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Coach Cheryl Reeve admitted Wednesday the fate of "gentle soul" Brittney Griner was weighing heavily on the USA team at the basketball World Cup in Sydney, with the jailed star's No.15 jersey not being used at the tournament.
Griner, a standout when the team won gold at the Tokyo Olympics last year, would ordinarily be with the squad as it attempts to claim a fourth straight title, starting Thursday against Belgium.
But instead the 31-year-old is in a Russian prison, sentenced to nine years in a penal colony after being arrested at a Moscow airport in February for possessing vape cartridges with a small amount of cannabis oil.
Reeve said Griner would be "top of mind" throughout the 10-day tournament, and revealed players had been in touch with her to send messages of support.
"The mindset is just trying to stay strong for her and doing what we can," Reeve said on a Zoom call, describing Griner as "a gentle soul, just full of love".
She added that players had been able to communicate with their teammate via email, sending "messages of love and support and strength".
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"It's on their minds every day. It's heavy, it is really, really heavy especially as we participate in this USA basketball competition," she added. "She's such a big part of many of our lives, so it's challenging."
As a mark of respect, no one from the USA team will don Griner's usual No.15 jersey in Sydney.
"To keep Brittney top of mind, no one will wear the No.15. That will be the first way to honour her and keep her in our thoughts," said Reeve.
US President Joe Biden met Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, last week as top officials work to bring the player home, with Moscow in August saying it was ready to discuss a prisoner swap.
A White House statement released afterwards did not include details about the status of talks with Russia, but National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said "discussions are ongoing" to secure Griner's release.
"People are hard at work and I think the biggest thing is that we know it's top of mind for many, many people that are a part of this process and they're working very, very hard to try and get Brittney home," said Reeve.
When she was arrested, the two-time Olympic basketball gold medallist and Women's NBA champion had been in Russia to play for the professional Yekaterinburg team, during her off-season from the Phoenix Mercury.
She pleaded guilty to the charges, but said she did not intend to break the law or use the banned substance in Russia.
Griner had testified that she had permission from a US doctor to use medicinal cannabis to relieve pain from her many injuries, and had never failed a drug test.
The use of medical marijuana is not allowed in Russia.
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