365 days: One year ago, Mercury star Brittney Griner was arrested at a Russian airport

Mercury star Brittney Griner, right, attended the WM Phoenix Open with her wife, Cherelle, It was one of just two public appearances since she was released from a Russian prison in December. (Photo by Matt Venezia/Cronkite News)

The sight of Griner in handcuffs was jarring for many WNBA fans who were accustomed to the player’s upbeat demeanor and youthful spirit. (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

Supporters attend a public rally for Brittney Griner at Footprint Center and raise signs calling for the Phoenix Mercury star’s release from a Russian prison in July 2022. (File photo by Omar Iakub/Cronkite News)

The Russian Federal Customs Service released surveillance footage of Brittney Griner at the Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow, where she was detained for allegedly smuggling hashish oil. (Photo courtesy of Russian Federal Customs Service video)

Griner has been a fan favorite in Phoenix since the Mercury drafted her in 2013. She is an eight-time All-Star and two time scoring champion. (File photo by James Franks/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Exactly one year ago, the Phoenix sports community was brought to its knees when the Russian Federal Customs Service reported it had detained Brittney Griner at a Moscow airport for attempting to smuggle hash oil.

“As a U.S. citizen was passing through the green channel at Sheremetyevo Airport upon arriving from New York, a working dog from the Sheremetyevo customs canine department detected the possible presence of narcotic substances in the accompanying luggage,” the statement said.

Concern grew as Griner’s whereabouts were unknown. Finally, in March, Griner met with U.S. officials while being held in pre-trial detention.

“The consular officer who visited with Brittney Griner was able to verify that she is doing as well as can be expected under these very difficult circumstances,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.

In May, the WNBA honored Griner with a floor decal and her jersey number on the sidelines of all league teams when the 2022 season kicked off. In July, supporters attended a public rally for Brittney Griner at Footprint Center and called for the Mercury star’s release from a Russian prison.

Meanwhile, the only images of Griner were photos taken of the basketball player behind bars. When she was transferred to a penal colony east of Moscow in September to begin serving a nine-year sentence, reports surfaced about the harsh conditions she would endure, including isolation, intense labor and psychological torment.

In December, after months of negotiations, the U.S. announced that the basketball player had been released in a prisoner exchange involving Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Griner has limited her public appearance since returning. A smiling Griner showed up at an MLK Day march in Phoenix in January, and then at the WM Phoenix Open last week with her wife, Cherelle.

Little has been said about her possible return to the Mercury when the season opens May 19, but upon her release from prison, she did post a message on instagram.

“I also want to make one thing very clear: I intend to play basketball for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury this season, and in doing so, I look forward to being able to say ‘thank you’ to those of you who advocated, wrote, and posted for me in person soon,” Griner said.

Matt Venezia
Matt Venezia matt ven-EE-zee-uh (he/him/his)
Sports Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Matt Venezia expects to graduate in December 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Venezia is an Arizona Cardinals video content intern and a Pac-12 Insider play-by-play broadcaster.