On June 18, the Phoenix Mercury and the Dallas Wings crossed paths for the first time in the WNBA's 20th season. The game was one for the ages, featuring a fight-to-the-finish through three arduous overtimes, a rarity in the WNBA, and only the second in twenty seasons for the Mercury.
Skylar Diggins showed signs of her old self with 27 points, and earned some of her first real minutes of the season after returning from her torn ACL. DeWanna Bonner came off the bench and tied her career high with 38 points. There were 86 combined free throw attempts, 29 lead changes, 14 moments in which the game was tied and three hours and six minutes on the clock before the final buzzer sounded and the Wings walked away with a 117-111 win.
But the vast majority of headlines and leading storylines on the game focused on few, if any, of the compelling highlights or statistics that came with the nail-biter triple overtime. The media build up both before and after the game instead pitted ex-spouses Glory Johnson of the Wings and Brittney Griner of the Mercury against each other, marketing the match-up as a battle waged between the two players, rather than between the two teams.
The main game story featured across multiple platforms like USA Today, the Associated Press and ESPN touted the game as an "[i]ndividual match-up: Brittney Griner against Glory Johnson for the first time since their acrimonious divorce." The WNBA's own game story focused heavily on Griner and Johnson, and espnW similarly published posts on social media that depicted the game as Johnson and Griner's first encounter since their divorce. Two days after the triple overtime game in Phoenix, the Mercury and Wings met again in Dallas. The game was broadcast live on ESPN2, with the discussion returning, albeit briefly, to Johnson and Griner at halftime.
Griner and Johnson's troubles have burned a seemingly permanent hole in the pages of tabloids, celebrity news websites like TMZ, and social media posts. The two became embroiled in public controversy following a domestic violence arrest in April 2015, followed by an eventual divorce. Johnson has since given birth to healthy twins, and reports and court documents indicate that Griner is paying child support.
It Takes Away From the Game
After over a year of non-stop coverage of their personal dispute, the players themselves are ready to have the focus back on matters on, rather than off, the basketball court.
"The media can sometimes make things messier than they really are," Griner told Excelle Sports in an interview following the Mercury's win at Madison Square Garden against the New York Liberty on Sunday. "I wish they would stop, honestly."
"It should be about the game," Griner continued, of the stories and headlines surrounding the Wings and Mercury. "It's unfortunate that the media gets tied up in mine and Glory's off the court stuff. It takes away from the game and, most of all, it takes away from what all of the great players are doing on the court."
Good Media, Bad Media
One of those great players is longtime league veteran and All-Star Diana Taurasi, who has witnessed Griner become entrenched in the exposure of her relationship with Johnson in the public eye. Taurasi is no stranger to being the focus of attention for off-the-court reasons. She garnered an onslaught of public attention after receiving a DWI in 2009, and was back in the headlines again in 2010 after a lab in Turkey released a false-positive drug test—of which she was eventually vindicated— while she was competing overseas.
EspnW's Kate Fagan documented how Griner and Taurasi spent the WNBA's offseason competing together in Russia on the powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg. During her time overseas, Griner was able to tune out the chaos of her personal life and disconnect from the limelight.
It's a different story for her on American soil, where the gossip-hungry nature of the Internet digests clicks on stories like Griner and Johnsons's at rapid speed.
While Griner still stands in the line of fire, Taurasi ultimately emerged on the other side unscathed and with an understanding that heightened attention to circumstances that occur off the court is often a cruel twist of fate for a league that struggles to gain visibility for the game itself and the quality of the play on the court.
It's something that Taurasi, however begrudgingly, has grown to accept after her twelve seasons in the WNBA.
"The media always wants the drama, which is fine," Taurasi told Excelle Sports on Sunday. "Good media, bad media, I guess you could argue we need it all right now anyway."
But Taurasi knows when it's time to draw the line, and expressed her hopes that the storylines move forward to coverage of the game and the team in general, so that the players can move on as well.
"They've made amends with the situation. It hasn't been easy. But I think they're both at a point now where they just want it to be about their basketball careers," Taurasi said of Johnson and Griner. "These last two games were good to just get out there, get it over with, and now hopefully 'BG' can move forward."
Does It Come With the Territory?
The increased attention to Griner and Johnson has spawned animosity for the players on social media, and even on the court. Following the triple-overtime game, Griner faced a barrage of attacks and cyber-bullying on Twitter and Instagram on Father's Day.
Post after post mockingly congratulated her for being a father.
"You pay child support," one tweet read. "That means you are a guy."
When her mentions shot up on Twitter and the attacks became overwhelming in number, Griner fired back with tweets of her own.
As she sat in the visiting locker room at the Garden, Griner shook her head at the mention of the comments—as well as her responses to them— and frowned.
"I wish I wouldn't have responded the way I did. Nobody can really understand to be on social media every single day, to face those things. Everyone has good days and bad days. If I have a bad day, and I have to go home and see these people saying these things to me on social media, it becomes breaking news," Griner said.
Like Taurasi, Griner knows that a position in the spotlight is one that is inevitably intertwined with the life of a professional basketball player—even if the coverage doesn't focus on the sport itself.
"I understand it comes with the territory," she acknowledged.
Johnson likewise faced attacks at Talking Stick Resort in Phoenix. She took to social media with a plea to future spectators and fans of Wings and Mercury matchups. Johnson wrote that the Mercury's fans had taunted her, and asked Dallas Wings fans not to mimic the behavior in future match-ups between the two teams. "[L]et's make WNBA games a pleasant experience for everyone," the post read.
Griner Moving Forward
Griner echoed Taurasi's sentiments that she's made amends with Johnson.
"There's no bad blood between us," Griner explained. "Everyone thinks we're going at each other on the court. We're not. We actually talked about it a little bit, and everything is good. We both wish everyone would just stop."
Moving forward, Griner's hope is that the buzz surrounding her personal life can become background noise as she concentrates on the season, and on getting the Mercury back on track after a rough start. Phoenix, though pegged to win the WNBA championship in preseason polls, gave up its first four games in a row and is currently 6-9 on the season.
The team's struggles coincided with Griner's own setbacks on the court. She returned this season following a long campaign overseas with Taurasi to secure a Euroleague title for UMMC. Upon her arrival back in the states, Griner experienced pain in her knee and sported a knee brace throughout the beginning of the WNBA season. She averaged just 8.7 shot attempts per game early on, down from 10 per game in 2015, and 11 in 2014.
Recently, Griner discarded the brace, and is moving well on the court without signs of injury.
"The knee was killing me in the beginning. I came back from a long season in Russia. It was bothering me, but I was able to get out of the brace with the help of my trainer, and I was able to get past that and get to the season," she said.
When Griner started going up big, the Mercury followed suit. Griner has scored in double digits in the Mercury's past four games. She had 22 points against Dallas against Washington on 10-15 shooting, leading the Mercury to a decisive 91-79 win over the Mystics.
The Mercury secured its second road game in a row in Sunday afternoon's overtime win against the Liberty. Griner filled the stat sheet with 16 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks, and the headlines after the game were notably different than those published following Phoenix's match-up against Dallas: "Mercury take Down Liberty in Overtime at MSG."
Sunday's overtime thriller was a forecast of what the Mercury still has the potential to be this season. All 5 starters scored in double figures, including a stand-out 26 point performance from Candice Dupree, who has been relatively quiet thus far this season. Taurasi, true to form, came up with the biggest play of the game in the last seconds of regulation, sinking three free throws and sending the game to overtime and Phoenix's eventual win.
With recent acquisitions of All-Star forward and center Kelsey Bone and veteran point guard Lindsey Harding, Taurasi racking up player of the week honors, and Griner returning to peak form, the Mercury look poised to finally fulfill the high expectations of the team from the preseason.
"We're starting to turn it around. We've got all of the pieces now, and everybody is contributing. It's really feeling [great] right now," Griner said.
They face Dallas again on July 5, and while Griner is intent on tuning out the background noise, she still holds out hope that, this time around, the coverage of the game and the public reaction to it will be different.
"Maybe next time, hopefully, the headlines will talk about what happened in the game," she said.