PHOENIX – Brittney Griner pledged never to play overseas again – with one notable exception: representing Team USA.
The opportunity arose in October, when the USA Basketball Women’s National Team unveiled its training camp roster for the 2024 Paris Olympics, featuring Griner and her Phoenix Mercury teammate, Diana Taurasi.
“I didn’t think I would ever wear this jersey again,” Griner said Tuesday. “I didn’t know what the future was.”
Griner’s doubts were warranted after she ventured overseas to Russia to continue playing basketball during the 2022 WNBA offseason, a common business decision due to the WNBA’s low salaries. Many of the league’s top players, including Taurasi, have made more money playing overseas.
However, Griner’s journey took an unexpected turn when Russian authorities detained her for carrying hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow while returning to join her team, the UMMC Yekaterinburg. Her attorneys said she had a prescription for medical cannabis to manage pain.
Amid the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia, Griner was ultimately sentenced to nine years in prison. Her confinement in Russia lasted nearly 10 months, far away from worried loved ones and supporters who worked tirelessly to gain her release.
Ultimately, U.S. and Russia officials negotiated to exchange Griner on Dec. 8 for a notorious Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, who was imprisoned in Marion, Illinois.
“There was a lot of times a year ago when I didn’t think that I would play ball,” Griner said.
When she received the call to suit up for the U.S. Women’s National Team, she said the decision to represent her country again was a “no-brainer.”
Growing up, Griner idolized her father, Raymond, a former police officer who served during the Vietnam War in 1968 and 1969.
“I actually wanted to follow my dad’s footsteps,” said Griner, who originally planned to enlist after high school graduation and enter law enforcement before pursuing basketball.
At Nimitz High School in Houston, Texas, Griner dominated with her impressive size and unique skill set, and earned ESPN’s No. 1 ranking among women’s basketball recruits. Enlisting was no longer an option, and she took her talents to Baylor.
“So my way of doing something for my country would be (playing) with USA basketball,” Griner said. “It was only fitting, only right, that I come back and play with USA ball.”
She added, “It’s just a different feeling.”
Griner was honored recently with the WNBA Cares Community Assist Award for her dedicated work in the Bring Our Families Home campaign, which advocates for the return of wrongfully detained individuals overseas.
In Phoenix, she has also made a positive impact by assisting unhoused individuals in her community through the BG Heart & Sole Shoe Drive.
Now looking to make another global impact about eight months from now, Griner already anticipates that she’ll be emotional watching the American flag wave while listening to the national anthem should the U.S. win another gold medal. The Americans have won seven Olympic golds in a row and nine of the last 10.
Griner is a two-time gold medalist and Taurasi has won five.
“I probably won’t be able to hold that one back,” Griner said. “Very few people will understand that emotion.”
Taurasi, the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer and a close observer of Griner’s remarkable career, acknowledges the significance of this moment. She had a courtside view this season of Griner’s return to action in the WNBA, where support came from all angles and every level of the league.
“It’ll surely be a big moment for her,” Taurasi said. “I’ve been there through it all. It’ll be a very satisfying moment for her in a lot of ways, professionally and personally. Just being an American, that’s always one of the biggest moments when you’re at an Olympics and hear the national anthem.”
Team USA is holding its training camp in Atlanta, Georgia, from Tuesday to Thursday, with exhibition games against the University of Tennessee and Duke University. On Sunday, Team USA defeated Tennessee 95-59, with five players scoring in double digits, including Griner, who finished with 11.
“There was definitely some reflection on if this would ever happen again,” Griner said. “Just the joy of just being on the court. It was a little overwhelming, but good emotions.”