IMAGE: US basketball player Brittney Griner teared up during her first news conference after being detained in Russia for nearly 10-months. Photograph: Caitlin O’Hara/Reuters
U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner never lost hope during her near 10-month detention in Russia, the Phoenix Mercury centre said on Thursday at her first press conference since returning home.
The two-times Olympic gold medallist was released from one of Russia’s most notorious penal colonies in a high-profile prisoner exchange with the United States late last year after she was arrested in February 2022.
“I’m no stranger to hard times,” Griner said during an emotional news conference.
“Just digging deep, honestly, you’re going to be faced with adversities throughout your life. This was a pretty big one.”
Griner was taken into custody at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and subsequently convicted of narcotics possession and trafficking after she was found to have been carrying vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.
She said she was prescribed medical cannabis in the United States for a chronic injury and never intended to break the law. U.S. officials said she was wrongly detained and was being used as a political pawn amid increasingly strained relations with Russia.
She thanked U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday for helping negotiate her release and said looking at photos of her family helped her keep going while she was detained.
“I was aware of the efforts and everything that was going on,” said Griner. “It made me have hope.”
Griner pledged to dedicate herself to bringing home other Americans detained abroad and announced she and the Phoenix Mercury would partner with Bring Our Families Home to champion the cause.
Her release prompted cheers from across the sports world and many others.
But some Republican lawmakers were fiercely critical of what U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called a “one or none” deal that did not include the release of former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan.
Former President Donald Trump, who was in the White House when Whelan was detained in late 2018, called it “a ‘stupid’ and unpatriotic embarrassment.”
Asked if she felt guilt for getting home, Griner said it hurt to know others were living in the conditions she did and that she had a “no one left behind” mindset she attributed to her father, a veteran of the Vietnam War.
“If I could have went in and got them out or any of that, I mean, of course I would have,” said Griner. “I hope that we – everyone – continues to bring awareness and fight to bring home everyone.”
The 32-year-old will begin her 10th season with the Mercury when their season kicks off on May 19 and said she will never play abroad again – as many in the WNBA do to earn extra income – unless it is to represent her country at the Olympics.
Salaries in the WNBA trail that of their male counterparts’ NBA.
“The whole reason a lot of us go over, you know, is the pay gap,” said Griner, who signed a one-year deal to stay with the Mercury in February.
“I don’t knock any player that wants to go overseas and make a little bit of extra money. I’m hoping that our league continues to grow.”
The six-foot, nine-inch slam-dunking titan had clearly not lost her trademark sense of humour, as she joked about returning to play with 40-year-old veteran Diana Taurasi, one of the most decorated players in the league.
“I mean, who wouldn’t want to play with a walking fossil?” said Griner.
“She’s going to kill me. No, I’m just so glad. I was really worried, honestly. Legit, I was worried – I thought that she was going to, like, retire on me.”