Days after she stepped back on United States soil in December, Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner pledged to campaign for the safe return of all those wrongfully detained. She’s repeatedly lent her voice, time and platform to the cause since returning from her own 10-month wrongful detention in Russia.
The WNBA is honoring that work with the WNBA Cares Community Assist Award for the month of June, the league announced Thursday. The award is given to a player who best demonstrates the “passion that the league and WNBA players share for giving back to their communities.” Dallas Wings forward Satou Sabally was named the May recipient for her mentorship to Dallas-area youths.
Griner and the Mercury, where she’s played since the franchise drafted her No. 1 in 2013, partnered with the Bring Our Families Home (BOFH) campaign, an organization that spreads awareness of those wrongfully detained overseas. The partnership includes stations at home games to write letters to wrongfully detained individuals. Griner’s community service work has also consisted of her BG Heart and Sole Shoe Drive efforts in partnership with the Phoenix Rescue Mission. Both organizations will receive $2,500 from the WNBA.
“I’m grateful to receive the community assist award and even happier to be able to donate the award money to causes that mean a great deal to me: Phoenix Rescue Mission, my partner in my annual shoe drive, and Bring Our Families Home, an organization close to my heart that is advocating for the safe return of American hostages abroad,” Griner said in a statement released by the league. “Thank you to all the fans in Phoenix and league-wide who joined me in supporting these causes by donating shoes or writing letters. My commitment will continue to be helping those who are struggling and shining a light on wrongfully detained Americans who should be home with their families.”
BOFH launched on May 4, 2022, the day after Griner was declared wrongfully detained by the U.S. government. The timing was coincidental and had nothing to do with the high-profile athlete’s detention, though it proved to be beneficial, chair Neda Sharghi told Yahoo Sports in May. Sharghi met Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife and biggest advocate, at the annual James W. Foley Legacy Foundation dinner later that month.
“We had just realized that individually we were not able to get a response from the government,” said Sharghi, whose brother, Emad, has been wrongfully detained in Iran since April 2018. “And so we brought this campaign together and Brittney’s family decided to have Brittney join the campaign. And that was really the perfect storm of getting this issue out into the public.”
Griner’s status as an Olympic athlete and symbol for many minority groups made her one of the highest-profile wrongful detainees in recent memory. And as such her case was frequently all over international, national and local news outlets. That helped lift the name of the Bring Our Families Home organization and other detainees around the world.
Griner hasn’t missed a step in joining them and keeping that attention going after her detainment. In her first public statement in December, she asked her supporters to join her in writing letters to others wrongfully detained, namely Paul Whelan. Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, remains in Russia where he’s been wrongfully detained since December 2018 on charges of espionage that he and the U.S. government have denied.
The Mercury and Griner have hosted families and friends through the program at home and away games. At every home game, the Mercury host a letter-writing station for fans to write letters of encouragement and support to those declared wrongfully detained, as well as letters to elected officials urging them to bring those individuals home. Griner and the Mercury have collected more than 100 letters, the WNBA said. Other teams are also hosting the stations when the Mercury come to town.
Griner, 32, has said how much receiving letters meant to her and how it kept up her fighting spirit while giving her hope.
“You’re so far away from all of your loved ones and people you know [and] people you don’t know,” Griner said during her first weekend of games in May. “When you get those letters, you have some really bad days and you get hope. I’ve said it before, hope is a dangerous thing, especially when it doesn’t come through. But getting those letters, that, that right there it makes you feel like you're at home. And then it’s just a nice touch. … To actually take the time to write a letter, it’s so personal. They took time out of their day to do that.”
There is a mural of Griner and other Americans, including Emad Sharghi, wrongfully detained on the side of the Footprint Center in Phoenix. The BOFH campaign’s logo was on the court for the opening home game, replacing the “BG42” logo of last season that kept Griner’s name centered.
Neda Sharghi was in attendance and received a $5,000 check for the organization that she told Yahoo Sports she was not expecting. Griner ran over during the game break to give her a big hug at center court and deliver the oversized check, which went to a mural in Houston unveiled for the July 4 holiday. The organization was also highlighted at WNBA All-Star weekend in between game breaks.
“What Brittney’s detention did — and the way the Mercury and Cherelle and the WNBA and even the NBA rallied around her — was bring this idea of wrongful detention into family’s living rooms and kitchens and conversations in a way that hadn’t really happened before,” Sharghi told Yahoo Sports. “I like to say that it brought it out of the shadows.”
Griner has also continued her BG Heart and Sole Shoe Drive, which is in its sixth year. The 6-foot-9 center said she wanted to do it ahead of 2016 when she was driving home and saw unhoused individuals without shoes. She intended to do it out of her car, but the Mercury organization stepped in to help her make it safer, she said. They helped her organize it and along with the 11 other teams kept it going in her absence last season.
The Mercury collected more than 1,000 pairs of shoes in the seven home games through the end of June. In partnership with the Phoenix Rescue Mission, Griner distributed shoes, hygiene kits and water to those in need around Phoenix with volunteers from the Mercury and the mission.