WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom for a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Friday, July 1, 2022. U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner is set to go on trial in a Moscow-area court Friday. The proceedings that are scheduled to begin Friday come about 4 1/2 months after she was arrested on cannabis possession charges at an airport while traveling to play for a Russian team. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

CHICAGO — The WNBA community will gather here this weekend for the All-Star Game, an annual celebration of everything great about the league. The best players in the W will stroll the orange carpet, take part in the 3-point contest and skills challenge, and then face each other in a game that’s more about fun than strategy.

This year, though, WNBA All-Star Weekend will be a little different.

To be sure, there’s plenty to celebrate this season. Atlanta Dream rookie Rhyne Howard, the No. 1 pick of the 2022 WNBA Draft, burst onto the scene to become an All-Star in her very first season. Chicago Sky superstar Candace Parker became the first player in league history to reach 6,000 points, 3,000 rebounds and 1,500 assists for a career. And two WNBA legends, Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles and Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird, announced they will be retiring at season’s end.

Every one of these women deserve to be celebrated. But there’s a pall hanging over this All-Star Game.

Brittney Griner, one of the WNBA’s biggest stars, won’t be in Chicago because she remains in a Russian jail, where she has been since being wrongfully detained in February. Griner wrote a letter to President Joe Biden over the weekend, pleading with him to “not forget about me” and help bring her home. On Thursday, reportedly to facilitate her release in a prisoner swap, Griner pled guilty to drug possession charges but said she had no intention to commit a crime.

The WNBA has worked to keep Griner’s name in the news. “Free BG” logos have been placed on every team’s court, and players and coaches wear “Free BG” pins and tweet their support for her every day. The league named Griner an honorary All-Star.

Griner should be in Chicago. She should be ready to make her eighth All-Star Game appearance. Her wife Cherelle should be cheering Griner from the sidelines, not writing letters to beg the Biden administration to bring her home. The W players feel Griner’s absence.

The WNBA has never shied away from political issues that affect their players and fans. Recent developments in the country also hang over the weekend. The overturning of Roe v. Wade has players asking questions about the autonomy regarding their own bodies. Several players are in same-sex marriages, so questions about the future of marriage equality affect them.

This WNBA All-Star Weekend just won’t be the same kind of celebration it would be if Griner was here and if players didn’t feel like their rights were attacked again and again and again.

The real magic of this All-Star Game is not in Parker playing in front of her hometown crowd or Howard relishing her first big moment. It’s that the incredible women of the WNBA will be together and show the strength in their unity and how that unity can overcome even the most daunting challenges.

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