By Michael Marot
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard had one goal before taking the court June 11.
She wants the WNBA to take additional steps to keep her team’s traveling parties safe and secure.
One day after Mercury center Brittney Griner was confronted by a “provocateur” at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, the two coaches and a handful of players suggested more charter flights could help prevent any future run-ins with outsiders.
“We will ensure that our players and our organization and our staff are safe,” she said. “We will be making (travel) adjustments that maybe should have happened before, but right now we’re going to prioritize the safety of our players and we’ve seen that the organization has supported us.”
The incident certainly didn’t impact Griner’s performance. She scored a season high 29 points and grabbed six rebounds in an 85-82 victory, just the second this season for the Mercury.
Griner usually speaks to reporters following the first road trip to each city, but Mercury officials decided to not make her available June 11.
Clearly, though, the incident had an impact on Phoenix. Longtime star Diana Taurasi’s pregame advice to Griner was simply to “breathe” and Taurasi asked the league not to shrug it off.
“It’s unnerving to be in a situation like that and unfortunately, it was literally the first time we were in public together,” said Taurasi, who turned 41 on June 11. “That can’t happen for our players or coaches. The safety of everyone comes first; basketball is secondary to all that. People have families, kids and to be put in that situation really is pretty disrespectful not only to BG but to our team, to the league. So hopefully they can take steps into making sure the security of our players throughout the league is at the forefront.”
Nygaard echoed those comments during a 75-second pregame statement in which she offered support for Griner and concern about everyone who made the trip to Indy. She also said Phoenix already has adjusted its plans for future road trips though she declined to provide details, citing league policy and team safety protocols.
The controversy stems from a 93-second video posted June 11 by Alex Stein, who was shouting at Griner. He questioned Griner on topics ranging from whether she hated America to whether the trade for a Russian prisoner was a fair deal to obtain her release from Russia. Griner was released in December after being detained in Russia for nearly 10 months on drug charges.
She did not respond to Stein and has not spoken publicly about the airport incident since it occurred.
“No one should be a victim of targeted harassment,” Nygaard said. “I’m grateful that our team and our staff are physically well and most of all I’m grateful that BG has been back here in the United States for 185 days now. If her being home makes some people mad, I think that obviously says more about them than it does about her.”
Griner has been warmly received by crowds at home and on the road all season. This past week, she played twice her home state of Texas and Indianapolis was no different June 11 as fans gave her the loudest ovation of any opponent during player introductions.
Griner’s security has been a concern since before the season began. Even then, league officials were talking to Mercury officials and the All-Star center’s representatives about how to protect Griner and her teammates following the highly-publicized case.
The league granted Griner permission to book her own charter flights. Charter flights were added for the entire playoffs this year as well as a handful of back-to-back regular-season games were scheduled for such flights. WNBA teams have flown commercially during the regular season since the league’s inception in 1997.
But the June 10 incident may force everyone in the league to revisit the issue.
“That’s obviously nothing no one wants to deal with, especially on a business trip for work,” Phoenix center Brianna Turner said, noting the players were escorted to a more private room in the airport. “We’re representing the league, we’re representing the city of Phoenix, our organization and in times like that we don’t want to cause a big scene. We don’t want to, like, throw phones or say some things.”
Around the league, the reaction was almost unanimous.
Breanna Stewart, who is on the executive committee of the players’ union said everyone would support Griner flying privately.
“I think that, you know, that there needs to be extra precautionary measures taken and, you know, I don’t think anyone is against BG having charter flights whenever she wants, so that she can be herself and travel and be comfortable and be safe,” Stewart said. “Because that’s the last thing we want is what happened yesterday.”
Longtime friend and former teammate Emma Cannon did not hide her disgust about what happened to Griner, a godparent of Cannon’s son. “I’m not going to lie, that made me very angry,” the Fever forward said. “Then I saw a little snippet of the video, which was upsetting and then for that to be her first time flying commercial with the team like that, it’s upsetting.”
AP basketball writer Doug Feinberg in New York contributed to this report.