Brittney Griner’s WNBA impact is clear as fans await news from Russia

When Brittney Griner is on the basketball court, everyone knows it. At 6-foot-9, she towers over most other players. She grabs rebounds over her opponents’ outstretched arms, and her teammates know the surest way to score: Deliver the ball to her.

Since Phoenix Mercury drafted Griner No. 1 overall in 2013, she’s become one of the most dominant players of all time: a seven-time All-Star, WNBA champion and two-time Olympian with gold medals. corresponding gold.

But now Griner, 31, is embroiled in a geopolitical dilemma. Instead of preparing for the WNBA season in less than two months, she would be detained in Russia on what customs officials described as drug charges, with little word on her case or her well-being during the war in Ukraine. .

“With all the problems with Russia and the attacks on Ukraine, has Brittney become a political bargaining chip?” said Debbie Jackson, Griner’s high school basketball coach. “Is this part of the policy? So many things don’t make sense to me that I find it hard to believe this is really the real thing that happened.

Griner was in Russia to play in a professional basketball league, a common off-season practice for WNBA players, who can earn salaries in foreign leagues far beyond what their American teams pay. The date and circumstances of Griner’s potential detention were not known, and the WNBA said all of its players except Griner were out of the country on Saturday.

Griner would face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of drug trafficking, based on charges that she had vape cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage. Russian authorities, who said on Saturday they detained an American athlete on those drug charges, did not name Griner, but Russian news agency Tass did.

On Monday, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said she had seen information about Griner, but federal privacy law prevented the US government from discussing Griner’s detention. a person without their written consent. US officials have repeatedly accused Russia of detaining US citizens under pretexts.

Representatives for Griner declined to comment on Griner’s status beyond a statement that they were working to bring her back to the United States. The uncertainty has caused an outpouring among fans and supporters of Griner, a breakthrough player known for her unparalleled blitz of dunks and her position as one of the hottest gay athletes.

A congresswoman from Houston, Griner’s hometown, has called for his release. WNBA players 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 hurt, we hurt. We wait for the day to love you as a family.

Griner was a 5-foot-8 freshman on the Nimitz High School volleyball team 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 quickly fell in love with it, Jackson said. It helped that she grew almost a foot, to 6ft 7in tall, in her senior year.

“She wasn’t like a big, clumsy person who had to grow into her body,” Jackson said. “She was really, really good at coordination.”

Griner earned a basketball scholarship to Baylor University, where for four years she played with a combination of size, skill, fluidity and speed like no other female basketball player in the country. She could score at will under the basket, and the highlight dunks made her fascinating.

“Nobody can do what they can do,” said Nancy Lieberman, the first woman to play on a professional men’s team, during Griner’s first 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 with a victory over Notre Dame in the national championship game. She won the Big 12 Player of the Year award three times and had 18 dunks at Baylor. Before her, few women had participated in a college game.

The Mercury drafted Griner in 2013, hoping she would rejuvenate their franchise. The turnaround was quick with Griner playing alongside WNBA career leading scorer Diana Taurasi. The Mercury made the playoffs during Griner’s rookie season and won a championship in his second. Last season, she played a key role in the Mercurys’ run to the WNBA Finals, where they lost to the Chicago Sky.

“In terms of talent, she was absolutely a force and continues to be a force,” said Pamela Wheeler, former WNBA players’ union official. “I think everyone was looking for her to help lead the league, which she did, into a new era.”

The year Griner was drafted, the league changed its name, changing its logo and focusing on promoting three rookies: Griner, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Elena Delle Donne.

Griner seemed like a good fit, with an engaging personality, a willingness to laugh at herself, and a passion for speaking out against bullying. She was also open about being gay, which became more mainstream in sports, partly because of her.

“I’m up for the challenge,” Griner said at the time of participating in the rebrand. “I changed some stuff in college basketball, I guess you could say, so I’m in. I’m never afraid of anything. Whatever you throw at me, I’m ready for it.

As she elevated her game nationally, Griner also made a name for herself in international basketball. She won two Olympic gold medals with the United States Women’s National Team, in 2016 and 2021, and started playing for teams in Russia and China during WNBA offseasons.

It is believed that nearly half of the WNBA’s 144 players will play for international teams this offseason, including more than a dozen in Russia and Ukraine. Griner played for Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg for several years.

“While a number of gamers also do it for the money,” said Wheeler, the former union leader, “they also do it for the love of the game and continue to be able to play and continue to maintain themselves. in playing form.

The maximum base salary for players in the WNBA is around $228,000, but international teams have been known to pay several hundred thousand dollars, and even over $1 million. Griner is expected to earn just below the WNBA maximum in the 2022 season. With the WNBA minimum salary around $60,000, many players earn the bulk of their income playing overseas.

But playing abroad is not a “tourist opportunity” for most players, said Dr Courtney Cox, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon, who said she had traveled to Russia in 2018 to research a book on women’s professional basketball around the world. .

“There’s this network of whispers where it’s safe to play, where players share information: where you get paid on time, where they watch over you, top coaches, all that information,” Cox said. “There’s a sort of traumatic connection, I think, that happens when you play in some of these spaces where you might be one of the only American players, depending on league policies.”

After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, WNBA players from both countries fled.

Playing in the United States can come with its own set of issues. In his memoir “In My Skin,” Griner wrote about his time at Baylor, a Baptist-affiliated school that had an official policy against homosexuality at the time. In the book, Griner said Kim Mulkey, his trainer, warned Griner to “keep your business behind closed doors” and told him to cover up his tattoos and delete social media posts about his girlfriend and LGBT issues.

But the Griner who entered the WNBA displayed a determination to show that she was comfortable being herself. She spoke about being gay, wore fitted suits and bow ties, showed off her tattoos and modeled menswear for Nike as the brand’s first openly gay athlete.

“She came across as someone who was just herself,” said Amira Rose Davis, an assistant professor at Penn State University who specializes in race, sports and gender issues. She added: “So when she signs with Nike and when she pushes gender roles or when she does the covers, it elevates the power of the athletes in the game to write their own narratives about themselves.”

Little has been said publicly about Griner’s situation in Russia. Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, declined to provide details, including whether Griner had been detained.

Colas said in a statement 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, doubts the charges.

“It’s just hard to believe that Brittney, or any professional athlete who knows the laws of this country, the cultural differences and norms and the completely different political system, would even think of packing something in her carry-on that was prohibited. .substance in this country,” she said.

Public demands by US officials for the release of Americans held overseas generally have little effect on foreign captors. Such cases are often resolved through behind-the-scenes diplomacy, and the details may never be made public. Some analysts said bringing the matter into the political arena with angry demands could make resolution more difficult and pressure the other country not to be seen as giving in without a clear victory.

Griner’s family and friends just want her to come home. Johnson, his ex-wife, posted a message of support on Instagram.

Cherelle Griner said on Instagram that it was “one of the lowest moments of my life”.

“My heart, our hearts are jumping with every passing day,” she said.

Lara Jacques and Michael Crowley contributed report.

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