As Brittney Griner returns to the court, her focus remains on others wrongfully detained overseas and growing the WNBA
Brittney Griner treated it as if she were at any old postgame news conference, cracking jokes about teammates and her head coach, advocating for causes close to her heart and reveling in the sanctuary basketball has provided for her in life.
Yet, the introductory news conference for re-signing with the Phoenix Mercury was far from routine. More than 500 media members were at Footprint Center in Phoenix on Thursday for Griner’s first media availability since being wrongfully detained in Russia for nearly 10 months. Thousands more people watched on a live stream online or cable. Her advocacy work has grown to include "Bring Our Families Home," a family-run campaign that launched last year to advocate for American hostages and wrongful detainees and provide resources to their families.
And her basketball sanctuary, though since returned, evaporated for a short stint. In some ways, it has changed forever.
“I can say for me, I’m never going overseas to play again unless I’m representing my country at the Olympics,” said Griner, who returned home in December in a prisoner exchange. “If I make that team, that would be the only time I would leave the U.S. soil and that’s just to represent the USA.”
Griner, 32, is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and won the 2014 WNBA championship with the Phoenix Mercury. She’s also won titles overseas as one of many top WNBA players who spend their long offseasons there to supplement their modest domestic incomes and historical lack of large marketing deals. It has been going on since before women’s leagues were founded in the U.S., and was even more pivotal before the 2020 collective bargaining agreement (CBA) when players made a maximum of $119,000. Griner made close to the max in 2021, her most recent season, and re-signed with the Mercury on a one-year, $165,100 contract. The maximum salary for 2023 is $234,936.
“I’ll say this, the whole reason a lot of us go over is the pay gap,” Griner said. “A lot of us go over there to make an income to support our families, to support ourselves, so I don’t knock any player that wants to go overseas and make a little bit extra money.”
Griner, a 6-foot-9 All-WNBA center, was returning to her UMMC Ekaterinburg team out of the FIBA international break when she was detained while going through airport security near Moscow on Feb. 17, 2022. She had played for the EuroLeague club since 2014 alongside fellow WNBA stars Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones, Courtney Vandersloot and Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi, who was paid by the club to sit out the 2015 WNBA season.
Airport authorities said they found less than one gram of hashish oil in Griner’s luggage and Russian government authorities said she was being investigated for “large-scale transportation of drugs.” She underwent a trial in Russia that White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan called a “sham judicial proceeding” and experts told Yahoo Sports was an attempt by Russian president Vladimir Putin to paint a veneer of legitimacy on the case. She was convicted and sentenced on Aug. 4 to nine years in prison, one short of the maximum allowed. Griner’s appeal was denied and she was transferred to a penal colony, where conditions are reportedly horrid and prisoners are abused and forced into grueling work.
President Joe Biden and the White House announced a one-for-one prisoner swap to bring Griner home on Dec. 8 after 294 days in detention. Within a week, Griner announced she intended to play for the Mercury in the 2023 season after missing all of the 2022 campaign. She has made brief appearances around Phoenix in the months since, including at the Super Bowl, and said she’s trying to get “back to being normal,” particularly with so much attention now on her.
The attendance at an introductory news conference in the WNBA is growing, but still a largely sparse affair in most cases. Griner’s first meeting with the media drew reporters from all of the large news organizations, from CNN to CBS News and more, and Griner made sure to note that multiple times with a call to action so players weren’t put in the same position as her.
“I’m hoping that our league continues to grow and with as many people in here right now covering this, I hope you continue, as I said, to cover our league [and] bring exposure to us,” the Mercury’s No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 WNBA Draft said. “I hope a lot of these companies start to invest in our craft, because as you’ll see this season, if you haven’t watched before, we have a really good craft in ourselves and the WNBA.”
The Mercury, despite being seeded fifth in the postseason, were a couple wins away from a championship in 2021 when they lost to the Chicago Sky, seeded sixth, in Game 4 of the best-of-five WNBA Finals. They parted ways with longtime head coach Sandy Brondello in the offseason and hired first-time WNBA head coach and former Las Vegas Aces assistant Vanessa Nygaard in January 2022. Griner joked that when she met with Nygaard for the first time, she said she was sorry for the Mercury upsetting the top-seeded Aces in the postseason.
Griner, 32, finished second in MVP voting for an incredible individual season. Her 20.5 points per game ranked second, 9.5 rebounds per game ranked sixth and 1.9 blocks per game led the league. At UMMC Ekaterinburg weeks later, she averaged 13.2 points, ranked third on the team, in 17.2 minutes per game playing on the same roster as centers Emma Meesseman and Jones.
“As an athlete, you always want to be where you left off. And I left off [at the] Finals in Chicago,” Griner said. “And I wanted to be that player when I started back. And just everybody telling me to give myself grace and it’s going to take time. But that’s the hardest thing to do to a pro athlete, because we always want to be right back at our tip-top shape.”
Once detained, she didn’t pick up a basketball. There wasn’t a gym to play at or room to work out. A Mercury spokesperson said Griner cannot answer questions regarding details of her time in Russia for security concerns, but she focused largely on her return to the court.
She wasn’t sure at first if she should be going back to basketball so quickly, she said. Her wife, Cherelle Griner, filmed the early workouts and they look very different than her work now.
Griner said the journey to returning to basketball from “basically doing nothing” was strenuous and is “still a process.” What was a simple plank before the detainment turned difficult to complete afterward. She called the path a struggle, but liberating, and said she’s grateful to have Mercury teammates and coaching staff supporting her.
“I always believe in my ability. If we had a game tomorrow, we’re going to go get that dub,” she said. “Being realistic, am I exactly where I want to be? No. I’m on the right track to getting there, that’s for sure. I will say that.”
Her very first moment back with a basketball was when she arrived in San Antonio, where she was treated at Brooke Army Medical Center following her detainment. It was reported in December her first move was a dunk, fitting for the player who threw down three in a single NCAA tournament game and whose WNBA record dwarfs the rest of the league. And when she described it for the first time Thursday, she added her typical levity, beaming smile and fun-ribbed jabs.
“I was in some low-top chucks, I was outside, I thought I was like 16 again. My ankles did not like it,” Grime said. “But it was good. I threw it down, just to see. I was like, let me just see if I can throw this thing down. And I did.
“That’s a good question for my wife. Ask her how it felt getting dunked on — oops, did I say that? Did I say that out loud?”
Griner also got one in on Taurasi, who she called a “walking fossil” while voicing gratefulness she can play another year with the star guard who has also only ever played for the Mercury. Taurasi was the first person she saw and rode on the plane that brought Griner from San Antonio to Phoenix.
The Mercury will be without veteran guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, who is out on maternity leave, and are projected to finish in the middle of the standings behind newly formed super teams in New York and Las Vegas. Training camp begins Sunday and the Mercury begin their regular season at the Los Angeles Sparks on May 19. Their home opener is May 21 against the Sky. Both games will air on ESPN.
Throughout the season, the Mercury and Griner will partner with the Bring Our Families Home Campaign. The group unveiled a mural outside of the arena and the logo will be on the court where the BG 42 logo appeared last season. Griner wore a T-shirt with Mercury and BOFH logos, and said she plans to say their names throughout the season in interviews and wear more apparel for awareness. Fans can come and write letters to those detained, which she highly encouraged everyone to do because it “lets you know that you’re not forgotten and it’s so easy to feel forgotten.”
“To feel like no one is thinking of you, and then when you get a letter from people that you know and people that you don’t even know, it just does something to you,” Griner said. “It just gives you like a spark of life to keep holding on, keep fighting, not to give in.”
There are at least 54 Americans being held abroad as hostages or wrongfully detained and at least 153 total since 2001, according to the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation. It’s an increase compared to a decade prior, per the report. Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was detained in Russia in March and the U.S. government legally declared him “wrongfully detained” earlier this month.
Griner’s support system has been in contact with his to share information, which she said was critical. She said it’s hard knowing there are still others wrongfully detained overseas while she was able to return home to her family and career, which she said has returned to being a sanctuary and incredible platform.
“I come from a military family,” said Griner, whose father was in Vietnam for the Marines in 1968-69. “I have that mindset [of] no man left behind. No man, no woman, no one left behind. So it hurts, it hurts. Because no one should be in those conditions. Hands down, no one should be in any of the conditions that I went through or they’re going through. So I hope that we, everyone, continues to bring awareness and fight to bring home everyone.”