By DOUG FEINBERG
SYDNEY (AP) — Brittney Griner’s absence is weighing on the minds of her USA Basketball teammates, who are trying to fill the void created by her absence as they prepare for the FIBA World Cup.
The Americans are expected to win without the 6-foot-8 Griner, but replacing her spirit and impact on and off the court is a challenging task.
Griner starred for the U.S. in the past two Olympics, but she is not with the team in Australia. The 31-year-old center is 9,000 miles away in a Russian jail after being sentenced last month to nine years in prison for drug possession.
“I think we’re missing the fun-loving person that she was,” U.S. star Breanna Stewart said. “Someone who could bring a group together and was able to hold a conversation with anybody and that shows how grounded she is. The way she cared about people is something you don’t see all the time, especially in superstars. We miss her and we hope she’ll be home soon.”
U.S. players are keeping Griner in their thoughts by having no one wear her No. 15. For years, the Americans wore jersey numbers 4-15. In the World Cup, they will use 4-14 and No. 16 — which Brionna Jones will wear.
“The best way to honor her was to not give her number out,” USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley told The Associated Press. “I put it to our staff and they liked the idea. Our numbering system is very sacred to us and we’ve only used four to 15 in the history of our organization. Now we’re giving out 16 because we don’t want to give away Brittney’s 15 since she would have been here. It’s a small way to pay homage to her and that we’re thinking of her.”
Tooley said he sent an email to Griner through her lawyers a short while ago to let her know what USA Basketball was doing. He has known Griner since 2013 when she first came to a U.S. training camp and feels she would have been great with this young team that the Americans have.
“She enjoys every moment and makes everyone around her better,” Tooley said. “From the time she came into the program in 2013, she was just such a great presence on and off the court. … She’s just a good person.”
Griner was one of the team’s leading scorers at the Tokyo Olympics, and her 6-foot-8 presence looms large over the U.S. players even without her in Sydney.
“It’s on their minds every day. It’s heavy,” USA coach Cheryl Reeve said. “It’s really, really heavy, especially as we participate in this USA Basketball competition. She’s such a big part of many of our lives. And so it’s challenging.”
Stewart echoed Reeve’s thoughts, saying it will be difficult when the Americans play Belgium to open the tournament.
“I think what’s going be the hardest part about it is … that first game, “Stewart said. ”When we’re getting ready to go, when we’re getting our names called out for introductions, and she’s not there.”
It’s not just the Americans who are missing Griner in Australia. Kia Nurse, Griner’s teammate with the Phoenix Mercury and a member of Team Canada for the World Cup, was brought to tears when discussing Griner in a media availability this week.
“BG is the best of the best when it comes to human beings,” she said of the eight-time All-Star. “It was a lot this season to not have her on the court, To not have her spirit, her energy around … and the fact that she’s not home yet is disheartening.”