When Brittney Griner is on the basketball court, everyone knows it. With a height of 1.80 meters she towers above most other players. She grabs rebounds over the outstretched arms of her opponents, and her teammates know the surest way to score: deliver the ball to her.
Since the Phoenix Mercury drafted Griner No. 1 overall in 2013, she has become one of the most dominant players ever: a seven-time All-Star, a WNBA champion, and a two-time Olympian with gold medals to match.
But now Griner, 31, is mired in a geopolitical dilemma. Instead of preparing for the WNBA season, which is less than two months away, she is being held in Russia on what customs officials are describing as drug charges, with little word about her case or her well-being during the war in Ukraine.
“With all the trouble with Russia and their attacks on Ukraine, has Brittney become a political bargaining chip?” said Debbie Jackson, Griner’s high school basketball coach. “Is this part of politics? I’m so excited it’s hard to believe this actually happened.”
Texas Representative Colin Allred told ESPN on Wednesday that Griner had been detained on Feb. 17 and that he was working with the State Department to get her released. A spokesman for the congressman confirmed the report.
Griner played in Russia for a professional basketball league, a common off-season practice for WNBA players, who can earn salaries in overseas leagues much higher than what their American teams pay. The WNBA said all of its players, except Griner, were out of the country on Saturday.
Griner could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of drug possession, on charges that she had vape cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage. The Russian authorities, who said Saturday they arrested an American athlete on these drug charges, did not name Griner, but the Russian news agency Tass did.
On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said she had seen reports about Griner but that federal privacy law prevented the US government from discussing a person’s detention without their written consent. US officials have repeatedly accused Russia of detaining US citizens under pretext.
Griner’s representatives have declined to comment on Griner’s status, except for a statement that they were working to get her back to the United States. The uncertainty has sparked an outcry among fans and supporters of Griner, a pioneering player known for her unparalleled blitz of dunks and her status as one of the world’s most prominent gay athletes.
A congressman in Houston, Griner’s hometown, has demanded her release. WNBA players have posted “Free Brittney” messages on Twitter.
“There are no words to express this pain,” Brittney’s wife, Cherelle Griner, wrote in an Instagram post addressed to Brittney on Monday. “I’m in pain, we are in pain. We are waiting for the day to love you as a family.”
‘Nobody can do what she can’
Griner was a 5 foot 8 freshman on the volleyball team at Nimitz High School in Houston when Jackson approached her about playing basketball.
Griner initially laughed at the thought of trying a sport she had never played and knew little about. But she soon fell in love with it, Jackson said. It helped that by her senior year she grew almost a foot, up to six feet tall.
“She wasn’t like an awkward tall person who had to grow into her body,” Jackson said. “She was really gifted at coordination.”
Griner earned a basketball scholarship to Baylor University, where she performed for four years with a combination of size, skill, fluency and speed unlike any other women’s basketball player in the country. She could score at will under the basket, and highlight reel dunks made her enchanting.
“Nobody can do what she can,” said Nancy Lieberman, the first woman to play on a professional men’s team, during Griner’s freshman season at Baylor. “Not Cheryl Miller. Not Lisa Leslie. Not Candace Parker.”
Griner led Baylor to an undefeated record in the 2011-12 season, which the Bears capped off with a win over Notre Dame in the national championship game. She won the Big 12 Player of the Year Award three times and made 18 dunks at Baylor. Before her, few women had immersed themselves in a college game.
‘She was definitely a force’
The Mercury drafted Griner in 2013 in hopes of rejuvenating their franchise. The turnaround was swift when Griner played alongside Diana Taurasi, the leader of the WNBA scoring career. The Mercury made the playoffs during Griner’s rookie season and won a championship in her second. Last season, she was key to the Mercury’s build-up to the WNBA Finals, where they lost to the Chicago Sky.
“In terms of talent, she was definitely a force and continues to be a force,” said Pamela Wheeler, a former head of the WNBA players’ union. “I think everyone was looking for her to take the competition, which she did, into a new era.”
The year Griner was drafted, the league was renamed, changed its logo and focused on promoting three rookies: Griner, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Elena Delle Donne.
Griner seemed to be a good fit, with an engaging personality, a willingness to laugh at himself, and a passion for calling out bullying. She was also open about being gay, which is partly due to her being more common in sports.
“I’m up for the challenge,” Griner said at the time of being part of the rebrand. “I’ve turned things around in college basketball, you might say, so I’m ready. I’m never ashamed of anything. Whatever is done to me, I am ready.”
While elevating her game domestically, Griner also made a name for himself in international basketball. She won two Olympic gold medals with the United States women’s national team, in 2016 and 2021, and began playing for teams in Russia and China during WNBA off-seasons.
‘For the money’ and ‘For the love of the game’
Nearly half of the WNBA’s 144 players would play for international teams this off-season, including more than a dozen in Russia and Ukraine. Griner has been playing for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg for several years.
“While a number of players are also doing it for the money,” said Wheeler, the former union leader, “they are also doing it out of love for the game and can continue to play and put themselves in the mold.”
The maximum base salary for WNBA players is about $228,000, but international teams have been known to pay several hundred thousand dollars, and even more than $1 million. Griner will earn just under the WNBA max in the 2022 season. With the WNBA’s minimum wage around $60,000, many players earn most of their income playing abroad.
But playing abroad isn’t a “tourist opportunity” for most players, said Courtney Cox, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon who said she traveled to Russia in 2018 to research a book on women’s professional basketball about worldwide.
“There’s a whisper network of where it’s safe to play, where players share information: where you get paid on time, where they take care of you, the better trainers, all this information,” Cox said. “There’s a kind of trauma bond, I think, that happens when you play in some of these spaces where you might be one of the few American players, depending on the policy of the league.”
What you need to know about Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia
After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, WNBA players in both countries fled.
‘She pushes back gender roles’
Playing in the United States can come with its own problems. In her memoir “In My Skin,” Griner wrote about her time at Baylor, a Baptist-affiliated school that had an official policy against homosexuality at the time. In the book, Griner said Kim Mulkey, her coach, had warned Griner to “keep your business behind closed doors” and told her to hide her tattoos and delete social media posts about her friend and LGBT issues.
But the Griner who entered the WNBA showed a determination to show that she was comfortable being herself. She spoke about being gay, wore tight suits and bow ties, showed off her tattoos and modeled menswear for Nike as the first openly gay athlete to be endorsed by the brand.
“She established herself as just being herself,” said Amira Rose Davis, an assistant professor at Penn State University who specializes in race, sport, and gender. She added: “So, when she signs with Nike and when she pushes back gender roles or when she does the cover shoots, it increases the power of athletes in the game to write their own stories about themselves.”
In May 2015, Griner married Tulsa Shock forward Glory Johnson, just weeks after they were arrested following a fight at their Phoenix home. The WNBA suspended each of them for seven games and they soon ended their relationship.
In 2019, Brittney Griner married Cherelle, who also went to Baylor. In an Instagram post on Saturday, Cherelle thanked those who had shown their support and asked for privacy “as we continue to work to get my wife home safely.”
‘It’s just hard to believe’
Little has been said publicly about Griner’s situation in Russia. Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, declined to provide details.
Colas said in a statement Saturday that she was “aware of the situation” in Russia and had been in contact with Griner and her “legal representation” there. “As we work to get her home, her mental and physical health remains our primary concern,” Colas said.
Jackson, Griner’s former high school coach, questions the charges.
“It’s just hard to believe that Brittney, or any professional athlete who knows the laws of that country and the cultural differences and norms and just the totally different political system, would even think of putting anything in their hand luggage. that was forbidden. substance in that country,” she said.
Public demands by US officials for the release of Americans held abroad typically have little effect on foreign kidnappers. Such cases are often resolved through behind-the-scenes diplomacy, and the details may never be made public. Some analysts said making it harder to solve by elevating the matter in the political arena with angry demands, and it could pressure the other country not to be seen as giving in without a clear win.
Griner’s family and friends just want her home. Johnson, her ex-wife, posted a statement of support on Instagram.
Cherelle Griner said on Instagram that this was “one of the weakest moments of my life”.
“My heart, our heart, skips every passing day,” she said.
Lara Jakes and Michael Crowley contributed reporting.