Fresh off her elated return to the US after months in Russian custody, two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is back on a basketball court.
But her reintegration into American life is far from over, as is the fight by WNBA players for equity as US professional athletes. The issue was highlighted by the 10-month detention of Griner, who’d gone to Russia to play basketball in the WNBA offseason.
Griner’s first move on a Texas basketball court Sunday was a dunk, her agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, told CNN on Monday.
Confirming news first reported by ESPN, Colas said Griner wore a pair of black Chuck Taylor shoes, Phoenix Suns shorts and a T-shirt touting Title IX as she played. Months ago, in pre-trial detention in Russia, Griner was offered a basketball and a hoop, but she declined to play, Colas said.
“I think it’s fair to say that her picking up a ball voluntarily and the first thing being a dunk … it was really encouraging,” Colas said. “She was really excited.”
The 32-year-old had arrived two days earlier at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio for routine evaluation after her release Thursday from what US officials deemed wrongful detention. She was freed amid Russia’s war in Ukraine in a prisoner swap for notorious convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
It’s not clear how long Griner will stay at the medical center, Colas said.
“She’s had a lot of psychological support,” Colas said. “The resources are very robust. It’s very supportive and very BG centered. It’s about her developing agency.”
Griner’s agent believes she will try to “utilize her fame for good” but did not detail what that would look like. Colas said Griner opted into the Department of Defense’s Post Isolation Support Activities, or PISA, program that has served other wrongfully detained Americans.
It’s also unclear whether the Phoenix Mercury center will return to the WNBA. The 2023 regular season begins May 19, with training camps typically opening a month before.
“If she wants to play, it will be for her to share,” Colas told ESPN’s T.J. Quinn. “She has the holidays to rest and decide what’s next without any pressure. She’s doing really, really well. She seems to have endured this in pretty incredible ways.”
But the fact that Griner typically plays basketball in Russia during her WNBA offseasons highlights the inequities faced by professional female athletes in the US, fellow WNBA players said.
For many years, WNBA players have spent their offseasons playing in international leagues, where they often can earn more money.
“We’ve been talking about the pay disparity for a long time, and players have been going overseas for a long time,” Elizabeth Williams, a Washington Mystics player and secretary for the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, told CNN on Monday.
“I think this is when people are realizing … the dangers and perils of people going overseas and the impact of what those pay equity issues are.”
‘A horrendous experience’
Griner was arrested on drug charges at a Russian airport in February and sentenced to nine years in prison. As concerns grew that Griner was being used as a political pawn, efforts to negotiate her release took months.
Now back on US soil, it’s not clear how long Griner will stay in Texas for medical evaluation.
“I’m understanding that it’s going to be a few more days before she gets out,” former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson told CNN on Sunday.
Richardson and his center privately work on behalf of families of hostages and detainees. He previously traveled to Russia to discuss Griner’s release, as well as Paul Whelan, a US Marine veteran who was wrongfully detained and remains in custody.
Richardson said it’s important to give former detainees like Griner ample time to get settled.
“We’ve got to give them a little space, a little time to readjust because they’ve had a horrendous experience in these Russian prisons,” said Richardson, who served as US ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton administration.
While held in a Russian penal colony, Griner was unable to perform the work done by many female prisoners due to her size, Griner’s Russian lawyer Maria Blagovolina told ESPN and confirmed to CNN.
Most of the women in the penal colony worked sewing uniforms, but the 6-foot-9 Griner was too tall to sit at a work table, and her hands were too big to manage the sewing. So instead, she carried fabric all day, her attorney said.
‘I’m here to take you home’
On the day of her release, Griner had a feeling she would be going home, said Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens, who led the prisoner exchange mission in the United Arab Emirates.
But it didn’t feel real until he boarded the plane and told her: “On behalf of the President of the United States, Joe Biden, and Secretary of State Tony Blinken, I’m here to take you home,” Carstens recalled to CNN.
He described Griner as an intelligent, compassionate, humble and patriotic person who immediately wanted to thank all the crew members who helped her.
“When she finally got onto the US plane, I said, ‘Brittney, you must have been through a lot over the last 10 months. Here’s your seat. Please feel free to decompress. We’ll give you your space,’” Carstens recalled.
“And she said, ‘Oh no. I’ve been in prison for 10 months now listening to Russian, I want to talk. But first of all, who are these guys?’ And she moved right past me and went to every member on that crew, looked them in the eyes, shook their hands and asked about them and got their names, making a personal connection with them. It was really amazing,” Carstens said.
Griner spent 12 hours of an 18-hour flight talking with Carstens “about everything under the sun,” he said.
When the government plane landed at Kelly Field, the person who emerged from the plane looked very different. Her long, signature dreadlocks had been cut while in captivity. Griner continuously battled the flu while detained because her hair kept freezing and she was unable to dry them, Colas said.
The new do was not a surprise to her family, though, as she sent word home weeks earlier about her decision to cut her hair, Colas said.
In San Antonio this weekend, she received a real hair cut to clean up her “Russian fade” as her friends and family jokingly call it. After that, she hit the basketball court.
A challenging journey ahead
Griner’s life has been forever altered, and adjusting to everyday life could be difficult.
Jorge Toledo – one of the “Citgo 6” – was released in October as part of a prisoner swap after being detained during a 2017 business trip to Venezuela with other oil and gas executives from the Citgo Petroleum Corporation.
After returning home, Toledo told CNN, he’s had trouble sleeping and felt anxiety during normally mundane tasks such as driving.
But Toledo said he was part of a program in San Antonio that involved six days with a group of psychologists. He said the program was “extremely important” for his reintegration and hopes Griner can take advantage of similar resources.
Whelan still held in Russia ‘for totally illegitimate reasons’
While many celebrate Griner’s return, the fate of another American held in Russia remains uncertain.
Whelan – a US, Irish, British and Canadian citizen – is imprisoned in a Russian penal colony after he was arrested in December 2018 on espionage charges, which he has denied. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison.
With Griner back in the US, Richardson said he’s optimistic about Whelan’s release – noting Russia previously offer a trade for Whelan.
The US tried to persuade Russia to swap both Griner and Whelan for Bout, but Russian officials would not budge on the matter. Russia said the Americans’ cases were handled differently based on the charges each of them faced.
“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” Biden said last week. “Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”
Whelan said he was happy Griner was released, but told CNN, “I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up.”
Griner is eager to use power and influence to help others, her agent said, especially Whelan.
“It was one of the first things she asked me about,” Colas said. “She’s very, very concerned about that. And will be sending a message to Paul.”
CNN’s Kylie Atwood, Jenny Hansler, Wayne Sterling and Matias Grez contributed to this report.