Brittney Griner Didn’t Owe Us Anything. Her New Memoir Is Devastating.

Before WNBA and Team USA superstar Brittney Griner was detained in Russia for 10 months in 2022, U.S. hostages abroad seemed like a distant problem, one she could never fully connect with, she writes in her compelling new book, Coming Home, out Tuesday.

“The few times I did see a snippet on the news, my sadness disappeared almost as quickly as it arose,” she writes with co-author Michelle Burford. “Hostages were over there, seemingly someone else’s concern. And then one February, over there became my here and now.”

Griner doesn’t hold back in her intimate, honest recollection of her time held captive in Russia. It’d be easy to understand had she decided to publish a book that didn’t so painstakingly mine her trauma. Or had she never decided to share these details publicly at all. But Griner didn’t take that route. Instead, she decided to let fans and the public at large in on all the devastating ins and outs of what it’s like to be detained in Russia, especially as a Black gay female American.

Griner shouldn’t have to justify to anyone why she was in Russia in the first place, but she does. During the offseasons, she would travel abroad, like many of her peers, to supplement her WNBA income, a stingy amount by the standards of men’s professional sports.

“We earn about 250 times less than NBA players and have a hard cap on our salaries,” she writes. “In the WNBA [in 2022] I made around $220,000. Overseas, I earned a million plus.” She also noted that though she wasn’t widely known in the U.S. outside sports circles, in Russia, while playing for powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg, she felt like “royalty.”

The cover of Coming Home, by Brittney Griner with Michelle Burford.

The trouble for Griner began in February 2022, when she mistakenly carried a small amount of cannabis oil in her suitcase en route to Russia. She was stopped by officials at an airport and imprisoned. (Griner had been legally prescribed the cannabis oil by her U.S. doctor to treat her chronic pain, and it is legal in Phoenix, where she lives.) The Biden administration classified her as wrongly detained that May, opening the door for a potential U.S.–Russia deal to bring her home once she pleaded guilty in her July trial.

Griner’s harrowing ordeal saw her spend months in prison with putrid food, unclean facilities, almost no outdoor time, and hostile guards. She had little desire to play basketball, a sport she had long loved, apart from the occasional game of H-O-R-S-E with a cellmate turned translator and friend.

“On one wall [of the prison yard] there was a rim, five feet up, but I had zero interest in basketball,” Griner writes. “It made me think of what I’d lost and where I was.” She came to the dark realization she might never again play basketball professionally. She was depressed. She had suicidal thoughts at times.

After Griner’s appeal to reduce her nine-year sentence was rejected, she was moved in November from prison to a labor camp. There, she had to work grueling hours, first sewing, then operating a dangerous blade to cut fabric. Quotas were strict, and those who didn’t meet them were berated by guards. Griner, bruised and aching from the work, lost hope in her case.

But the following month, the U.S. and Russia agreed to a prisoner swap that sent Griner home in exchange for America’s release of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer. Griner was beyond relieved to reunite with her wife, Cherelle, as well as her family, friends, and Phoenix Mercury teammates, but in a sense her troubles were far from over.

Back in Phoenix, in a long-term Airbnb because her and Cherelle’s previous address had been publicized, she grappled with insomnia and nightmares, early signs of her posttraumatic stress disorder.

“I couldn’t turn off my brain,” Griner writes. “When I did finally fall asleep, I’d have one nightmare in particular. Something had gone wrong with the trade paperwork, and I had to return to Russia to straighten it out. Once I was there, officials hauled me back to the penal colony. The dream felt so real my body believed it. I’d wake up shivering on top of drenched sheets.”

She started therapy, and she relays an amusing anecdote of her experience filling out an online form to be set up with her old therapist. (Griner’s sense of humor is thankfully intact.) “ ‘Why are you seeking counseling?’ was the first question. I paused. ‘I just got swapped in a prisoner exchange with Russia,’ I wrote. ‘I think I should talk about this.’ ”

When the 2023 WNBA season came around the spring after Griner’s release, the Mercury wanted her back in the fold, which was a relief, she writes. But that doesn’t mean it was smooth sailing. Griner felt out of shape all year, no matter how hard she worked to regain her form, and her team struggled to a league-worst 9–31 record. Plus, before every game, she had to bear witness to a “We are BG” video commemorating her journey. Although she appreciated the sentiment behind the gesture, each time it triggered her PTSD anew.

For Griner to readjust to civilian life in private would’ve been understandable. But since returning to U.S. soil, she has continued to advocate for better WNBA working conditions. Midseason, Griner, who flew commercial with her team, as the league’s players do for almost all regular-season games (it’s long been a hot-button issue), was shown on video being harassed in an airport by a right-wing provocateur. “I was home but still not safe,” she writes.

In one particularly powerful passage, Griner demonstrates the disconnect between the WNBA’s rhetoric last year and how she felt as a player at risk: “ ‘The safety of Brittney Griner and all WNBA players is our top priority,’ the league said in a statement after the airport incident. It didn’t feel that way. … You can’t just roll up on LeBron in the airport. The same should be true for WNBA players.”

Extending her influence and advocacy far beyond sports, Griner has also become a public advocate for other American hostages, the ones she previously hardly knew or cared about. Coming Home regularly mentions the plight of former Marine Paul Whelan, still imprisoned in Russia. Griner also urges readers to pick up her cause. “No single tactic will get hostages home, but several together might: an avalanche of letters, petitions signed by millions, repeated phone calls to our legislators,” she writes.

Griner’s pushes to close the gaps between men’s and women’s sports—and her broader ones to bring hostages home—seem utterly reasonable. Safe, as causes, if anything. But she will have a chance to build on both of those efforts for the rest of her life. And her calls to action are hardly the main purpose of Coming Home. The book did not need to be written at all, and its value is in Griner’s candor about her rare and harrowing experiences. It reads as a deeply personal, publicly powerful documentation of what happened—what is still happening—to her body and mind.