Brittney Griner: a look back at the 100 days since Mercury star’s detainment in Russia

WNBA teams around the country have honored Brittney Griner, who Saturday will have been detained in Russia for 100 days. The Las Vegas Aces put her initials and jersey number on their court. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – Saturday marks 100 days since Brittney Griner’s detainment.

The Phoenix Mercury star center was taken into Russian custody February 17th at Sheremetyevo International Airport near Moscow after Russian Federal Customs Service claimed it found vape cartridges containing the marijuana concentrate hashish oil in her luggage.

Griner, who is a seven-time WNBA All-Star, has played for UMMC Ekaterinburg in the Russian Premier League during the WNBA offseason since 2014. The former No. 1 overall pick was returning to Russia to finish the Russian Premier League season when she was arrested.

A plethora of WNBA players play in Russia during the offseason because they have the opportunity for compensation at a much higher rate. Griner earns $1 million per season playing in Russia, while she collected a base salary of $221,450 from the Mercury during the 2021-22 season.

“It’s a very delicate situation,” Mercury guard Diana Taurasi said. “I spent 10 years (in Russia), so I know the way things work there.”

Taurasi also played for UMMC Ekaterinburg earlier in her career before announcing her retirement from international competition in 2017.

“It’s a dangerous world everywhere you go. It might change the perspective of different (WNBA players) going overseas,” she said. “That’s a personal choice people are gonna have to make.”

Griner, 31, could face up to 10 years in a Russian prison, as a criminal case was opened into the large-scale transportation of drugs.

In March, Griner’s lawyer, Alexander Boykov, requested that the two-time WNBA scoring champion be placed on house arrest, but that request was denied.

Art for inside the story: Griner’s detainment in Russia has prompted many WNBA players to rethink their decisions to play in that country in the offseason. It’s a difficult decision because salaries are lucrative. (Photo by BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Griner’s lawyer also said that Griner, who is 6 feet, 9 inches tall, was too tall for her prison bed and prison officials issued her a longer bed in March after she complained.

“The beds in the cell are clearly designed for a shorter person,” Ekaterina Kalugina, a member of Moscow’s Public Monitoring Commission who visited Griner in the detention center, told Russian media outlet TASS.

Griner is currently sharing a cell with two Russian women who are also awaiting trial on similar drug charges.

The Russian women speak some English, and while the three are not friends, they’re also not enemies and they support each other, Boykov said.

Significant progress was made on May 3 in the effort to release Griner when the U.S. government stepped in and declared Griner “wrongfully detained.”

“The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner,” a State Department spokesperson told ESPN. “With this determination, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens will lead the interagency team for securing Brittney Griner’s release.”

Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson also agreed to help negotiate Griner’s release.

Richardson has worked for years as a private hostage negotiator and helped successfully negotiate the release of former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed from Russia last month.

“The Russians held them, I believe, as bargaining chips,” Richardson told Bryant Gumbel in an interview on HBO’s “Real Sports” that aired on May 24. “They want something in return. Usually another prisoner, a Russian, in the United States. I’m convinced the Russians are going to ask for something in return, because Brittney Griner is very high profile.”

Richardson added, “What makes it doable is that the president of the United States is ready to consider prisoner exchanges, which we haven’t (done) too much in the past.”

Since Griner is now classified as “wrongfully detained,” the U.S. government is able to immediately try and negotiate her return as opposed to waiting until her trial in Russia concludes.

On May 13, Griner had her pre-trial detention in Russia extended by one month, Boykov said to the Associated Press. Boykov believes that the relatively short extension suggests that Griner’s case will go to trial in mid-June.

May 3 also marked another significant shift, as it resulted in WNBA players and supporters in Congress being told they have the family’s permission to talk about the Griner situation and bring extra attention to Griner’s case.

Up to that point, those close to Griner had followed advice from the State Department to remain quiet in order to not make Griner a more valuable asset to the Russian government.

“We’ve just gotta keep praying for her,” Mercury guard Sophie Cunningham said. “We hope she’s well. And that’s all we know. You guys know as much as we do. No one wants to be in her situation; we miss her like crazy.”

Related story

A U.S. consular officer met with Griner on May 19 according to State Department spokesperson Ned Price, and the officer said Griner was “continuing to do as well as could be expected under these exceedingly challenging circumstances.”

“I’m in a position of complete vulnerability right now. I have to trust people that I didn’t even know until Feb. 17,” Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife, said in an interview with “Good Morning America” co-host Robin Roberts that aired on Wednesday.

“So I’m trusting her lawyers. … ‘How does she look? How is her spirit? How is her energy?’ I’m just asking all those questions, trying to just get some type of indication or vibe. Some days they say, ‘She’s really strong. … She seemed in good spirits when we talked.’ And sometimes they’ll say, ‘Her energy was really low.'”

Some have been critical of President Joe Biden’s role in the process of trying to bring Griner back home, claiming he is not doing enough.

“There is one person that can go get her, and that’s our president,” Cherelle Griner told Angela Rye in an interview that aired Wednesday on ESPN. “He has that power. You know, I’m just like, ‘Why are we not using it? Like, urgently, use it.’ We’re expecting him to use his power to get it done.”

During pregame media availability before Wednesday’s game against the Sparks, Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard also called on the Biden administration to act on the situation.

“I’m extremely hopeful that the Biden administration and Vice President Kamala Harris will step up as well as the state department and really make some things happen at this point,” Nygaard said. “We want Brittney home. She is not just there. She is a political prisoner and we really want them to push them to fight for this woman, our sister, our family member, our friend to help get her home. Please, please help her.”

“I think President Biden is the leader of the Free World and if he steps in and helps BG, we will get BG home.”

David Veenstra(he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

David Veenstra expects to graduate in August 2022 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Veenstra has covered ASU track and field for Inferno Intel.

Sports Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Liam Barrett expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports broadcast journalism. Barrett has interned as a videographer with ReShoevn8r and freelanced as a videographer for 12News.