Britney Griner’s loved ones and extended basketball family rejoiced Thursday when news broke of her release from a Russian prison and her return to the United States.
It’s been nearly 300 days since the WNBA star was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in February, when customs officials said they found vape canisters containing marijuana oil in her luggage. She was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison in August. Now four months later, she flew home after Thursday’s high-profile prisoner swap between the US and Russia. Another American, Paul Whelan, who was jailed for nearly four years in the exchange, is not returning.
“Today, my family is whole, but as you all know, most families are not whole,” Cheryl Griner, Britney’s wife, said at a White House briefing. “As we celebrate BG as a home today, BG and I remain committed to getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today.”
Griner, who turns 32 in October, will return to Russia in February to play for his overseas team UMKC Ekaterinburg. She went to Russia to supplement her WNBA salary, earning more than $1 million to play in Russia.
“For the past 10 months there hasn’t been a day without Brittney Griner on our minds and in our hearts, and it’s been a collective wave of joy and relief to know that she will now be reunited with her family, the WNBA player community and her friends,” said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, who said this morning “The BG displayed extraordinary courage and dignity in the face of overwhelming odds.”
While it is currently unclear if Griner will ever want to play basketball again, she has been welcomed back with open arms by both the WNBA and USA Basketball. The WNBA season begins on May 19. Engelbert said she would give Griner and her family some space and time before any discussion about returning to the league.
“It’s been a long, grueling ordeal and we’re really looking forward to her coming back and hearing her voice,” Engelbert said.
South Carolina coach Dan Staley has been a leading advocate for Griner’s return. Staley, who coached Griner on the 2020 Olympic team, thinks playing again will be helpful for the dominant center.
“This is a place where we can block it all out, join hands with our teammates. Listen to the amazing crowd that supports our game. The basketball community has so much love for Brittney, they want to show her,” Staley said. “We want her back in her happy place. So I hope Britney laces them up. But if she doesn’t, I really understand why. We are still going to support. We’re still going to get her up.
Staley said he was moved to tears of joy when he heard the news Thursday morning. Like Staley, WNBA players have done their part to keep Griner’s name in the national spotlight over the past eight months by talking about her in interviews and posting about her on social media.
They flooded social media with their joy on Thursday.
“My heart is truly singing with joy now. Finally my sister got freedom’ said WNBA player Chini Ogwumike. “This is a monumental moment for everyone who has shown compassion for our WNBA sister over the past 294 days since BG’s wrongful detention.”
Griner is under contract with the Phoenix Mercury, which the league allowed her to pay her full salary of about $228,000 last season, not counting the salary cap.
The team is thrilled to be bringing home their eight-time All-Star.
“Wonderfully, mercifully, the number of days in confinement has ended at 294, and our friend, our sister, is going back home to where she belongs,” Mercury said in a statement. “The emotions for our organization, for our fans and for many around the world, are joyous celebrations, deep gratitude, grief for lost time and heartfelt hope for all families awaiting the return of a loved one. BG’s strength in the process, her unwavering belief that clarity will come, and the hope she displays every day make us all believe that this day will come.
Griner’s agent, Lindsey Colas, pledged that “BG and our coalition of activist athletes” would lend their voices to help free other Americans detained overseas, including Whelan.
“Throughout this ordeal, BG carried herself with courage, grace and grit; And President Biden promised us, then kept his word and did what was necessary to bring her home,” Colas said in a statement. “We are forever grateful for following through on that commitment.”