Seattle Storm v Chicago Sky
Chicago Sky head coach James Wade talks to the team during a game against the Seattle Storm on August 15, 2021. Credit: Randy Belice/NBAE via Getty Images

The end of the Chicago Sky’s 2022 season came as quick as an end-of-summer downpour—unexpected, and, for fans, heart-wrenching. The team had carried a ten-point lead heading into the fourth quarter in a closeout game five against the Connecticut Sun, moments from securing a spot in the WNBA Finals. 

Instead, in a matter of minutes, the defending champions inexplicably crumbled. 

The sold-out crowd inside Wintrust Arena watched agape. A season ending in disaster may be a familiar feeling to many Chicagoans, but not to Sky fans, whose last two seasons have been marked by Candace Parker’s dominant return and a championship culture known across the league. As the seconds wound down, the realization rippled through the crowd, as Chicago’s veteran roster went completely scoreless for the final four minutes and 45 seconds of the game. In section 115, just behind the Sky bench, season ticket holders Crispin Torres and Kaaren Fehsenfeld felt their stomachs flip. 

“I just kept thinking: what happened?” said Torres, who had been ready to celebrate another Finals berth. 

Until those final four minutes, the Sky’s season had been electric. 

After the team’s 2021 championship run, “you couldn’t talk about women’s basketball without talking about Chicago,” said Sky head coach James Wade. The franchise took on that responsibility with pride.

In the summer of 2022, the team registered their best record in franchise history and hosted the city’s first-ever WNBA All-Star Game. Chicago—or Skytown, as fans call it—became the center of the women’s basketball world, and, game after game, thousands streamed into Wintrust Arena to watch the defending champs hit the court.

The Sky’s die-hard fan base is growing, and the culture is distinctive from traditional professional sports. “For a long time, I’ve felt very quiet about being a sports fan,” Torres said. “But the WNBA just feels so different. As a politically minded person, as a leftist, a queer person, and a trans person, it’s probably the most eclectic and open-minded group of sports fans I’ve ever been a part of.” 

This year’s WNBA season was bigger than basketball itself: it was the year this boldly political and often openly queer fan base was confronted with injustice of a new kind. Long before the first tip-off, through the regular season and playoffs, and even now, WNBA superstar Brittney Griner has been wrongfully detained in Russia, where she’s lived in a prison cell for over 220 days.  

For many in the Sky organization, Griner’s detainment is personal. A number of the team’s players have competed alongside Griner, including Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley, who last saw their friend in Russia playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg. In February, Vandersloot and Quigley returned to Ekaterinburg after traveling abroad during a two-week break from the season. But Griner wasn’t there. Players grew increasingly alarmed as the reality of her detainment set in. 

On March 1, all remaining Americans were evacuated from Russia as its invasion of Ukraine intensified. Later Vandersloot would tell The Athletic magazine, “I can’t even explain the feeling that it was. We were all sick to our stomachs about it. It’s really hard to be there and know that your friend, your teammate, is in a situation like that and you can’t do anything to help her. It’s a continuous feeling.”

And so the Chicago Sky—its players, coaches, and front-office staff—kept Griner’s plight front and center throughout the season. “It gave us a perspective of the things that are really important,” said Coach Wade. He said the coaching staff even made the decision to relax rules around when players’ family members could be present. 

The franchise also used the WNBA season as a platform for fans to lift up Griner’s name, grieve her absence, and demand her return. 

Throughout the Sky’s season at Wintrust Arena, you could feel the collective outcry in support of Griner. On Day 78 of her ordeal—soon after Griner was officially declared by the Biden administration as “wrongfully detained,” a human bargaining chip arrested to leverage concessions from the United States during wartime—that Friday night, when the Sky dropped its first regular season home game in overtime, was also the debut of a floor decal that read “BG, 42” and would remain on the court all season long. On Day 143, the day of the WNBA All-Star Game in Chicago, when every player returned from halftime to honor Griner, every single one wore her jersey. Day 171, after Griner was sentenced to ten years in a Russian prison, fans at the Sky’s at-home win over the Washington Mystics brought T-shirts, pins, and homemade signs pleading for the return of the basketball superstar. 

Beneath Griner’s case is the alarming reality of inequity in professional sports, something Coach Wade pointed out as well. When Griner was wrongfully detained in Russia, she was in the midst of “making the ultimate sacrifice, spending time away from her family in order to provide,” Wade said. The reality remains that, for women’s professional basketball players, there really is no “off-season.” Instead, as of last year, nearly half of the WNBA’s players spent their time “off” playing abroad, earning up to ten times what they do in the United States. 

Perhaps the unresolved end to the Sky’s season in Chicago was appropriate, in some way: it forces fans, players, and coaches to grapple with a world bigger than basketball. As Coach Wade said, “We know this isn’t life or death. Griner’s situation gave us the perspective of the things that are really important.” 

On September 16, President Biden met with Cherelle Griner, reportedly giving her insight into what the White House is doing to bring her wife home. This kind of public display of assurance is somewhat unprecedented in wrongful detainment cases. And it may encourage families of the other more than 70 Americans wrongfully detained abroad to speak louder with renewed hope. Whereas the government has long urged wrongful detainment families to keep their loved ones’ story out of the public eye, Griner’s case helps to push in an opposite direction. Alongside efforts like the Bring Our Families Home Campaign, organized by the families of people wrongfully detained overseas, Griner’s case shows that making noise may in fact be a powerful force to help bring Americans home. 

In that sense, Griner is now a game changer for the issue of wrongful detainment. “She has literally elevated the issue more in the past six months than anyone in the history of the issue,” said Jonathan Franks, a wrongful detainment expert who has been part of several successful negotiations to bring detainees home. “And she hasn’t even gotten to speak for herself yet. Imagine what she’ll do once she has her voice.” 

As of publication, Brittney Griner has been wrongfully detained in Russia for more than 220 days. Credit: Haley Tweedell

When the Sky lost in catastrophic fashion on September 8, ending their season, it was Day 203 of Griner’s detainment. When the buzzer sounded, players and fans walked dejectedly from the court, but I couldn’t quite digest or make sense of this being the end: not for the Sky, nor for Chicago fans’ support of Brittney Griner.

So I decided to fly to Las Vegas for a Sky-less WNBA Finals and a last chance to grapple with the unknown.

I arrived in Vegas for game two between the Las Vegas Aces and the Connecticut Sun. Throughout the season, the Aces had snatched a few close games from Chicago, but now, I hoped to see them dominate the Sun. I wanted catharsis, at least on the basketball court. 

Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, where the Aces play, is a world away from Wintrust Arena. To get to Michelob Ultra Arena within the casino, you must first cross a dizzying floor of slot machines, fine dining restaurants, and frozen slushie bars. Inside the arena, I scoured the crowds for a flash of Sky blue or a Candace Parker jersey, but there were none to be found. Instead, I bought an Aces T-shirt (all A’ja Wilson shirts were sold-out, of course, after she was announced as the league’s MVP a week before) and sat undercover next to a group of season ticket holders. 

The Aces had no mercy for the Sun, keeping them muffled throughout the game. Unlike the Chicago Sky, a team whose roster was built around the steadiness of its veterans, the Aces are a young team, an emergent force. They played with ferocious athleticism and a single-minded determination to bring the first-ever professional sports championship home to Vegas. And the crowd was ecstatic, absorbed in a show of smoke machines, a pyrotechnic display, and a halftime performance by Lil Jon. 

At the final buzzer marking the Aces’ win, the crowd screamed, and I screamed with them. It was an important reminder that, as a sports fan, every disappointing loss is followed by the potential for revival. A few days later, I spoke to Coach Wade, who echoed a similar sentiment: “The last game was very tough for me personally,” he said. “It’s hard for me to describe because I just want to make the fans happy. I know they’re ride or die for us.”

The Sky’s story is one of a powerful turnaround from years of low attendance to sold-out crowds. The coaching staff knows it, too. As the seconds dwindled down in that final game, Coach Wade and his staff turned to the crowd, thanking them. “As we were walking off the floor, they’re cheering us even though we lost one of the most disappointing games,” Wade said. “And they just cheered us like we were winners in their eyes. And that says a lot to me about the fans in Chicago.”

After the game in Vegas, amidst the stream of Aces fans, I ran into someone wearing a “Free Brittney Griner Now” pin, one of the very pins I had helped to pass out during All-Star Weekend.

“You were at the All-Star game in Chicago!” I said. 

“Yes,” the woman said, “how did you know?”

“I helped to pass out those pins,” I told her. “My friend Jade made them.” 

“I wear it all the time,” she said. “I wear it to every single game.”  

Our brief conversation reminded me of how effortlessly WNBA fans had come together around Brittney Griner. More than anything else, the season will be remembered for this: “It was the BG year,” as Sky fan Crispin Torres told me. “More than anything else, I think when people look back at this season, that’s what they will remember.” 

Back home after my quick trip to Vegas, I watched one last WNBA game in Chicago. For game four of the finals, I searched for a local sports bar willing to play the game with sound. I was nervous, a feeling I’m all too familiar with from years of being a WNBA fan in public. But far more quickly than I’d expected, a bartender at a Logan Square watering hole checked with their manager, then agreed. He was happy to play the game on the patio, sound on.

And so we descended upon the bar, ten or so Sky fans in total: my partner and I, along with Torres, Fehsenfeld, Skyhook Podcast co-host Chris Pennant, and a group of people who’d also called the very same bar asking if they too could watch the WNBA finals. Our city is now home to the kind of WNBA community that many of us have been waiting nearly a lifetime to be part of. 

Chicago Sky basketball is a success story, and it’s here to stay. But Brittney Griner is not yet home. Until she’s free, the women’s basketball community will keep wearing their “Free BG” merch everywhere. And we’ll continue to count the days, demand action, and hold governments accountable. 

“This is bigger than basketball,” affirmed Coach Wade. “We can’t let the message fall on deaf ears because our basketball season is over.”