James Wade on bond with Brittney Griner: ‘It’s bigger than basketball’

“It was an emotional moment,” Wade said of his first time seeing Griner in nearly two years.

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Brittney Griner shares a moment with James Wade during pregame ahead of the Sky’s 75-69 win over the Mercury on Sunday.

Brittney Griner shares a moment with James Wade during pregame ahead of the Sky’s 75-69 win over the Mercury on Sunday.

Amber Del Rio/Chicago Sky

PHOENIX — Sky coach/general manager James Wade waited at center court before the game Sunday, biding his time, conversing with Mercury coaches and team personnel. There was one person in particular he was waiting to greet.

Wade hadn’t been able to share an embrace with Brittney Griner for more than a year after she was wrongfully detained in Russia. The last time Wade saw Griner in person was at Game 4 of the 2021 WNBA Finals.

When Griner got through her pregame routine and made her way over to Wade, their joy was visible. As they relaxed into a hug, the strength of their bond was reflected in the moment.

“It was an emotional moment,” Wade said.

It wasn’t just a hug that Wade had for Griner, either. When they released each other, Wade pulled out his phone to play a special message for Griner, courtesy of his son, Jet.

“The relationship is bigger than basketball,” Wade said. “What you saw out there had nothing to do with the game. It was my first time seeing her. When you talk about not seeing someone for almost two years, that’s a special moment that has nothing to do with basketball. It has to do with the person, the relationship that we have and the love that we’ve got for each other.”

Wade coached Griner at UMMC Ekaterinburg from 2017 to 2020 and won two EuroLeague titles with her. In her eight years with the team, Griner led it to four titles (2016, 2018, 2019, 2021).

During their time together overseas, Wade said Griner was part of his family, sharing in moments such as birthday parties for his son and various holidays. She even babysat.

Griner’s debut

Griner’s first game back in the WNBA was Friday night against the Sparks. She finished with 18 points, six rebounds, four blocks and two assists in the Mercury’s 94-71 loss.

“With the games coming, she’s a gamer, so I really think [incremental improvements] are going to accelerate,” Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said. “In practice, the contact she received was different from what she received Friday. Those little pieces, some of her trademark moves, you’re seeing those added back in slowly.”

Injury update

After warming up with the Sky, Marina Mabrey was ruled out ahead of Friday’s game with a right ankle injury.

“She has some stuff in her foot that needs to calm down a little bit,” Wade said. “If it was the Finals or the playoffs, she probably could have played. We just want to make sure we’re being precautionary.”

Ruthy Hebard isn’t participating in full basketball activities but has been working out during shootarounds.

Wade said the timeline for her return is fluid.

“You can plan for something one weekend, and then you have to go with what the doctor and [Hebard] think,” Wade said.

“It’s an ongoing situation where we communicate, and we try to make sure she’s in a good place, healthy and [her son] Xzavier is healthy.”

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