By DOUG FEINBERG, AP Basketball Writer
Brittney Griner’s loved ones and extended basketball family were ecstatic when news broke Thursday about her release from a Russian prison and that she was on her way back to the United States.
It has 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 with cannabis oil in her luggage. She was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison in August. Now four months later, she’s headed home after the U.S. and Russia had a high-level prisoner exchange Thursday. The exchange did not include the return of another American, Paul Whelan, who has been jailed for nearly four years.
“Today, my family is whole but as you all are aware, there are so many other families who are not whole,” said Brittney’s wife, Cherelle Griner, at a White House briefing. “BG and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today as we celebrate BG being home.”
Griner, who turned 32 in October, was going back to Russia in February to play for her overseas team, UMKC Ekaterinburg. She went to Russia to supplement her WNBA salary, earning over $1 million to play in Russia.
“There has not been a day over the past 10 months where we all haven’t had Brittney Griner on our minds and in our hearts, and that has now turned into a collective wave of joy and relief knowing that she will soon be reunited with her family, the WNBA player community, and her friends,” said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, who admitted to being very emotional when she heard the news this morning. “BG has shown extraordinary courage and dignity in the face of enormous adversity.”
While it’s unclear right now if Griner wants to ever play basketball again, she would be welcomed back with open arms by both the WNBA and USA Basketball. The WNBA season begins May 19. Engelbert said she’d give Griner and her family some space and time before any discussion about her return to the league.
“It’s been a long, horrible ordeal and we really look forward to her return and hearing her voice,” Engelbert said.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley has been a prominent advocate for Griner’s return. Staley, who coached Griner on the 2020 Olympic team, feels that playing again could be helpful to the dominant center.
“It’s been a place in which we can block out everything else, join arms with our teammates. Listen to the incredible crowds that support our game. There’s so much love that the basketball community has for Brittney that they want to show her,” Staley said. “We want her back in her happy place. So I hope that Brittney laces them up. But if she does not, I truly would understand why. We’re still going to support it. We’re still going to lift her up.”
Staley said she broke down with tears of joy when she heard the news Thursday morning. Like Staley, WNBA players have done their best to keep Griner’s name in the national spotlight over the last eight months by talking about her in interviews and posting about her on social media.
On Thursday, they flooded social media with their joy.
“My heart is really singing with joy right now. Our sister is finally free,” WNBA player Chiney Ogwumike said. “This is a monumental moment for everyone who has shown compassion for our WNBA sister over the last 294 days since BG was wrongfully detained.”
Griner is under contract with the Phoenix Mercury, who were allowed by the league to pay her full salary of nearly $228,000 last season without it counting against their salary cap.
The team was thrilled that their eight-time All-Star was coming home.
“Miraculously, mercifully, the count of days detained has ended at 294, and our friend, our sister is headed back home where she belongs,” the Mercury said in a statement. “The emotions for our organization, just like for our fans and so many across the world, are those of joyous celebration, deep gratitude, grief for the time lost, and sincere hope for all families still awaiting the return of a loved one. BG’s strength in this process, her unwavering belief that resolution would come, and the hope she displayed every day is what kept all of us believing this day would come.”
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