How Brittney Griner Continues to Advocate for American Detainees

brittney griner hugs someone on her left and looks over her shoulder, she is smiling and both people wear all black outfits, they stand next to a painted mural of 15 people and the slogan bring our families home

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It was a WNBA preseason game like any other when the Phoenix Mercury faced off against the Los Angeles Sparks on May 12, 2023. But for Brittney Griner, it was something special: her first time on a basketball court since her nearly nine-month detention in Russia.

“I’m grateful to be here, that’s for sure,” Griner said after the game. “I’m not going to take a day for granted.”

Griner, the 33-year-old Mercury center and nine-time WNBA all-star, is now looking ahead to the 2024 season, beginning May 14, and could return to the Olympics for a third time this summer.

But basketball isn’t the only thing on her mind. Since her return to the United States in December 2022, Griner has been an outspoken advocate for Americans detained abroad, like Wall Street Journal journalist Evan Gershkovich and ex-marine Paul Whelan who are both in Russian custody.

“We’re not going to stop,” Griner said in a news conference in April 2023. “We’re not going to stop fighting. We’re not going to stop bringing awareness to everyone that’s left behind right now.”

“Good to Be Home”

The 6-foot-9-inch former Baylor star was drafted first overall by the Mercury in 2013 and has been with the team ever since. She helped lead Phoenix to the WNBA championship in 2014 and has averaged 17.7 points and 7.5 rebounds across her 10-year career. She also won gold medals with the U.S. women’s national basketball team in 2016 and 2020.

brittney griner, wearing glasses and a blue prison jumpsuit, is handcuffed and escorted down a hallway by uniformed officers
Brittney Griner leaves a courtroom in Khimki, Russia, outside Moscow, on August 4, 2022.Getty Images

Griner was arrested in Russia on February 17, 2022, after authorities found cannabis oil in her luggage at an airport. Although Griner said she was prescribed the oil to treat injury-related pain, she pleaded guilty to drug-smuggling charges and was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony.

Griner’s arrest sparked outrage from across the nation and the world, and the U.S. State Department declared her “wrongfully detained.” After she spent almost 300 days in custody, President Joe Biden secured her release in a prisoner swap involving the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

“It feels so good to be home!” Griner wrote on Instagram after her return. “The last 10 months have been a battle at every turn. I dug deep to keep my faith, and it was the love from so many of you that helped keep me going. From the bottom of my heart, thank you to everyone for your help.”

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Speaking Out for Other Detainees

A longtime LGBTQ activist, Griner has been advocating for the safe return of American prisoners detained overseas from the moment she returned to the United States on December 8, 2022. In her first Instagram post after coming home, she voiced support for the return of Whelan, who is serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia on spying allegations. Whalen and the federal government have denied the charges.

Griner praised Biden for his successful efforts to bring home Jeff Woodke and Paul Rusesabagina, both of whom had been detained in West Africa. She also said she has been in touch with the family of Gershkovich, who has been imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges since March 2023.

“We must do everything in our power to bring him and all Americans home,” Griner wrote on Instagram. “Every American who is taken is ours to fight for, and every American returned is a win for us all. That is why we call on all our supporters to both celebrate the wins and encourage the administration to continue to use every tool possible to bring Evan and all wrongfully detained Americans home.”

Griner announced in April 2023 she is working with Bring Our Families Home, a campaign formed by family members of American hostages and wrongfully-held detainees. She also voiced her support for the issue during one of her first public appearances that February during the NAACP Image Awards. “Let’s keep fighting to bring home every American still detained overseas,” she said.

Returning to Basketball

brittney griner, in a phoenix mercury jersey, playing offense in basketball against chiney ogwumike, wearing a los angeles sparks jersey
Brittney Griner dodges Chiney Ogwumike in a preseason game against the Los Angeles Sparks on May 12, 2023.Getty Images

After missing the entire 2022 WNBA season due to her detainment, Griner had little time to get back into shape before the 2023 season and said she didn’t expect to return to basketball as quickly as she has. “Even coming back, I didn’t know how it was going to go getting back into it,” she said.

Nevertheless, she scored 10 points and three rebounds during the 17 minutes she played in the May 12 preseason game, making her presence known early with a clutch turnaround jumper in the first quarter. The crowd cheered wildly when her named was called at the start of the game, according to CNN, and it was an emotional experience for Griner.

“Hearing the national anthem, it definitely hit different,” she said. “It’s like when you go for the Olympics, you’re sitting there, about to get gold put on your neck, the flags are going up, and the anthem is playing, it just hits different... Being here today… it means a lot.”

Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said the whole team felt the same way: “We looked at each other, and we just had chills. We were here last year for all of it. I’m getting emotional about it now. Just to see her back out there—it’s an absolute miracle. It was amazing. It’s giving me chills again.”

Griner ultimately found her form again, averaging 17.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.2 assists in the 2023 season. At 56 percent, her field goal percentage was second best in the league, and she returned to the WNBA all-star game for a ninth time. This April, she signed another contract with the Mercury, ensuring she’s walk on the court in orange and purple for a 11th season. Griner shared her excitement and gratitude for her team’s support in an Instagram post following the announcement.

“My story of Coming Home wouldn’t be possible without the support of this incredible organization,” Griner wrote, referencing her new memoir and return to America. “I’m READY to return and play in front of the best fans in the world. Last year was truly special for many reasons, and I’m grateful for the people who always show up for me when it matters most.”

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