Matt Katz: We're back on The Takeaway. I'm Matt Katz in for Melissa Harris-Perry.
It's now been more than eight months since Russian authorities detained Brittney Griner at the Moscow Airport. The WNBA superstar admitted in July to accidentally bringing small amounts of cannabis oil into the country and was sentenced to nine years in prison close to the maximum allowed under law. Last month, a Russian court upheld that sentence on appeal. Griner addressed the court from behind bars.
Brittney Griner: It's been very, very stressful and very traumatic amount of mental and psyche being away from my family and not being able to communicate.
Matt Katz: Griner had been in Russia playing for Russia's Premier League, which has long been a popular destination for both male and female basketball players to compete and earn money in the offseason. Out of protest over Griner's imprisonment, not a single WNBA player is returning to Russia this winter. Here to talk more about Griner and the experience for American basketball players in Russia is James Wade, Griner's former coach in Russia at UMMC Ekaterinburg. He's currently the general manager and head coach of the WNBA's Chicago Sky. Coach Wade, thanks for coming on The Takeaway.
James Wade: Thanks for having me, man.
Matt Katz: We're going to get to the situation involving Brittney Griner in a moment, but first, I was hoping you might be able to give us some perspective here, you spent much of your professional basketball playing career and coaching career in Europe, including long stretches in Russia. Why do American basketball players, particularly women, play in Europe often during the offseason? What are their experiences like?
James Wade: It's a way for them to boost their income. It's also a way for them to perfect their craft. I think a lot of times when the season it's not as long as their counterparts, the NBA season, you have a lot of downtime and so by playing overseas, whether it be Europe, Asia, or Australia, it's a way to play more basketball to perfect the craft that you love. At the same time, it also gives you an uptick in your income that is always welcome.
Matt Katz: Particularly for female basketball players in the WNBA, who do not make anything near what the millions that NBA players are making.
James Wade: For sure and that's always going to be a topic of discussion, as far as the money that the players are able to make during the highlight of their athletic abilities. That's something that's evolving and I know for sure that it's a part that the WNBA has made strides to try to improve on. We're just hoping that it continues to create spaces for players that they don't have to play overseas if they don't want to, or they don't have to play overseas if it's only for income purposes.
We're making strides in that direction, but it's always going to be a topic of discussion because the players, they deserve the best that they can get especially during their prime years of being able to show off their athletic gifts. You want them to be in a situation after they're playing where they're doing stuff that they want to do not stuff that they have to do.
Matt Katz: Brittney Griner, like yourself, is a Black American. Did you face animosity, racism, in Russia from either fans or the government when you were coaching there? Did you experience anything that could have foreshadowed this harsh treatment of Brittney and her detention?
James Wade: When I was there, I never really experienced anything that would cause me to be in a situation where I was nervous or, I guess, afraid for my life. Mostly, the fans were great. The organization treated us with the utmost respect. I never was in a situation where I thought that I was being victimized because of my race or anything like that. Of course, you always run into unruly people around, that probably happened to me maybe once or twice but nothing that I can just say, "Hey, it's time for me to get out of here because I'm afraid for my life."
I had some great years there, met some great people and, like I said, the organization, they treated us well. Everything that's going on with Brittney is very unfortunate and I don't think it's something that anybody could've foreshadowed and say, "This is--" Players have been going to Russia and specifically playing in that club for years. I remember when I first got overseas, that was around the time I think DeLisha Milton-Jones and Yolanda Griffith were in Ekaterinburg and so they had helped secure a good reputation for that club and many star players followed. Now, this is really unprecedented, I think, and really is probably one of the oddest things that we've experienced in the world of basketball, especially with players playing overseas.
Matt Katz: When you were in Russia, you coached Brittney Griner, and you guys were quite successful, you won championships. Can you tell me a little bit about the success you guys had on the court and what Brittney was like to coach?
James Wade: We were a dominant team. While I was there, we won two EuroLeagues in a row and we were on our way to a third before the pandemic hit. They were able to follow that up with another one soon thereafter. We won three Russian championships and two Super Cups, we won mostly everything while I was there, and BG was the main focal point of our offense a lot of the time. Her being a great person off the floor, she just fit in with the environment and the culture that they tried to create especially bringing star players in.
The one thing that they always welcomed and promoted was the stars being so reachable and touchable to fans. She was maybe, I guess, the player that was the most interactive with the fans and really the face of the franchise for so long. I'm sure it's hitting us hard, but I'm sure it's hitting their fan base hard as well. She's really down to earth and always stopping to take pictures, sign autographs, and doing skits that showed on the jumbotron, she would do those a lot. You can see the fans get a rise out of that every time she would do them. She was very interactive, and she's a big star there.
I'm sure it's tough for everyone but it's not as tough as it is for her family and friends and our league in the WNBA, we missed her a lot this year. Not just on the court, fact that she's not at home, safe and just with her family and friends. It gives us a peace of mind when we know all our players are at a good place.
Matt Katz: For sure, that must have cast a shadow over this past season. Have you been involved in advocating for Brittney's release? I know you've made several public statements, you've been interviewed about it. Is there anything else that you're able to do?
James Wade: I don't know. I'm open for anything and suggestions. I'm in a situation where I try to use my voice as much as possible. We're in consistent contact with the league and just trying to find other avenues of what best ways we can help. I always try to stay in contact with her representation just to know if I'm taking the right steps, if I'm doing the right thing. I know this is a delicate situation so I don't want to overstep in any way. I don't want to misrepresent anyone in any way so I try to be as careful as possible. I'm nervous about trying to do too much as well so I just tried to make sure that I'm there for her in any way that I can be.
I know my voice is not as strong out there as a lot of our star players in the league. I just try to play my part, even if it's the best part everybody has a role. Whatever they need me to do, I'm willing to do. This is just me trying to do whatever I can just to bring awareness to her situation and not let us get bored with talking about her and just keeping this at the top of everybody's mind.
Matt Katz: Sure. There's been suggestions that Brittney's situation might have been handled differently and might have been treated differently if she was a NBA superstar, not a WNBA superstar. Do you think that's true?
James Wade: I do. I think it's-- first, she wouldn't be in this situation but I just feel like-- I see the comments and stuff that are made about her. We do a bad job I think of recognizing the constitution and people's rights and really appreciating the people that are in the minority as far as women as far as Black people. I think she falls on a double-edged sword as far as her being an African American woman, as far as her being a woman. I think it's probably one of the least appreciated race-gender mixes in our society.
I just feel sorry for a lot of people who they call themselves Christians, and they say, "It's a Christian society, but this is how we treat people." It's disheartening that it's like that, because I see the comments and I take note of what people say. Once you can put faces on how people sound, you know that we're not in a good place.
Matt Katz: James Wade is the head coach and general manager of the WNBA's Chicago Sky. Coach Wade, thanks very much for coming on The Takeaway to talk about Brittney Griner. Best of luck to the Sky next season.
James Wade: All right, thank you, I really appreciate it. I appreciate you giving us a voice for this and hopefully, we'll have Brittney home and enough time where this won't be a topic of discussion come next season.
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