Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi on cover of NBA 2K23 WNBA edition
Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi have been linked for more than two decades, playing together at UConn and then helping the U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team win five gold medals.
Now the basketball greats will appear on the cover of the NBA 2K23 WNBA edition video game that will be released on Sept. 9.
“Is is really, really cool personally, and I also think it, you know being that we’re women and it’s now the second time they’ve had women on the cover it’s it’s meaningful has special in a different way as well,” Bird said.
It’s the second straight year that the video game will feature a WNBA athlete on one of its covers; Candace Parker was on it last year.
“The response to NBA 2K’s first WNBA Edition last year was overwhelmingly positive and a testament to the W’s growing audience and prominence,” said Alfie Brody, Vice President of Global Marketing Strategy at 2K. “Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi have achieved greatness both individually and together, cementing their status as two of the best players in the WNBA’s history.”
Bird and Taurasi said they played video games a bit when they were younger, but there were no female basketball players on the games.
“You know you have all these little girls playing basketball, and they can actually start gaming now with you know, hopefully, two of their favorite players on the cover,” Taurasi said. “It just shows you how far gaming and women’s basketball has come.”
Bird feels that being on the cover and having WNBA players in the video game will help normalize the presence of female athletes in the lives of both boys and girls.
“Whether it’s girls or boys, whether it’s women, men it doesn’t really matter and that’s that’s the beauty of it,” Bird said. “It’s just becoming like a normal part of this ecosystem that is professional sports and gaming is a big part of that ecosystem so to be involved in it now it’s just going to continue to push things forward and just open up more doors and open up more minds.”
NBA 2K is also partnering with the WNBA stars to donate $100,000 to Every Kid Sports, giving young people the opportunity to join youth basketball programs across the country. The donation will cover the registration fees of over 550 girls from income-restricted families.
“Girls are dropping out of sports at an alarming rate, and I think part of it is they’re not always able to dream of what could be a career that could be it’s really easy for little boys,” Bird said. “Whether you make it or not, it’s actually not the point. But it’s really easy for little boys that turned on the TV to see what life could be like, if I stayed with my sport.”
Griner, who led the Phoenix Mercury to a WNBA championship in 2014, earned seven All-Star appearances and led the league in scoring twice (2017, 2019), is a 6-foot-9 Baylor alum. She is a two-time WNBA defensive player of the year and two-time Olympic gold medalist. She is often referred to as "BG" by friends and teammates. Her agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, wrote in an essay for The Times that Griner has a megawatt smile, gives the warmest hugs you'll ever receive, keeps shoes in the trunk of her to car to give to people experiencing houselessness around Phoenix and does volunteer work with kids who are bullied as she was as a child. Like many of her peers, she chose to spend her WNBA offseason competing in Russia. She played for UMMC Ekaterinburg, an elite club whose salaries far exceed the combined value of her WNBA and endorsement revneue.
On Feb.17, just before the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Griner was en route to join her club in Ekaterinburg after a FIBA team break when Russian officials took Griner into custody at a Moscow airport and charged her with drug smuggling. Authorities say they found vape cartridges containing hashish oil, an illegal substance in Russia, in Griner's luggage. Some national security analysts question whether Griner was actually carrying the vape cartridges, suggesting the charge has yet to be proved. Under Russian law, Griner could face up to 10 years in prison. On June 14, Griner's detention was extended a third time to July 2, and it's unclear when she will face trial.
The U.S. State Department classified Griner as "wrongfully detained" on April 29.
"Though she was arrested by a state government abroad, the U.S. government considers that arrest illegitimate," said Danielle Gilbert, an assistant professor of military and strategic studies at the United States Air Force Academy whose expertise centers around hostage taking and hostage recovery. "An international detention can be illegitimate for a number of reasons, including the fact that a foreign government might be holding her hostage, which is to say using her for leverage."
The United States' basis for this designation is codified in a law passed in 2020 called the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act. The act outlines what constitutes a wrongful detainment. Among the criteria is that the U.S. government expects an American is being used as a hostage or that it has identified issues with a given nation's criminal justice system.
Gilbert suggests that it wouldn't be far-fetched to consider Griner, a high-profile American, a hostage. The delay of her hearing is one warning sign. "You don't foot-drag if it's a normal criminal trial," Gilbert said.
The other red flag is reports by several state-owned Russian news outlets stating the country wants to engage in a prisoner swap with the U.S. "You don't exchange prisoners if it's a normal criminal proceeding," Gilbert said.
Some critics have suggested Griner put herself in a bad situation and deserves some level of punishment for breaking local laws, but Colas said the focus should be on her classification as wrongfully detained.
"It's not about guilt or innocence," Colas told The Times. "What matters is that she is being classified as wrongfully detained because she is being used as a political pawn."
State department spokesman Ned Price described Griner's detention as "problematic from top to bottom." The last time U.S. consular officers in Russia had contact with the basketball star was in May, but Price said earlier this month specialized detainee-rescue teams and U.S. diplomats were "working assiduously behind the scenes" while making "regular contact with Russian authorities."
"It is precisely why we have characterized Brittney Griner as a wrongful detainee," Price said. "It is precisely why we are doing everything we can to see and to effect her prompt release from Russian detention."
U.S. officials first saw Griner on March 23, more than a month after she was arrested, and "found her to be in good condition," according Price.
Griner is able to receive limited letters from family members, friends and teammates that are screened by Russian officials, but she notably has not spoken to her wife, Cherelle, since her detention began. A call was arranged during their anniversary last week, but the U.S. government confirmed to the Associated Press there was a miscommunication about the timing and no one at the U.S. embassy in Moscow was available to connect the call. The call is being rescheduled, but it still falls short of the level of contact her supporters are seeking.
"While sporadic, written communication from her wife, family, friends and global sport community has been a source of comfort for Brittney during her wrongful detainment, going without real time, regular contact with loved ones is inhumane," Colas said in a statement after CNN first reported the correspondence.
Earlier in March, a source close to Griner told ESPN , "I wouldn't say she's 'good,' but she's OK."
As of June, Griner has been detained for four months. Her detention could stretch for a significant period of time.
"State hostage takings last far longer than kidnappings by non-state actors [a criminal, terrorist or rebel group] and it's usually in the territory of months if not years," Gilbert said.
Paul Whelan, a fellow American wrongfully detained in Russia, has been in custody since 2018. Siamak Namazi has been wrongfully detained in Iran since 2015. Iranian officials arrested his father, Baquer, while he was in Iran to visit his imprisoned son in 2016. The elder Namazi also remains in custody.
Nneka Ogwumike, a Sparks forward and president of the WNBA Player's Association also represented by Colas, told The Times Griner's supporters are calling on the U.S. government to bring Griner home.
"We implore upon the White House, the Biden administration, Vice President Kamala Harris to do something," Ogwumike said. " To show action that shows that she is high priority because that's not what's happening. That's not what we're seeing. Words can only go so far. We have to feel the action, and every day without BG is every day of a reality we don't want to be a part of. But we're going to continue to raise awareness and bring attention to the White House and what needs to be done."
Griner's team has enlisted the help of Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor, U.N. ambassador and foreign diplomat who negotiated the April release of Trevor Reed, a former marine who had been detained in Russia since 2019.
Richardson said during an interview with HBO's "Real Sports" in May that he feels confident in securing Griner's release. He said he's had success in hostage negotiations because, while his team works closely with the State Department and White House, they act independently and don't take orders from them. In service to the victim's families, Richardson also focuses more on the humanitarian aspect of the negotiations rather than the political implications
"Yes, I'm an American, but they don't see me as a messenger of the American government. But they see me as somebody they've dealt with before, so they deal with me," Richardson told host Bryant Gumbel. "But it was President Biden that made the ultimate decision for the prisoner exchange — Trevor Reed for [Russian pilot and convicted drug smuggler Konstantin] Yaroshenko."
Colas said she and Griner's supporters want Biden to make a deal for the basketball star to return home — "swiftly and safely." And she'd like to see more people push for that.
"The folks you've seen speak out, and you'll see a lot more, represent a really broad coalition and a real opportunity to recognize the cross section of communities that Brittney connects to that matter and that are collectively so powerful," Colas said.
Whelan, the other American wrongfully detained in Russia on espionage charges, became a prisoner before officials arrested Reed in 2019. Reed's release before Whelan's indicates that hostage negotiations aren't linear and depend on each individual case.
Reed had health issues, which may have had a significant influence on Richardson's negotiations. Whether Griner or Whelan will return first is uncertain.
Griner's high profile might complicate her case. Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer dubbed the "Merchant of Death," who has been imprisoned in the U.S. since 2008 reportedly may be the person Russian officials want released in exchange for the basketball star.
U.S. officials charged Bout with smuggling military-grade weapons to rebels in Africa and abroad, and a federal judge sentenced him to 25 years in prison. Deemed by a longtime DEA agent as "one of the most dangerous men on the face of the earth," Bout made $50 million supplying arms to the Taliban, according to the U.S. treasury department.
Russia has bargained for his release since his 2012 conviction, but the U.S. hasn't budged. Bout's value to Russia lies in his military intelligence connections and his service to Russia's foreign policy interest under Vladimir Putin, according to the report from Yahoo Sports.
Some, including the federal judge who presided over his case, suggested it a worthy trade.
While the U.S. has a history of trading prisoners to get American citizens released from wrongful detention, it is cautious about those negotiations, in part, to avoid putting American citizens traveling abroad in danger of being detained and held for ransom.
Griner is a Black, gender non-conforming, lesbian woman. Supporters have suggested her marginalized identities explain why she received muted media coverage upon her arrest and why the government has not moved to free her.
Coverage of Griner's detainment was initially hushed to prioritize her well-being and to make her less alluring to Russian officials hoping to utilize her celebrity as leverage.
"It was on the advice of the State Department and many, many experts to have it be muted early and that was really just out of respect for BG's safety," Colas said.
But she added: "If Brittney had been an A-level male celebrity or athlete, we would not have been able to stay at all muted. It would have spun wildly big very quickly."
Male athletes and white victims of crime tend to receive more coverage, but Griner's identities might have less direct influence on her ability to escape from a legal standpoint and more impact on whether the public and top officials will rally behind her enough to pressure the U.S. government to act.
"At the end of the day, the process to bring home a wrongful detainee is painstaking, behind-the-scenes negotiations," Gilbert said. "More American sympathy and protest and attention to her case is not going to convince the Russian government that they should let her go, but more attention and sympathy for her case might put pressure on the White House that they can't let up."
Colas suggests rallying behind Griner would start new conversations about diversity and identity, in addition to bringing her home.
"The challenges that BG represents in her very intersectional identity is also an opportunity," Colas said. "Maybe we'll get to look back and say this was a unifying moment for a broad cross section of intersectional diverse communities and say this person matters to all of us."
Once the U.S. government officially classified Griner as wrongfully detained, Colas and her team focused on a public and private strategy for rallying support for bringing the star home. Griner's WNBA teammates and numerous NBA players, including Lakers star LeBron James, have joined celebrities and musicians wearing clothing and posting messages in support of Griner.
Her supporters, including her wife, have done extensive local and national media interviews and a wide range of groups have endorsed their efforts. The WNBA and NBA both have repeatedly called for Griner's release, adding her initials to WNBA courts and making her an honorary all-star to call further attention to her detention.
In a letter sent to the White House on Wednesday, 44 organizations — including the National Organization for Women, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Urban League — called for Biden to arrange a deal for Griner's release.
On Friday, the House passed Rep. Greg Stanton's resolution calling on the Russian government to immediately release Griner and supporting U.S. government efforts to secure her release.
In addition to letters of support from high-profile figures, clothing and pins featuring "We are BG" that keep Griner in the spotlight and social media campaigns, supporters started a petition to help demonstrate how many people want to see Griner released.
The strategy is comparable to past efforts to get wrongfully incarcerated individuals released from U.S. prisons and swing support in favor of Raphael Warnock's successful run for U.S. Senate in Georgia.
The petition calling for Griner's release , which has more than 275,000 signatures, can be found at WeAreBG.org. The website also features information about Griner's case to help explain what it means to be wrongfully detained.
"People need to be aware of this. Do you want your child, your sister, your friend, your family taken in as a political pawn? Forget being a celebrity. Most of the people are normal people. Normal people without resources and teams and advisers," Colas said. "This should matter because most wrongful detainees are not celebrities and it could happen to anyone if we don't act and prioritize all wrongfully detained Americans."
Colas said the goal is to accumulate at least half a million signatures on the petition and send it to the White House to illustrate the strong support for bringing Griner home.
FILE - United States's Diana Taurasi, left, and Sue Bird pose with their gold medals during the medal ceremony for women's basketball at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021, in Saitama, Japan. Bird and aurasi have been linked for more than two decades, playing together at UConn and then helping the U.S. Olympic women's basketball team win five gold medals. Now the basketball greats will appear on the cover of the NBA 2K23 WNBA edition video game that will be released on Sept. 9.(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)