All-Star games were held in 2016 or 2020 due to the Olympics and COVID, respectively, Griner continues her streak of drawing an All-Star selection in every season of her 11-year career and is one shy of the league record set by Tamika Catchings.

In nine games this season, Griner is averaging 19.1 points (ninth in WNBA), 6.4 rebounds (18th) and 2.4 blocks (first) on 61.8% shooting (second).

“She absolutely deserves it,” Mercury interim coach Nikki Blue said. “BG definitely is an All-Star. I’m proud of her for the way that she’s come out this year, the percentages that she’s shooting. It’s well-deserved. I’m happy that she does get the opportunity to play with her fellow All-Stars in Las Vegas. I’m going to be there rooting for her.”

Griner will be joined by fellow starters Chelsea Gray (Las Vegas Aces), A’ja Wilson (Aces), Jackie Young (Aces), Aliya Boston (Indiana Fever), Breanna Stewart (New York Liberty), Nneka Ogwumike (Los Angeles Sparks), Jewell Lloyd (Seattle Storm), Arike Ogunbowale (Dallas Wings) and Satou Sabally (Wings).

Captains Wilson and Stewart will draft teams from the starters and 12 reserves (announced July 1) during the WNBA All-Star Team Selection Special to be aired July 8 on ESPN.

All-Star weekend will be held at the Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas on July 14-15, and as opposed to last year, Griner will be in attendance.

Josh Bootzin jaw-sh boot-zin (he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Josh Bootzin expects to graduate in December 2023 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. He receive bachelor’s of arts degrees in statistics and creative writing from the University of Pittsburgh in 2021 and hopes to build a career in data journalism around proficiencies in statistics, print journalism and a love for sports.