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What Phoenix Mercury fans say about Brittney Griner's absence

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The WNBA's Phoenix Mercury are in crunch time trying to reach the playoffs for the 10th straight season. And they are missing star center Brittney Griner. Griner was detained in Russia in February after cannabis oil was found in her luggage. And she is very much on the minds of Mercury fans as the U.S. government negotiates for her return. Matthew Casey with member station KJZZ talked to a few fans at a game last night.

MATTHEW CASEY, BYLINE: The home of the Mercury is a newly remodeled downtown arena. Near where fans are entering to watch them play the LA Sparks, a shoe drive that Brittney Griner organized with the Phoenix Rescue Mission goes on in her absence.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Did you count these already?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, one, two...

CASEY: Zariyah Odom drops off footwear and carries a sign that says, bring Brittney home.

ZARIYAH ODOM: I donated three times, but one of the times, I collected 94 shoes.

CASEY: This soon-to-be seventh-grader loves basketball. Her team is the Mercury, which is an original WNBA franchise that's won three more championships than their NBA brother, the Phoenix Suns. But this season, players have had to learn to win without Griner's unique abilities.

ODOM: They are all obviously affected, as you see on social media, but they're trying their best to do their best.

CASEY: Mercury fans and players long for Griner to return home safely. New hope came this week when it emerged that the U.S. has offered to trade Russia an imprisoned arms dealer for Griner and another American.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: X-Factor, it's time to get on your feet.

CASEY: X-Factor is the Mercury's nickname for fans. Season ticket-holder Patty Talahongva sits near midcourt wearing a T-shirt from Griner's first game with the team - not the only souvenir she brought.

PATTY TALAHONGVA: So this is a signed photo of Brittney Griner's face.

CASEY: Talahongva has met Griner more than once and has pictures to prove it. She says Griner will autograph just about anything fans ask her to.

TALAHONGVA: She is not forgotten, and people care about her. We want her back safe and sound. And we want to see her back on the court, if that's possible.

CASEY: On the other hand, Talahongva says Griner has been through hard times before and could return home even stronger.

TALAHONGVA: What I would say to Brittney is that, you know, X-Factor has your back, man.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Defense. Defense.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And that's the end of the first half.

CASEY: Another season ticket-holding fan of Griner is also a world champion racquetball player. Rhonda Rajsich has been paid pennies on the dollar compared to a male counterpart. She knows it's why elite women basketball players like Griner have to go abroad.

RHONDA RAJSICH: Completely out of line, completely out of balance and needs to be rectified about 15 years ago.

CASEY: Rajsich hopes Russia will accept the U.S. offer and release Griner.

RAJSICH: Do whatever you have to to get her home. She's been gone way too long already.

CASEY: The second half starts, but the game never really gets close. The Mercury notch their second win in a row and are led in scoring by the ageless Diana Taurasi. At a postgame news conference, Taurasi calls the U.S. pitch to free Griner a huge step.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

DIANA TAURASI: You know, these things, as we know and as we see now, aren't as cut and dry as, you know, we would think it would be.

CASEY: Taurasi has been named the greatest WNBA player of all time by ESPN and is expected to soon retire. Mercury fans hope that Griner makes it home first.

For NPR News, I'm Matthew Casey in Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME BUZZER) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Matthew Casey