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For the Phoenix Mercury, this season is bigger than basketball

Aaliyah Bains Avatar
May 17, 2022

I have thought for a while how I wanted to begin this project. We’re a few games into the 2022 WNBA season, and things are picking up for the Phoenix Mercury. I’ve written various drafts of this going through their statistics, comparing them to other teams and other seasons, trying to keep it about numbers.

But the more and more I wrote, it didn’t feel right. This season, it’s bigger than basketball. I want to start this off sharing how I got here and how this Mercury team has more at stake than 36 games and a WNBA Finals revenge story. 

I was a freshman at the University of Washington the fall of 2018, working on a final paper for my intro to writing class about the pay disparity between the WNBA and the NBA. This was my first big paper and first deep dive into what now looks like might be a new career path for me. I direct-messaged every WNBA player on Instagram I could think of, shooting my shot in the dark, knowing that no one would likely answer. I was asking players for insight on the pay gap and if they wanted to highlight anything specific. 

The only player that I got a response from was Brittney Griner, 6-foot-9 center for the Mercury. She first apologized for her bad grammar and told me I deserved an “A” automatically for even writing a paper on this subject.

Griner went on to say that people argue WNBA players don’t deserve the same amount of pay that NBA players do because “[we’re] not exciting to watch which is bs.” She went on to point out that what players really want is more control over their contracts and an increased salary that better reflects what they are worth.

“We have to go overseas to make anywhere from 100k to a million!” Griner exclaimed. “But we also have to leave our families and be gone for 7 months plus and play year-round. I GOT ONE WEEK BREAK THIS PAST YEAR.”

Photo: Phoenix Mercury

U.S. reclassifies WNBA star Brittney Griner as ‘wrongfully detained’ by Russia

Looking back on this conversation now, it hits deeper. We know what unfortunate situation Brittney is in currently, being detained in Russia for going on three months. The U.S. government has recently changed her status to “wrongfully detained,” and the most current news says the Russian investigation has been extended another month, anticipating trial then or sooner. We’ve seen a few somber photos of Griner since her detainment, but thankfully, have heard her living conditions are somewhat bearable. The reality, though, is that if an NBA player was in her place, the story would be very different. 

For a long time, fellow players and Griner’s family kept quiet about the situation. Few people knew what was going on. We were told that was best, so there was not heightened attention to the subject, giving it more political value. When the news broke of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, I don’t think anyone saw this ending soon.

We’re seeing a shift now: People are talking, every WNBA team has the letters “BG42” on their home courts, and the Phoenix Suns followed suit. The Mercury are honoring Brittney’s annual shoe drive to help vulnerable populations in the Phoenix area. The influx of support seen by the community is honorable, and as we inch closer to a resolution for BG, I think it is safe to say everyone is experiencing both fear and hope. 

I want to shift briefly to another Mercury player who has given us a peek into the battles she’s faced over the last few years, and how you truly never know what someone is going through.

Diamond Deshields: The Comeback | Outside The Lines

“DeShields… endured a significant amount of nerve damage”

Diamond DeShields is a 6-foot-1 guard the Mercury acquired this last offseason from the Chicago Sky, where she was drafted third overall in 2018. Her rookie year, she started all but one game, averaging 14 points and almost 5 rebounds a night. Becoming an All-Star and the Sky’s leading scorer in her second year in the league, it was safe to say she was built for this.

During the WNBA offseason in December of 2019, DeShields was also playing overseas in Italy when she hurt her back. An MRI scan showed a benign tumor in her spinal cord. Fast forward a month later, DeShields spent about nine hours on the operating table and unfortunately endured a significant amount of nerve damage. The next few months meant extensive rehab to help with involuntary spasms and muscle contractions she was having. 

In the ESPN exclusive “The Comeback,” DeShields provides a small glimpse of her journey, showing how hard she worked to be back on the court by the 2020 WNBA season that took place in a bubble in Florida due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the interview, DeShields says looking back, “I need my teammates more than they probably need me right now.”

After some setbacks during that season, she continued to work and grow stronger, helping her 2021 Sky team to their first WNBA Finals win against none other than the Phoenix Mercury. Anyone can look at this story and agree that it takes someone with an immense amount of strength and determination to make a recovery like that. This season, DeShields’ journey with a new team is about more than the game; it’s about taking the experiences she had and building a legacy.

Coming off this Chicago title win the pressure is on with a new program, coach, and teammates who are itching to taste victory. So far, she’s stepped up to the challenge with a successful season playing overseas, followed by jumping into the WNBA season and already averaging 11.5 points per game off the bench. Her impact on this Mercury team paves the way for her to forge a reputation for herself like no one else has. It’d give motivation to the next generation of athletes to know that life is going to happen — you can be an elite athlete one day and on the operating table the next. Keep going. You will make it.

Photo: Phoenix Mercury

Looking forward for the Mercury

When I look at this 2022 WNBA season, I’m excited to be in a new city, to get to watch my favorite team, and to hang out with the BEST fanbase in the league, the X-Factor. But what I am really excited for is to see this team, these people, how they face adversity and build each other up to overcome.

I hope Brittney is able to return home and celebrate her amazing wife Cherelle’s recent graduation from North Carolina Central University School of Law. I hope DeShields continues to heal and lead this Mercury team to another WNBA Finals (playing for the right team this time). 

These stories are hard, and the biggest lesson is, as Diamond put it, “you don’t know shit.” It is easy for us to sit back and consume the entertainment they provide, but more importantly, we need to support their ups and downs and learn to give grace to the people around us. The Mercury are 2-1 so far this season with so much potential to grow as the next few weeks roll out and the Merc roster puts their faith in a new coaching staff while adjusting to the new normal.

This season, it’s bigger than basketball.

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