Griner in ‘good spirits’ in US after Russian prisoner swap – On Her Turf | NBC Sports

SAN ANTONIO – Brittney Griner returned to the United States Friday and was reunited with her wife nearly 10 months after her detention in Russia made the basketball star the most high-profile American jailed abroad and set off a political firestorm.
Griner’s status as an openly gay Black woman, her prominence in women’s basketball and her imprisonment in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LGBTQ community heightened concerns for her and brought tremendous attention to the case. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine after her arrest complicated matters further.
The deal that brought home Griner, 32, in exchange for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden. But the U.S. failed to win freedom for another American, Paul Whelan, who has been jailed for nearly four years.
Asked if more such swaps could happen, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that “everything is possible,” noting that “compromises have been found” to clear the way for Thursday’s exchange.
Biden’s authorization to release Bout, the Russian felon once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” underscored the heightened urgency that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case on drug charges and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and Phoenix Mercury pro basketball star, was seen getting off a plane that landed Friday at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas.
“So happy to have Brittney back on U.S. soil. Welcome home BG!” tweeted Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.
“We’re just so happy to have her back,” Vanessa Nygaard, head coach of the Mercury, said in an interview outside of the team’s Phoenix stadium.
“We are looking eagerly forward to welcoming her back to our community,” said Nygaard, adding that she hadn’t yet spoken with Griner.
Biden spoke by phone with Griner, who was reunited with her wife, Cherelle. U.S. officials who met her upon arrival said she was in “very good spirits” and appeared to be in good health, according to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who noted that she would be offered specialized medical services and counseling.
The WNBA star, who also played pro basketball in Russia, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February after Russian authorities said she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil. The U.S. State Department declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” – a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.
Griner pleaded guilty in July but still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia’s judicial system does not automatically end a case. She was sentenced to nine years.
She acknowledged in court that she possessed canisters with cannabis oil but said she had no criminal intent and accidentally packed them. Her defense team presented written statements that she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain.
The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed Thursday’s swap, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu Dhabi and Bout had been flown home.
In releasing Bout, the U.S. freed a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. He was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the U.S. in 2010.
Bout was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that U.S officials said were to be used against Americans.
PHOENIX – WNBA star Brittney Griner’s 10-month imprisonment in Russia on drug charges came to an end on Thursday, spreading relief and joy across sports world and beyond.
It’s unknown if and when she might return to a basketball court. But if she does, women’s basketball will get back a generational talent.
On the court, Griner was a dominant force in leading Baylor to the 2012 NCAA championship, then went onto stardom as a lanky anchor for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and as a two-time Olympic gold medalist with Team USA.
The 6-foot-9 center is known for her ability to dunk, once a rarity in the women’s game. Griner holds the NCAA record with 18 dunks and has 13 since joining the WNBA in 2014. She has five more in WNBA All-Star Games.
But Griner’s impact on the game goes far beyond her ability to throw the ball down from over the rim.
Defensively, she’s arguably the best women’s player ever.
Griner blocked more shots than eight teams as a WNBA rookie and has kept swatting shots throughout her nine-year pro career. She holds WNBA records for most blocks in a season (129) and a game (11).
Griner’s ability to block shots and her agility on the court helped her win the WNBA defensive player of the year in consecutive seasons (2014-15) and earned her a spot on the WNBA’s all-defensive team six times – three each on first and second teams.
Griner has been as much of a force at the offensive end. She became the first true center to lead the WNBA in scoring in 2017 and did it again in 2019, averaging more than 20 points each season.
Griner has averaged 17.7 points while shooting 56% from the floor and averages 7.6 rebounds per game in her career.
The combination of skills has earned Griner six WNBA All-Star Game appearances. She didn’t play in 2017 due to injury, and the games in 2016 and 2020 were not played.
Griner was a key part of the Mercury team that won the 2014 WNBA championship, won a gold medal with the U.S. team at the 2016 Rio Olympics and has been a part of two world championship gold medal teams.
A testament to Griner’s impact: the Mercury went 15-21 while she was detained during the 2022 season after reaching the WNBA finals the year before.
Now Griner is finally headed home. The 2023 WNBA season starts in May, when she will likely go back to dominating the game.
Brittney Griner is back in the United States after an arduous 10-month saga in Russia. Yet nearly half of her WNBA peers opted to compete abroad this winter to supplement their incomes.
None are playing in Russia, for obvious reasons – Griner’s ordeal and the country’s ongoing war with Ukraine – but 67 of the league’s 144 players are in Australia, Turkey, Italy and about a half-dozen other countries.
“Our players are going to do what’s best for them in consultation with their families and their agents,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said. “And we’re certainly here to help them think through the security risks and things like that. I think you’re seeing players take advantage of other opportunities, and we’re certainly going to provide them more opportunities to do things with the league in the offseason and keep the momentum going around the great play that they put on the court every year.”
Griner, an All-Star with the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was detained following her arrest at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February on drug possession charges while returning to Russia to play for her overseas team. She was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison in Russia before the U.S. and Russia made a high-level prisoner exchange Thursday that allowed her to return home.
Griner has not spoken publicly nor announced her career plans since she was freed. But if she wanted to return to the court, she would be welcomed back by the WNBA, the Mercury and USA Basketball.
Engelbert said she’d give Griner and her family some space and time before any discussion about returning to the league, whose season begins May 19. South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley, who coached Griner on the 2020 Olympic team, feels that playing again could be helpful to the dominant center.
Playing overseas brings in salaries for a handful of WNBA players that top $1 million. It’s a lucrative alternative to the marketing deals that the WNBA offers players to remain in the U.S. during the offseason and promote the league; top players like Griner can now make $700,000 when factoring in all possible revenue streams offered by the WNBA.
But there’s no denying that the disparity in pay between professional men’s basketball players and professional women’s basketball players – Griner included – is still vast. The top salaries for WNBA players are much less than the minimum salary of about $953,000 for NBA players (excluding those on two-way contracts) for various reasons, primarily the difference in profit margins and media rights.
The NBA’s revenues topped $10 billion for the first time last season, and the league has a $24 billion, nine-year television deal. Its next one, set to kick in around 2025, is expected to be worth significantly more. The WNBA does not publicly release its revenue numbers.
WNBA players have never asked to make the same as their NBA counterparts – they acknowledge it’s impossible – but have asked for an equal revenue share.
So, the WNBA players look outside of the U.S., and Turkey has become the main destination for this winter with nearly two dozen of them playing there. Top players can make a few hundred thousand dollars playing in Turkey – significantly less than what they could earn in Russia.
Breanna Stewart, who plays for the Seattle Storm, chose to play in Turkey because it was closer to her wife’s family in Spain.
“You want to have a better lifestyle, a better off-the-court experience, and just continue to appreciate other countries,” she told The Associated Press during the FIBA World Cup in September.
Last offseason, 73 WNBA players went overseas. Five years ago, it was about 90 players. The decline points to the growing options in the U.S., especially with the marketing agreements, which Englebert said tripled this year.
“The owners really stepped up on the compensation side for the players in this collective bargaining cycle,” Engelbert said at the WNBA Finals, “and I think the kind of quid pro quo for that was prioritization, showing up on time for our season.”
Players also can take part in the Athletes Unlimited league, which started last year in the U.S. The five-week season has 13 WNBA players signed for this year, up from two during the league’s inaugural year.


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