Early last week, Russia seemed to deliver disappointing news when it said negotiations to secure Brittney Griner’s freedom from prison had broken off. The WNBA star and Houston native wouldn’t make it home for Christmas after all.
That’s what we thought. But early on the morning of Dec. 9 everything changed.
We saw images of Griner boarding an airplane out of an Abu Dhabi airport with a flight plan that was delivering her to the United States. Indeed BG, the decorated two-time Olympic gold medalist, was on her way home.
It turns out that while we were being told that talks were off, President Joe Biden, the White House and government officials were still at the table negotiating Griner’s release. A controversial deal was reached, exchanging Griner for the U.S. release of jailed Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
To many, the exchange didn’t seem anywhere near equitable. Griner was arrested back in February after Russian authorities found less than a gram of cannabis vape oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow on her attempted return trip home. Bout, meanwhile, is a dangerous arms dealer who had spent 14 years of a 25-year sentence in a U.S. prison for arms trafficking, money laundering and conspiracy to kill Americans.
But the real win here is the return of a decorated and celebrated American who shouldn’t have been serving a nine-year prison sentence for something so minor. She was brought home in exchange for a Russian who had served more than half of his sentence already and would have surely been returned to his country upon his release.
Griner’s ordeal had been unthinkable. She was in Moscow playing basketball during the WNBA offseason for a $1 million payday as she had done so many times before. The problem this time seemed to be timing.
Griner’s basketball season in Moscow wrapped up just as Russia’s war in Ukraine was escalating, making the frosty relations between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the U.S. even colder. Griner was viewed by her country as wrongfully detained and essentially a prisoner of war, given the strong support the U.S. was giving Ukraine to defend itself during the war.
For weeks, nobody knew Griner’s whereabouts and once they were known, we saw glimpses of the inhumane treatment she was subjected to as her 6-foot-8 frame sat caged like an animal during her criminal proceeding. Griner was banished to an oppressive penal colony following her initial sentence and failed appeal.
Now Griner is free and her life is full of possibilities again. Will the basketball standout don a uniform and again star for the Phoenix Mercury? Or will she and her wife, Cherelle, now take up the cause of fighting for wrongfully detained Americans full-time?
We don’t know.
As of Monday, Griner hadn’t said a word in public since the airplane she was on landed in San Antonio and she began undergoing physical and mental evaluations on the nearby military base. But we do know of some of her actions, like making certain to warmly connect with all the flight crew and her first actions on American soil, putting on some basketball sneakers and hitting a nearby basketball court for the first time in 10 months.
Her first shot? A dunk. Sounds like an appropriate first act and exclamation point to all Griner has endured these last months.