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Ahead of FIBA World Cup, Nurse recalls 'hell on earth' WNBA season without Griner

Kia Nurse Phoenix Mercury Kia Nurse - The Canadian Press

The early-August day Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison, Kia Nurse and her Phoenix Mercury teammates watched the heart-wrenching court proceedings play out on their phones in their locker-room.

The Mercury hosted the Connecticut Sun later that day, and the two teams locked arms at centre court pre-game for a tearful 42 seconds of silence — a nod to Griner's Phoenix jersey number.

"It was really hard to play that game. I don't know how my teammates did it. It was really hard to play an entire season without her," Nurse said.

The 26-year-old guard from Hamilton returns to Canada's national team at the FIBA Women's World Cup in Australia, her first official action since tearing her ACL in her right knee on Oct. 6.

Nurse fought back tears on Monday as she recalled the darkest days of "a hell on earth" season for the Mercury.

"BG is the best of the best when it comes to human beings," she said of Griner, an eight-time WNBA all-star, who was convicted of drug possession and smuggling after less than a gram of cannabis oil was found in her luggage.

"It was a lot this season to not have her on the court, to not have her spirit, her energy around … and the fact that she's not home yet is disheartening. We did our best as a team to make sure that her story was told, to make sure that her name was upfront as much as possible … but you go to practice and you wonder what she's doing."

The Mercury continued Griner's BG Heart and Sole Shoe Drive in her absence, visiting all 12 WNBA markets.

"We're continuing to keep her in our prayers, to keep her family in our prayers, continuing to make sure she knows that she's loved, and she's not forgotten and putting as much emphasis as we can on those who have the power to make decisions to help bring her home — because she is wrongfully detained there by all accounts," Nurse said.

Nurse's knee injury had already made this past year the toughest of her career.

"There was a lot of great days, a lot of bad days, a lot of tears, a lot of anger, but a lot of little wins along the way as well," Nurse said in a Zoom media availability from Sydney, Australia. "I had physically the smoothest process possible, my knee, she's a great girl, I love her for that. But just, mentally, it's been hard. It's been up and down and a roller-coaster."

She spent several months of her rehab at home in Ontario, leaning on her boyfriend John Robinson IV and her family for support.

"John, the poor guy, took all of my good days, and he took the heat on all of my bad days," Nurse laughed.

She sought recovery advice from her brother Darnell, a defenceman with the Edmonton Oilers, and her uncle Donovan McNabb, a 13-year NFL veteran who also tore his ACL.

"We went through hell on earth this year as a team," Nurse said. "And not being able to be out there with them was one of the hardest things and that's where my patience got very testy. Not as patient as I would have liked, but it's a process and even to this point, you can't skip anything in this process.

"As much as I would love to skip a minute restriction in this tournament, I'm not allowed."

The Canadian women open the FIBA World Cup versus Serbia on Thursday (11 p.m. ET on Wednesday), and then play France, Japan, Australia and Mali in the group phase. Nurse, who last played for the national team at the Tokyo Olympics where Canada didn't advance out of the preliminary round, hopes to see her playing time increase with each game.

Team veteran Natalie Achonwa, who tore her ACL in her senior season at Notre Dame, reassured Nurse that "there's no weight on her shoulders."

"She looks great," Achonwa said. "I tell Kia every day that she just needs to be her. Especially going through a process like tearing an ACL and coming back from that, I've been there, done that and I realize the mental and the emotional strain that it takes.

"She's tackled this every day and it's like we say, celebrate the little wins … but Kia has been dominating in practice and in our two exhibition games (vs. China and Puerto Rico). I've just been so happy to see her and share the court with her again."

Physically, the six-foot Nurse said, since she was relegated to the weight room for so much of her rehab, she's the strongest she's ever been. She said she hasn't forgotten how to pass, dribble or shoot, it's just a matter now of being able to do it all again at high speed.

Mentally, she said she's learned that she's "really resilient."

"I've always been told I'm a tough player, and I think a lot of that comes from just being able to throw my body around the floor, take a hit and get back up," she said. "This the first time that I've had to deal with an injury of this extent, and of this length.

"I learned how to be an even better trainer, and even better professional athlete in terms of taking care of my body … it's helped me figure out what's best for me as a person. And hey, I'm a hell of a fighter. That's what I've learned."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 19, 2022.