Sports·THE BUZZER

It's an interesting time for the WNBA — on and off the court

CBC Sports' daily newsletter takes a closer look at everything going on in the world of the Women's National Basketball Association, including an ongoing controversy off the court.

More games, Sue Bird's last dance, Brittney Griner's detainment among big storylines

WNBA star Brittney Griner, left, has been detained in Russia for nearly three months. Her well-being is top of mind as the league gets set to tip off its 26th season. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports' daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what's happening in sports by subscribing here.

As the world's best women's basketball league gets ready to tip off its 26th season on Friday night, there's plenty of good stuff to talk about on the court. Teams will play an all-time-high 36 games (up four from last year), the in-season Commissioner's Cup tournament returns after last season's successful debut, and the defending-champion Chicago Sky added 2019 WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseman to their roster.

The stage is also set for Sue Bird's last dance. The 41-year-old point guard has hinted at retirement following what will be her 19th WNBA season — all spent with the Seattle Storm. The first overall pick in the 2002 draft went on to become the league's all-time leader in games played and assists while earning 12 All-Star selections and winning four championships. Bird has also captured five Olympic gold medals with the United States.

Another longtime standout on her way out is Minnesota Lynx centre Sylvia Fowles. The WNBA's all-time leading rebounder plans to retire after this season. On the flip side, the league is welcoming back Becky Hammon, the six-time All-Star who spent the past few years as an assistant coach with the NBA's San Antonio Spurs. Hammon is the new head coach of the Las Vegas Aces, replacing former Detroit Pistons Bad Boy Bill Laimbeer.

Three players from the Canadian women's national team are on WNBA rosters — though one of them, guard Kia Nurse of the Phoenix Mercury, is sidelined indefinitely due to a knee injury suffered in last year's playoffs. That leaves forwards Natalie Achonwa and Bridget Carleton, who both typically come off the bench for Minnesota. Carleton, 24, averaged 4.8 points last season while Achonwa averaged 3.7. Read more about the three Canadians in the WNBA in this story by CBC Sports' Myles Dichter.

Interesting as all those storylines are, the WNBA continues to make most of its headlines off the court. Over the past few years, the league and its players have really leaned into social activism, so it's perhaps not surprising that they're currently intertwined with the two weightiest issues of the moment — Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Canadian national team member Bridget Carleton typically comes off the bench for Minnesota in the WNBA. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images/File)

Last night, two days after news broke of a leaked draft opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court that indicated it could be on the verge of ending a half-century of constitutional rights to abortion, the WNBA released a statement saying it "believes all women have the right to autonomy over their bodies and fair and equal access to health care. We will continue to support and advocate for women and their personal decisions regarding their health. We also must act to protect women's rights, and elections have consequences. That is why civic engagement and voting rights will remain a focus as we tip off the 2022 WNBA season." Several players have spoken out passionately against the potential Supreme Court ruling on social media, including Washington's Natasha Cloud and two-time All-Star Napheesa Collier of Minnesota, who's expecting her first child later this month.

Meanwhile, everyone remains concerned for the well-being of Brittney Griner. The Phoenix star has been detained in Russia since mid-February, when, according to authorities there, a search of her luggage at a Moscow airport revealed she was carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. That can result in up to 10 years in prison if she's convicted, and there's worry that Russia might try to retaliate against the United States' response to the invasion of Ukraine by punishing an American citizen. Griner's situation is made even more precarious by the fact that, as a Black and openly gay woman, she now could be at the mercy of a regime with, to be quite generous, a questionable record when it comes to the treatment of both LQBTQ people and racial/ethnic minorities.

For all these reasons, the U.S. government and Griner's loved ones had mostly stayed quiet about her plight. But, earlier this week, the State Department announced that it officially considers Griner wrongfully detained and will now work more aggressively toward securing her release.

Griner is one of the WNBA's biggest stars — a seven-time All-Star and two-time scoring champion who last season finished second in the league in scoring and topped the league in efficiency rating. Just to provide a comp, this would be like if Kevin Durant was being held in a foreign country on the eve of the NBA season.

Even if Griner is allowed to return home safely soon, her harrowing experience could frighten other players away from playing in Russia. For years, WNBAers have been willing to spend their off-seasons working in a strange land because some of the oligarch-fuelled clubs there offer sometimes double or triple the salaries they can make in the WNBA. Post-Griner, that supplemental income may no longer be worth the risk. Read more about the new WNBA season and some of the issues the league is involved with here.

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