Brittney Griner is back in the US: What to know about release from Russia

On Friday, Brittney Griner arrived in the United States. It was the first time in almost 10 months the Phoenix Mercury star could say that.

The two-time Olympic gold medalist landed early Friday at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas. She was released into U.S. custody a day earlier after spending that time in Russian prison for allegedly trying to bring vape cartridges filled with cannabis oil into the country on Feb. 17. 

Following a trial legal experts classified as a ‘sham,’ Griner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony. The eight-time WNBA All-Star was transferred from her pre-trial detention facility to the penal colony last month after her appeal was denied.

One day after her emotional and dramatic release following a prisoner exchange for arms dealer Viktor Bout, here is what we know about Griner and the deal that brought her home.

TIMELINE:  Events from Griner’s arrest to sentencing to release in prisoner swap

OPINION:  Griner prisoner swap is both joyful and heartbreaking

Who is Brittney Griner? 

Born in Houston, Griner blossomed into a basketball star. The 6-foot-9 center began dominating at Minitz High School (McDonald’s All American, 2009) and played collegiately at Baylor from 2010-13. There, she was a member of the 2012 national championship team and was a two-time first-team All-American. 

Representing the United States at the 2016 Rio and 2020 Tokyo Olympics with the women’s basketball team, Griner won two gold medals. 

Griner has been married twice. Her first marriage was to fellow WNBA player Glory Johnson, but that ended after one year in 2016. Two years, Griner became engaged to her current wife, Cherelle Griner. The couple married in 2019. 

How long has Brittney Griner been in the WNBA? 

The Phoenix Mercury selected Griner No. 1 overall in the 2013 WNBA draft, and she has spent her entire nine-year WNBA career with the organization. In her second season, Griner helped the Mercury claim the 2014 WNBA championship. 

Griner has led the WNBA in blocks in all but one of her seasons (2020) and is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year winner. Last year, she was named to the league’s 25th anniversary team. 

Griner has played in Russia during the WNBA offseason since 2014. With UMMC Ekaterinburg – she was en route to joining the Russian club when she was detained – Griner has won four EuroLeague championships. 

Why did Brittney Griner go to jail in Russia? 

Russian prosecutors claimed to find 0.7 grams of hashish oil in vape cartridges while searching Griner’s luggage in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. During her trial, Griner testified she had inadvertently packed the cartridges in haste and that she had no criminal intent.

Drug laws in Russia are ‘draconian’ compared to those in the U.S. The penalty for smuggling carried a 10-year maximum sentence, and the prosecution asked for 9.5 years; a judge handed down the nine-year sentence on Aug. 4, more than a month after the trial began. 

What was it like for Brittney Griner in Russian penal colony? 

Griner was transferred to the IK-2 penal colony in Mordovia, about 350 miles southeast of Moscow, in November to begin her 9-year sentence on drug charges. She was imprisoned there for nearly a month before being freed in a prisoner exchange.

Griner’s Russian attorney Maria Blagovolina told ESPN that most women work during the day sewing uniforms, but Griner’s 6-foot-9 frame made that impossible. She was too tall to sit at workstations and her hands were too large for sewing, so she was tasked with carrying fabric all day instead, a job Griner told her lawyer she didn’t mind. 

Griner did mind the brutal winter weather, however, which led her to cutting off her signature locks that she’s had since her days as a Baylor Bear. 

‘It’s very cold in there and every time she washed her hair she got cold and would get a chill,’ Blagovolina told ESPN. ‘She should have waited until New Year’s Day.’

Griner recently battled and recovered from the flu during her confinement at the IK-2 penal colony, Blagovolina said.

Despite the harsh conditions she faced, Blagovolina said Griner did not complain and was treated well.

“I think that the reason for this is because of her very likable character,” Blagovolina said on CNN. “People like her. So everybody who is around her is trying to help her, to support her.”

Who is Viktor Bout? 

Since her arrest, the most likely path for Griner’s return was always via a prisoner swap with Russia. That came to fruition within the last week, with President Joe Biden and his administration agreeing to exchange notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner. 

Bout, 55, is a former Soviet military officer and translator who was serving a 25-year prison sentence for conspiring to kill Americans. He and Griner actually walked past each other on an airport tarmac in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where the two governments exchanged prisoners, video from Thursday showed. 

It is the second prisoner exchange with Russia of Biden’s administration. In April, ex-Marine Trevor Reed was freed while experiencing health issues for a Russian pilot and smuggler named Konstantin Yaroshenko. 

Brittney Griner’s lawyer: ‘There were positive signs’ for swap

Throughout her case, Griner was represented by a pair of Russian attorneys, Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov. On Thursday, Blagovolina said she found out about the swap along with everybody else Thursday. But she added that she heard from Griner last week that good news could be on the horizon.

“There were positive signs … she told me she was hopeful. We had an understanding that things would happen very, very soon,” Blagovolina said on CNN.

The most promising sign, Blagovolina told ESPN, was when Griner was moved to a Moscow jail on Monday: ‘It was kind of stressful. We were worried about her — she didn’t have her glasses; she broke her glasses and we didn’t know if she was getting food.’

On Thursday, Griner was headed home. 

CBS News, which first reported the exchange with Russia, said it withheld publishing a story saying a deal was near last week at the behest of the government – so as not to disrupt the tense negotiations.

U.S. officials who met with Griner when she arrived back to the States said the WNBA star appeared to be in good health and was in ‘very good spirits,’ White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. Griner offered additional care and counseling. 

Who is Paul Whelan? 

In July, as Griner’s trial was ongoing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made the uncharacteristic move of providing an update on the negotiations with Russia, saying the U.S. had made a ‘substantial offer’ in exchange for Griner and Whelan. 

‘It was either Brittney or no one at all,’ Jean-Pierre said. ‘We’re not going to apologize for that.’

WHELAN: Ex-Marine remains imprisoned in Russia after swap

Who is Brittney Griner’s wife, Cherelle? 

Cherelle Griner has been vocal in supporting her wife and publicly advocated for her return by speaking at a rally for Griner hosted by the Mercury and appearing on morning news shows. She parlayed that into an audience with the president.

On Thursday, Cherelle Griner stood alongside Biden and vice president Kamala Harris as they announced Brittney Griner’s return. 

‘It’s a happy day for me and my family,’ Cherelle Griner said. ‘Today, my family is whole.’ 

Cherelle Griner also pledged that she and Brittney will continue to advocate for wrongfully detained Americans, like Whelan.

POWER OF LOVE: Why Cherelle Griner is the biggest hero in Griner’s release

Will Griner play in the WNBA again? 

Right now, it is too early to tell. 

Griner surely experienced mental anguish while isolated from friends, family and teammates for almost an entire year. The physical toll is unknown. Jean-Pierre said Griner would undergo mental and physical check-ups upon her arrival. 

For now, however, the league is celebrating her return.

I can’t tell you what this means to the whole WNBA community to have her home safely,’ WNBA commissioner Cathy Englebert said. 

Will WNBA players continue to go to Russia in the offseason? 

Many of the game’s top athletes have gone specifically to Russia in search of a big payday, including perennial All-Stars Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird. 

Las Vegas Aces coach Becky Hammon played in Russia for seven years, becoming a Russian citizen in 2008 and playing on the Russian national team during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. On ESPN Thursday morning, Hammon said Griner’s arrest was “disheartening because it’s been such a great experience for most of us playing over there.” 

“You can go down the list of women’s players who had good experiences over there,” Hammon said. “The Russian people took us in and took really good care of us.” 

Americans even went over this winter to play, despite Griner’s detainment and warnings from the U.S. State Department of the dangers of traveling to Russia. The group of Americans currently playing in Russia includes at least one woman who was on a WNBA training camp roster in spring 2022. 

Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.

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