Boosted By Fans, Phoenix Mercury Seek Fourth Title
The Phoenix Mercury are once again one of basketball’s hottest teams. This may be the Valley of the Sun, but it’s also the land of the mighty Mercury.
The squad will have three players in this weekend’s WNBA All-Star game. Guard Candice Dupree, center Brittney Griner and forward DeWanna Bonner will represent the Mercury on Saturday in Connecticut.
Phoenix is home to the three-time and defending WNBA champion Mercury, one of the most successful franchises in the history of American women’s sports.
While baseball’s Diamondbacks played the San Francisco Giants just blocks away last weekend, a sellout crowd settled in for a Saturday night home game against the New York Liberty.
Mercury General Manager Jim Pitman credits the long-term success to what the team calls the "X-Factor."
“In our opinion, the best fans in the league are here in Phoenix. They support us on and off the court. Winning or losing, they always here, they’re always loud," he said.
As evidence, the Mercury leads the league in attendance, averaging nearly 10,000 fans a night.
Angelica Body is just the kind of fan they’re looking for. She plays basketball at Perry High School in Gilbert.
“I think their chemistry on the court really shows how hard they work, and their last three titles are inspiring and it’s cool to see them play," Angelica said.
Many fans come to see Brittney Griner. At 6-foot-8 and more than 200 pounds, she’s the most dominant physical presence in the league, averaging more than four blocked shots per game.
And as if that attention weren’t enough, she’s has gotten even more off the court.
Griner and her now ex-wife Glory Johnson, who plays for the rival Tulsa Shock, were each suspended seven games earlier this season, the heaviest penalty ever handed down by the WNBA, after police were called to their Goodyear home in April following a physical confrontation.
The 24-year-old Griner said she now has a new perspective.
“(It) made me appreciate basketball more, sitting out those seven games," Griner said. "And it just made me know that I don’t to ever do anything to jeopardize what I love to do.”
Mercury fan Teresa Graves proudly sports a Griner T-shirt, showcasing her signature dreadlocks.
“She’s a really nice person. She takes the time out for the fans. You know, she’s just a great athlete," Graves said.
Griner’s boss, Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello, said the organization also stands solidly behind her.
“She’s learned from that mistake, she’s moved forward. I mean we all have," Brondello said. "Basketball is her haven. This is what she does this is what she loves to do. She’s a great player, she’s going to be one of the greatest players ever and she keeps getting better”
And that means the franchise will keep getting better with her. That is — if Griner isn’t lured away for more money. It’s something that happened to former teammate Diana Taurasi.
After leading the Mercury to last year’s title, Taurasi was given $1.5 millino by a Russian team to sit out this WNBA season.
Griner, who makes about $47,000 a year in Phoenix, earns 12 times more playing in China during the WNBA off-season.
Brondello hopes salaries will soon be as attractive to women’s players in the WNBA as they are to men playing in the NBA.
“We hope so. Look, we have to put it in perspective. In the NBA, it took them a long time to get the salaries that they did. Really, in professional sports, we’re still a young sport,” she said.
Basketball Hall of Famer Ann Meyers Drysdale is the Mercury’s vice president and a team broadcaster.
“I absolutely see the league improving and the salaries improving. Billie Jean King started it with tennis and what’s she done for the tennis tournaments, and Serena [Williams] getting the same amount of money as the guys are getting," Meyers Drysdale said. "And the fact that you’ve got the World Cup and what the women did in the World Cup. At some point, there’s got to be a lot of pressure [on] the WNBA taken a little more serious about what they’re making.”
Meyers Drysdale, who helped construct the team’s three championship seasons, was the first pick in the 1978 draft of the now-defunct WBL, the original women’s professional basketball league. She said the WNBA is well ahead of where the NBA was in its ascent.
“We’re by far way ahead of that. It took them 30 years for things to turn around for them. You know, we’ve got a great fan base and people can continue to say we’re a fledgling league, but we’re not. We’re here to stay," Meyers Drysdale said.
The future looks bright in the Valley of the Sun for the mighty Mercury.