Whatever Happened to Brittney Griner: Basketball Fans Wait for News from Russia

When Brittney Griner is on the basketball court, everyone knows it. At 2 meters 6 centimeters tall, Griner is taller than most players. She grabs rebounds over the outstretched arms of her opponents, and her teammates know the safest way to score: passing the ball to her.

Since being selected first overall by the Phoenix Mercury in 2013, Griner has become one of the most dominant players in history: a seven-time All-Star, WNBA champion and two-time World Cup winner. the gold medal at the Olympic Games.

But today, Griner, 31, has become mired in a geopolitical dilemma. Instead of preparing for the WNBA season that starts in less than two months, believed to be detained in Russia because of what customs officials described as drug charges. There is very little information about his case or his status as a war rages in Ukraine.

“With all the problems with Russia and their attacks on Ukraine, has Brittney become a political bargaining chip?” asked Debbie Jackson, Griner’s high school basketball coach. “Is this part of politics? To me almost none of this makes sense, I find it hard to believe that this is what really happened.

Colin Allred, Congressman from Texas, he told ESPN on Wednesday that Griner had been arrested on February 17 and that he was collaborating with the State Department to have her released. A spokesman for the congressman confirmed that report.

Griner was in Russia playing in a professional basketball league, a common practice of WNBA players between seasons, since in foreign leagues they can earn salaries much higher than what their American teams pay them. The date and circumstances of Griner’s apparent arrest are unknown. The WNBA said that by Saturday, March 5, all of its players except Griner had left the country.

Griner reportedly faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of the drug charges, based on allegations that vape cartridges containing hashish oil were in her luggage. Russian authorities, who said on Saturday March 5 that they had detained an American athlete on these drug charges, did not name Griner, but the Russian news agency Tass did.

On Monday, March 7, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said she had seen reports about Griner, but that federal privacy law prevented the US government from discussing detaining a person without their consent. written. US officials have repeatedly accused Russia of detaining US citizens under pretexts.

Griner’s representatives have declined to comment on the status of the case beyond stating that they were working to bring her back to the United States. The uncertainty has caused an outpouring of support among fans and supporters of Griner, who is considered an innovative player known for her unstoppable barrage of dunks and her status as one of the most prominent gay athletes.

A congresswoman in Houston, Griner’s hometown, has demanded his release. WNBA players have posted “Free Brittney” messages on Twitter.

“There are no words to express this pain,” Brittney’s wife, Cherelle Griner, wrote on Monday. in an Instagram post addressed to Brittney. “It hurts me, it hurts us. We look forward to the day to love you as a family.”

Griner was a 5-foot-5 freshman on Houston’s Nimitz High School volleyball team when Jackson approached her to play basketball.

At first, Griner laughed at the idea of ​​trying a sport he had never played and knew next to nothing about. But she quickly fell in love with him, Jackson said. To this contributed the fact that in his last year he grew more than 20 centimeters, up to two meters in height.

“She wasn’t like a tall, awkward person who had to mature into her body,” Jackson said. “She was really very gifted in terms of coordination.”

Griner earned a basketball scholarship to Baylor University, where for four years she performed with a combination of size, skill, fluidity and speed unlike any other women’s basketball player in the country. She was able to score at will under the basket, and her dunks in her highlights made her fascinating.

“No one can do what she can do,” said Nancy Lieberman, the first woman to play on a men’s professional team, during the first season of Griner at Baylor. “Not Cheryl Miller. Not Lisa Leslie. Not Candace Parker.”

Griner led Baylor to an undefeated record during the 2011-12 season, which the Bears capped off with a win over Notre Dame in the national championship game. She is a three-time Big 12 Player of the Year award and has 18 slam dunks at Baylor. Before her, few women had dunked in a college game.

The Mercury signed Griner in 2013, hoping his arrival would rejuvenate the franchise. The change was immediate by putting Griner to play alongside Diana Taurasi, the leading scorer in WNBA history. The Mercury made the playoffs during Griner’s rookie season and won the championship during his sophomore season. Last season, the player was key for the Mercury to reach the WNBA Finals, where they lost to the Chicago Sky.

“Talent-wise, she was definitely a force and still is a force,” said Pamela Wheeler, former head of the WNBA players’ union. “I think everyone expected Griner to lead the league, which he did, into a new era.”

The year Griner was drafted, the league rebranded, changing its logo and focusing on promoting three rookies: Griner, Skylar Diggins-Smith, and Elena Delle Donne.

Griner seemed a good fit, with an engaging personality, a willingness to laugh at herself, and a passion for reporting bullying. She was also outspoken about being a lesbian, something that has become more common in the sport, thanks in part to her.

“I am ready to accept the challenge”, Griner said at the time about being part of the rebranding. “I’ve changed things in college basketball, I guess you can tell, so I’m up for it. I’m never scared of anything. Anything they throw at me, I’m ready for it.”

While elevating his game nationally, Griner also made a name for himself in international basketball. She won two Olympic gold medals with the United States women’s national team in 2016 and 2021 and began playing for teams in Russia and China during the WNBA offseasons.

Nearly half of the WNBA’s 144 players were presumed to be playing for international teams during the offseason, including more than a dozen in Russia and Ukraine. Griner has played for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg for several years.

“While a lot of players are also doing it for the money,” said Wheeler, the former head of the players’ union, “they’re also doing it for the love of the game, so they can keep playing and stay in shape.”

The maximum base salary for WNBA players is around $228,000, but international teams have been known to pay several hundred thousand dollars and even more than a million dollars. In the 2022 season, Griner is scheduled to earn a salary just below the WNBA maximum. With the WNBA’s minimum salary hovering around $60,000, many players earn most of their income playing overseas.

But playing abroad isn’t a “tourist opportunity” for most players, said Courtney Cox, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon, who said she traveled to Russia in 2018 as part of research for a book on basketball. female professional around the world.

“There’s this whisper network of where it’s safe to play, where players share information: where do you get paid on time, where do you get care, the best coaches, all this information,” Cox said. “There’s kind of a traumatic bond, I think, that occurs, when you play in some of these slots where you could be one of the only American players, depending on league policies.”

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, WNBA players in both countries fled.

Gambling in the United States can have its own problems. in his memories In My Skin, Griner wrote about his time at Baylor University, a Baptist college that had an official anti-homosexuality policy at the time. In the book, grinner account that Kim Mulkey, his trainer, warned him to “keep his business behind closed doors” and told him to cover up his tattoos and delete social media posts related to his girlfriend or LGBT issues.

But the Griner who entered the WNBA exhibited a determination to show that she was comfortable being herself. She spoke out about being gay, wore suits and bowties, showed off her tattoos and modeled menswear for Nike as the brand’s first sponsored openly gay athlete.

“She came across as someone who was just herself,” said Amira Rose Davis, an assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University who specializes in race, sports and gender. “When Griner signs with Nike, when she rejects gender roles or when she’s on covers, she’s empowering female athletes to write their own narratives about themselves,” she added.

Little has been said publicly about Griner’s situation in Russia. Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, declined to provide details. She didn’t even confirm if Griner had been detained.

Colas said in a statement that he was “aware of the situation” in Russia and had been in contact with Griner and his “legal representation” there. “As we work to bring her home, her mental and physical health remain our primary concerns,” Colas said.

Jackson, who coached Griner in high school, has second thoughts about the charges.

“I find it hard to believe that Brittney, or any professional athlete who knows the laws of that country, the cultural norms and differences and how completely different the political system is, would have even considered putting a prohibited substance in that country in their carry-on luggage. , said.

Public calls by US officials for the release of their citizens held abroad often have little effect on foreign captors. These cases are frequently resolved through behind-the-scenes diplomacy, and the details may never be made public. Some analysts say taking the case into the political arena with angry demands could make it difficult to resolve and put pressure on the other country not to be seen as giving in without a clear victory in return.

Griner’s family and friends just want him to come home. Johnson, his ex-wife, public a message of support on Instagram.

Cherelle Griner said on Instagram that this has been “one of the worst moments of my life”.

“My heart, our hearts, are skipping beats with each passing day,” he said.

lara jakes and Michael Crowley contributed to this report.

Jonathan Abrams is a sports reporter. @jpdabrams

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Whatever Happened to Brittney Griner: Basketball Fans Wait for News from Russia