Brittney Griner Is Already Back on the Basketball Court After 10 Months in Captivity

Brittney Griner Is Already Back on the Basketball Court After 10 Months in Captivity

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - OCTOBER 10: Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury durring pregame warmups at Footprint Center on October 10, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mike Mattina/Getty Images)

Brittney Griner was released from captivity on Thursday, Dec. 8, after being held in Russia for almost a year on drug charges. While many people have shared their relief and joy at her finally coming home, we haven’t yet heard directly from Griner herself — but sources say she’s been far from silent since her release.

“I have been in prison for 10 months now, listening to Russian. I want to talk,” Griner said on the plane ride back to the United States, according to Roger Carstens, the Special Presidential Envoy For Hostage Affairs, who helped secure Griner’s release and traveled back with her to the US, per AP News.

Carstens reportedly told CNN during a “State of the Union” interview that the basketball player asked him who everyone on the plane was and then proceeded to shake their hands, get their names, and make personal connections. “It was really amazing,” Carstens told the news outlet.

Conversation isn’t the only thing Griner missed while in captivity in Russia: the Phoenix Mercury star has already managed to get in her first workout since the release, according to ESPN. On Dec. 11, Griner played basketball at Fort Sam Houston, where she’s currently staying. Her first move on the court? A dunk.

Griner and her wife, Cherelle Griner, will reportedly stay at a hotel on the base while the couple figure out their next step. When they do leave, Griner and her wife will return to a private location, rather than their Phoenix home, the sports outlet reports.

“There’s no timeline on her return at this point. She’s reintegrating into a world that has changed for her now,” Griner’s agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas told ESPN. “From a pure security standpoint she’s not going to be able to move in the world the way she did.”

Colas also spoke about Griner’s official return to professional basketball, emphasizing that the athlete should take her time to decide.

“If she wants to play, it will be for her to share. She has the holidays to rest and decide what’s next without any pressure,” Colas said. “She’s doing really, really well. She seems to have endured this in pretty incredible ways.”

Griner had been detained in Russia since February 2022, after cannabis oil was found on her person when she arrived at a Russian airport. She was subsequently sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony, which are known for harsh conditions, such as inmate manual labor and poor access to medical care, according to CNN.

Griner was freed as part of a swap on Dec 8; President Joe Biden agreed to release imprisoned Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in order to bring Griner home.

Here’s everything we know about Griner’s detention, sentencing, and release.

Why Was Brittney Griner in Russia?

Griner flew to Russia to play on the UMMC Ekaterinburg team. The 31-year-old has been a member of the Russian basketball team for several WNBA off-seasons. But this particular trip came at a tense time; Griner was detained shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine. The US State Department had issued a “Do Not Travel” advisory weeks earlier, citing the ongoing tension.

The two-time Olympian might have chosen to play overseas during this off-season for many different reasons — including to earn some extra cash. WNBA players typically earn between $60,000 and $229,000, while NBA players can earn upward of $40 million. According to an Associated Press report, “[a]lmost half of the WNBA’s 144 players” went overseas during the 2022 off-season, with high-ranking athletes earning more than $1 million. WNBA athlete Liz Cambage said on “NBA Today” that she is able to earn “five to eight times more” by playing overseas.

Why Was Brittney Griner Detained?

In her first court appearance, Griner was accused of transporting a “significant amount” of cannabis oil, per The Washington Post. The charges allege that before traveling to Russia in February, Griner “bought two cartridges for personal use, which contained 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams of hash oil,” as reported by Russian state news agency TASS. In her July 7 hearing, Griner told the court that she did not purposely break the law. “I’d like to plead guilty, your [honor]. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” Griner said, per Reuters. Griner’s lawyers also told Russian judges in another hearing that the cannabis was prescribed for medicinal use for “severe chronic pain,” according to CNN.

“We continue to insist that, by indiscretion, in a hurry, she packed her suitcase and did not pay attention to the fact that substances allowed for use in the United States ended up in this suitcase and arrived in the Russian Federation,” Boykov stated, according to CNN.

On June 27, Griner opened up about her initial detainment at the airport. She testified that she was forced to sign documents without understanding what they said, per CNN. Griner said that she was not read her rights and that she tried to use Google Translate on her phone to understand the documents but “barely knew what was in them.” After the first round of paperwork, Griner said she was later taken to another room, her phone was taken away, and she was forced to sign even more confusing documents with no explanation. Griner said no attorney was present.

Nearly two months later, on Aug. 4, Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison by a Russian court for smuggling drugs into the country. President Joe Biden released a statement regarding Griner’s sentencing: “Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney. It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”

But on Oct. 25, Griner was given more bad news when a Russian court denied her sentence appeal. The court called the original nine-year sentence “fair,” according to CNBC. “[Griner] had some hope but that vanished today,” Blagovolina told reporters outside the courtroom that day, according to CNBC.

When Was Brittney Griner Released?

The news of Griner’s release broke on the morning of Thursday, Dec 8. As early as August 2022, Russia had confirmed it was in prisoner-swap negotiations with the United States. At the time, President Biden had reportedly offered convicted Russian arms trafficker Bout (then serving out a 25-year sentence in the United States) in exchange for Griner and American Paul Whelan, according to CNN. But while Griner was released, Whelan was not, reports The New York Times. After Griner’s safe return home, her family’s statement made a point to thank “Paul and the Whelan family who have been generous with their support for Brittney and our family during what we know is a heartbreaking time. We pray for Paul and for the swift and safe return of all wrongfully-detained Americans.”

From the start, the situation of Griner’s detainment sparked outrage among her family, fellow players, fans, human-rights organizations, and more, all of whom were calling for the basketball star’s release. A #FreeBrittneyGriner movement emerged on social media. And on June 22, several groups, including the National Organization For Women, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Urban League, and the National Action Network, banded together to send a letter to President Biden and Vice President Harris, per The New York Times. The letter urged the administration “to make a deal to get Brittney back home to America immediately and safely.”

In July 2022, Griner herself pleaded to the president directly in a handwritten letter. She expressed that she was “terrified I might be here forever,” reports CNN. “I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other American Detainees,” Griner said. “Please do all you can to bring us home.”

“It’s like a movie for me. I’m like, ‘In no world did I ever thought, you know, our president and a foreign nation president would be sitting down having to discuss the freedom of my wife,'” Griner’s wife Cherelle said in an interview with Gayle King on “CBS Mornings” in early October 2022. “It feels to me as if she’s a hostage.”

Cherelle continued, “I mean, this is my life and so I’m sitting there like, ‘Do we get her back? Do I ever get to see my wife again?’ Like, what happens here? The fact that everything’s so unprecedented and everything’s, like, changeable I think is a really good word. Like, I feel like every day I’m hearing something new, and so it’s just kind of like, it’s terrifying.”

What Is Hash Oil?

Hash oil is extracted from cannabis, an illegal substance in Russia. Under Article 228 of the Russian Criminal Code, someone who commits an offense related to the “illegal acquisition, storage, transportation, making or processing of narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances or analogues thereof” could face up to 10 years in prison.

— Additional reporting by Alexis Jones, Lauren Mazzo, Sara Youngblood Gregory, and Mirel Zaman