Adam Silver confident in WNBA, plans to be more involved

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NEW YORK — Adam Silver has been heavily involved with the WNBA since the start.

Now the NBA Commissioner plans to “redouble his efforts” after WNBA President Laurel J. Richie announced on Wednesday she was stepping down.

“I’m a true believer in this league,” Silver said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. “I’ve been at it for 20 years, spent a lot of my time over the last 20 years largely behind the scenes, working on television deals, selling sponsorships, working on marketing. We can do more. It isn’t just management of the WNBA and NBA, we need the larger sports community to do more.”

Next season will mark the league’s 20th anniversary and Silver was there at the beginning, working with Val Ackerman and Gary Stevenson to help draft the business plan in 1996.

Silver said about six weeks ago he thought the WNBA “would have broken through by now,” which he said wasn’t meant to be a criticism of Richie.

“I’m sorry she’s leaving. She did an excellent job over the last five years, but there remains a lot of work to do,” he said. “Obviously, I made comments not so long ago about my disappointment. It was not about Laurel in any way, but where the WNBA stands in its 19th year as we go into its 20th year.”

Silver said he has talked to all of the league’s owners over the past few days since Richie informed him of her decision to leave.

“They are also 100 percent committed to continue to grow the league,” he said.

Connecticut Sun President and CEO Mitchell Etess echoed Silver’s thoughts.

“I’m not concerned at all about the timing of this,” he said. “The league’s in a great place. The ESPN contract, the quality of play is really good. With college basketball, more people follow the league. The folks at the home office are confident they will find someone who will continue this upward trend to get us to the next level.”

NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum will oversee the WNBA until a new president is hired. A search for the new league president will begin immediately.

“We will take however long it’s necessary to do a thorough process,” Silver said. “The discussions with Laurel happened over a very quick period. It was unexpected. We don’t have a secret list in the drawer.”

Richie took on her role as president in May 2011, becoming the first African-American to lead a major sports league.

“I will let others speak to the legacy. That’s a pretty big word,” said Richie, who made it clear the decision to leave was her own.

“I would say it was an amazing ride. … It’s been a pretty rich experience. I tend to put my heart and soul into it. That means when you choose to step down you do so without regret.”

In her five seasons at the helm, Richie led initiatives to improve the visibility of the league’s players.

She helped ensure a measure of financial stability for teams by completing an eight-year collective bargaining agreement with the players and extending a contract with ESPN through 2025.

The league closed out its 19th season with a stellar, five-game WNBA Finals in which Minnesota beat Indiana in a series that drew strong ratings.

“While I’m still in shock, I am thankful for what Laurel has done in her time with the WNBA,” said Fever star Tamika Catchings. “Wish her nothing but luck in her future endeavors.”

Despite its entertaining playoffs, the WNBA had its lowest average attendance in league history during the regular season. Some of that was due to San Antonio moving arenas while its normal home court was being renovated, and Tulsa announcing it was moving to Dallas in 2016.

Silver said the league’s attendance was his top priority going forward.

Richie had to deal with a lot this past year, including star Brittney Griner being arrested for domestic violence and her brief marriage and divorce from All-Star Glory Johnson.

Diana Taurasi sat out after being paid by her Russian team to skip the WNBA season. Candace Parker missed the first half to rest.

Richie also oversaw the purchase of the Los Angeles Sparks by Guggenheim Partners and Magic Johnson Enterprises in 2014.

“There have been a lot of things that happened on her watch and she did a great job guiding the league through them,” Etess said. “Based on the position of the league now, it’s a much more desirable job than it has been previously. The league’s in a great place, better off than it was five years ago.”

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In rare contact, U.S. offers Russia deal for Griner, Whelan

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WASHINGTON – The U.S. has offered a deal to Russia aimed at bringing home WNBA star Brittney Griner and another jailed American, Paul Whelan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday. In a sharp reversal of previous policy, Blinken also said he expects to speak with his Kremlin counterpart for the first time since before Russia invaded Ukraine to discuss the deal and other matters.

Blinken’s comments marked the first time the U.S. government has publicly revealed any concrete action it has taken to secure the release of Griner, who was arrested on drug-related charges at a Moscow airport in February and testified Wednesday at her trial. Though it is unclear if the proposal will be enough for Russia to release the Americans, the public acknowledgment of the offer at a time when the U.S. has otherwise shunned Russia reflects the mounting pressure on the administration over Griner and Whelan and its determination to get them home.

“We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal, and I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and, I hope, to move us toward a resolution,” Blinken said.

Blinken did not offer details on the proposed deal outlined to the Russians, but U.S. officials suggested it is similar to the prisoner swap that secured the release of Marine veteran Trevor Reed in April. Russia has made no secret of its desire for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout to be freed from U.S. prison and the officials would not rule out that Bout’s release is on the table.

President Joe Biden, who authorized the Reed prisoner swap after meeting with his parents, signed off on the deal the U.S. offered in this case, officials said.

“The president and his team are willing to take extraordinary steps to bring them home,” John Kirby, a White House national security spokesman, told reporters.

Should the call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov take place, it would be the first conversation that the men have held since Feb. 15, about a week before Russia invaded Ukraine. U.S. officials said the desire for an answer on the prisoner offer was the primary, but not only, reason that the U.S. on Wednesday requested a new call with Lavrov.

Blinken said he would also be speaking to Lavrov about the importance of Russia complying with a U.N.-brokered deal to free multiple tons of Ukrainian grain from storage and warning him about the dangers of possible Russian attempts to annex portions of eastern and southern Ukraine.

“There is utility to conveying clear, direct messages to the Russians on key priorities for us,” including the release of Griner and Whelan, he said. They also include “what we’re seeing and hearing around the world is a desperate need for the foods, the desperate need for prices to decrease.”

Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison on espionage charges. He and his family have vigorously asserted his innocence. The U.S. government has denounced the charges as false.

Griner, in Russian custody for the last five months, acknowledged in court that she had vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage when she arrived in Moscow in February but contends she had no criminal intent and packed the cartridges inadvertently.

At her trial Wednesday, Griner said she did not know how the cannabis oil ended up in her bag but explained she had a doctor’s recommendation for it and had packed in haste. She said she was pulled aside at the airport after inspectors found the cartridges, but that a language interpreter translated only a fraction of what was said during her questioning and that officials instructed her to sign documents without providing an explanation.

Griner faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting drugs.

The U.S. government has long resisted prisoner swaps out of concern that it could encourage additional hostage-taking and promote false equivalency between a wrongfully detained American and a foreign national regarded as justly convicted. But an earlier deal in April, in which Reed was traded for jailed Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, appeared to open the door to similar resolutions in the future and the Biden administration has been hounded with political pressure to bring home Griner and other Americans designated as unjustly detained.

Russia has for years expressed interest in the release of Bout, a Russian arms dealer once labeled the “Merchant of Death,” who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 on charges that he schemed to illegally sell millions of dollars in weapons.

There was no indication that Blinken and Lavrov had communicated to secure Reed’s release. Their last publicly recognized contact was Feb. 22, when Blinken wrote to Lavrov to cancel a meeting they had planned as a last-ditch effort to avert the Russian invasion, saying Moscow had shown no interest in serious diplomacy on the matter. The State Department said later that Russia’s diplomacy was “Kabuki Theater” – all show and no substance.

The two last met in person in Geneva in January to discuss what was then Russia’s massive military build-up along Ukraine’s border and Russian demands for NATO to reduce its presence in eastern Europe and permanently deny Ukraine membership. The U.S. rejected the Russian demands.

Blinken and Lavrov avoided each other earlier this month at the next time they were in the same place at the same time: at a meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of 20 nations in Bali, Indonesia.

The two men will next be in the same city at the same time next week in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where they will both be attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum. It was not immediately clear if the phone call ahead of that meeting, set for Aug. 4-5, would presage an in-person discussion.

LeBron critical on his show of US efforts to get Griner home

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LeBron James is publicly criticizing the United States’ handling of WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner’s case in a trailer for an upcoming episode of his television show: “The Shop: Uninterrupted.”

LeBron James is publicly criticizing the United States’ handling of WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner’s case in a trailer for an upcoming episode of his television show: “The Shop: Uninterrupted.”

Griner is on trial in Russia for drug possession. She pleaded guilty last week and will appear again in court on Thursday.

“Now, how can she feel like America has her back?” James said in the trailer. “I would be feeling like, `Do I even wanna go back to America?”‘

It’s unclear when the show was filmed, although in the trailer it is mentioned that Griner had been in Russia for more than 110 days, which would have been nearly five weeks ago as she was detained on Feb. 17.

During the weeks since day 110, in addition to the trial beginning and the guilty plea, Griner’s wife Cherelle has had a phone conversation with President Joe Biden. Biden also received a letter from Brittney Griner on July 4 and sent a letter back to her which she was given in court last week.

There is also no mention of other detained Americans in the trailer.

Klutch Sports Group, the agency that represents James, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Washington hasn’t disclosed its strategy in the case and the U.S. may have little leverage with Moscow because of strong animosity over its actions in Ukraine. The State Department’s designation of Griner being wrongfully detained moves her case under the supervision of its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said Washington will continue to work for the release of Griner, as well as other Americans held by Moscow, including former Marine Paul Whelan.

“We will not relent until Brittney, Paul Whelan, and all other wrongfully detained Americans are reunited with their loved ones,” he tweeted last week,

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday that former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson had been in contact with the National Security Council, but wouldn’t comment on “his travel or what he intends to do” amid reports that Richardson plans to travel to Russia and work on Griner’s release.

James’ show will air on Friday.