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WNBA's Cathy Engelbert on Brittney Griner: 'We know she's safe,' we 'need to be patient'

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Before celebrating the arrival of the next generation of WNBA players on Monday, commissioner Cathy Engelbert addressed the perilous plight of one of the game's biggest stars.

Engelbert kicked off Monday's WNBA draft with an update on Phoenix Mercury All-Star Brittney Griner, who remains imprisoned in a Russian jail. Engelbert didn't provide specifics on Griner's situation, but did assure reporters that Griner is "safe."

"Obviously we’re getting a ton of support from the government, from specialists," Engelbert said. "And her representation is able to visit with Brittney.

"We know she’s safe, but we want to get her home. So it’s just a very complex situation right now and we’re following the advice. There’s not a day that goes by that we’re not talking to someone that has views on what we’re doing and how we’re moving forward."

Brittney Griner is shown during the first half of Game 2 of basketball's WNBA Finals against the Chicago Sky, Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, in Phoenix. A Moscow court announced it has extended the arrest of WNBA star Brittney Griner until May 19, according to the Russian state news agency Tass. Griner was detained at a Moscow airport in February after Russian authorities said a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges. They were identified as containing oil derived from cannabis, which could carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri, File)
Brittney Griner remains detained in Russia. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri, File)

Latest on Griner's Russian detainment

Griner, a seven-time WNBA All-Star, was detained on drug charges in February after allegedly being found with cartridges containing hashish oil during an airport security check in Moscow. She was traveling to join her Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg, for whom she plays during the WNBA offseason.

Her detainment was reportedly extended last month until May 19 as the state continues its investigation. If found guilty on transportation of drug charges, she faces up to 10 years in prison.

Griner's detainment took place in the days before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, raising fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin could use her as a bargaining chip in the ongoing conflict. U.S. Department of State spokesman Ned Price announced on March 23 that an American embassy representative in Russia was allowed to check in on Griner that day. Price announced that she was in "good condition" without providing further details on her well-being.

'Complex geopolitical situation'

Information on her condition continue to be sparse as the U.S. government navigates complicated diplomatic terrain with a Russian government that engages openly in human rights abuses. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has largely declined to elaborate when asked about Griner, telling reporters in March that discussing specifics is "not constructive to bringing people home." Describing Griner's detainment as an "unimaginable situation," Engelbert reiterated that reality on Monday.

"Obviously we’re in a very complex geopolitical situation with Russia and Ukraine, and so this continues to be complex," Engelbert said. ... "I know we’re all frustrated, but we do need to be patient. I know the players have been amazing at following the advice that they’re getting and we’re getting in order to not jeopardize her safety in any way. So we just continue to follow that advice and continue to work on it."

WNBA to continue Griner's charitable efforts

Engelbert also announced that the WNBA will carry on and expand Griner's BG's Heart and Sole Shoe Drive across WNBA cities. Griner has spearheaded the initiative to collect shoes for the homeless in Arizona since 2016.

"We will have a league-wide philanthropic initiative led by the Phoenix Mercury honoring BG and modeled after her work," Engelbert said. "That will take place in all 12 WNBA markets. ... The activations we will do that the Mercury will lead are intended to remind us of BG's spirit of giving and do the work that she'd be doing if she were here and the work she will join us in when she returns."