After Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner was found guilty of drug possession and smuggling and sentenced to nine years in Russian prison on Thursday, government and sports leaders around the country reacted with indignation and concern over the politically charged case.
President Joe Biden denounced the sentence as "unacceptable," which came amid soaring tensions between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine.
"I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends and teammates," Biden said, adding that he would continue to work to bring home Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia on an espionage conviction.
That effort took an unusual public turn last week when Secretary of State Antony Blinken revealed that the U.S. had made a "substantial proposal" aimed at securing the release of the two Americans.
But on Thursday, the 31-year-old Griner, a two-time U.S. Olympic champion and an eight-time WNBA All-Star, listened with a blank expression as an interpreter translated the verdict. Griner also was fined 1 million rubles (about $16,700).
The conviction left the Lynx, whom Griner has faced 26 times in her career, rattled. Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said that her players and coaching staff "have been glued to seeing Brittney in the trial."
"[The players] are all affected by it," Reeve added. "They're having a hard time with it."
Outside the court, the U.S. Embassy's charge d'affaires Elizabeth Rood called the outcome "a miscarriage of justice."
Griner, recognized as one of the WNBA's greatest players ever, has been detained since Feb. 17 after police said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage upon landing at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport. She was returning to Russia, where she has competed internationally in the WNBA offseason since 2014.
As she was led out of court, Griner said: "I love my family."
Reacting to the verdict, Reeve said: "You think about our country, our rules and Russia has a different standard. I think to be charged with criminal intent, that's the absurd part. Again, it's Russia, their legal system is different from ours. That's what you're seeing.''
Lynx players were returning to the Twin Cities on Thursday after a three-game road trip that ended in Seattle. They play Griner's team, which has struggled this season without her, on Wednesday in Phoenix.
"While we knew it was never the legal process that was going to bring our friend home, today's verdict is a sobering milestone in the 168-day nightmare being endured by our sister, BG," the Mercury said in a statement. "We remain heartbroken for her, as we have every day for nearly six months."
Her teammates watched Thursday's trial on television in a locker room in Connecticut, before playing the Sun in an evening matchup. The game was preceded by a 42-second moment of silence — 42 is Griner's number.
"I mean, it's like you're waiting for a bomb to drop watching it, seeing her behind bars," Mercury guard Diamond DeShields said.
"Nobody wanted to even play today," said Skylar Diggins-Smith, another of Griner's Phoenix teammates who scored a team-high 16 points in a 77-64 loss to the Sun. "How are you supposed to approach the game and court with a clear mind?
"The whole group is crying before the game. You try to honor her and still play hard for her. Regardless of whether she's here or not. Right now, we still got to try and keep her spirit alive. Honor her spirit."
In a joint statement, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called the verdict "unjustified and unfortunate, but not unexpected and Brittney Griner remains wrongly detained. The WNBA and NBA's commitment to her safe return has not wavered and it is our hope that we are near the end of this process of finally bringing BG home to the United States."
The nine-year sentence was close to the maximum of 10 years that Griner had faced under the charges. Most Russians possessing small quantities of drugs get at most five years in prison, lawyers said.
Defense attorney Maria Blagovolina told reporters later that Griner was "very upset, very stressed. She can hardly talk. It's a difficult time for her."
Before the unusually swift verdict was reached, an emotional Griner apologized to her family, teammates and the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, where she plays, "for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them."
With her voice cracking, she added: "I hope in your ruling it does not end my life."
Griner has 10 days to appeal, and her lawyers say they expect a hearing in Moscow regional court next week.
On July 27, Blinken said Washington has offered a deal to Russia aimed at bringing home Griner and Whelan in a sharp reversal of previous policy. Details of the proposal were not announced, though a person familiar with the matter said the U.S. has offered to trade convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner and Whelan. The person insisted on anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
Russian media have speculated repeatedly that Griner could be swapped for Bout, nicknamed "the Merchant of Death," who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. after being convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization. Russia has agitated for Bout's release for years.
The severity of Griner's sentence could give Russia leverage in a swap by increasing pressure on Washington to negotiate her release.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.