A collective sigh of relief: Basketball star Brittney Griner released in exchange for Russian arms dealer

Joe Biden on Brittney Griner’s release: “She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home.”

After being detained and then imprisoned in Russia since February, WNBA star Brittney Griner is finally coming home. Following a prisoner exchange with Russia, Griner is heading home to  Texas to reunite with her wife Cherelle, and her parents. The deal involved swapping Griner for infamous Russian Arms dealer Viktor Bout known as the “Merchant of Death.” Another American, Paul Whelan, is still imprisoned in Russia, after being arrested nearly four years ago.

President Joe Biden’s administration and the State Department worked to get Griner home during months of negotiations.

“It took painstaking and intense negotiations, and I want to thank all the hardworking public servants across my administration who worked tirelessly to secure her release,” Biden said in a White House presser announcing Griner’s freedom. “I also want to thank the UAE for helping us facilitate Brittney’s return, because that’s where she landed.”

[President Biden’s full statement on Brittney Griner’s release]

Russian authorities detained Griner in February at an airport near Moscow after they said they found hashish oil in her luggage. The Phoenix Mercury center was entering the country to play basketball during the WNBA offseason. After detention and a trial, a Russian Court sentenced her to nine years in a penal colony. She began her sentence around Nov. 17.

“I’m glad to be able to say that Brittney is in good spirits,” Biden said. “She’s relieved to finally be heading home. And the fact remains that she’s lost months of her life, experienced a needless trauma, and she deserves space, privacy, and time with her loved ones to recover and heal from her time being wrongfully detained.”

Vice President Kamala Harris and other administration officials also attended the White House presser along with Cherelle.

WNBA Commissioner’s Reaction

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert issued the following statement regarding Griner soon after the news broke.

“There has not been a day over the past ten months where we all haven’t had Brittney Griner on our minds and in our hearts and that has now turned into a collective wave of joy and relief knowing that she will soon be reunited with her family, the WNBA player community, and her friends. BG has shown extraordinary courage and dignity in the face of enormous adversity. The WNBA is grateful beyond measure to the Biden Administration, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, and all those who played a role in bringing BG home today. Our hope is that Paul Whelan and every wrongfully detained American will be returned home safely and as soon as possible.”

She held a press conference Thursday morning to discuss Griner’s return.

“We’ve known negotiations were intensifying and a solution was in sight,” Engelbert said. “I was personally emotional at today’s events because you never know until the end. These are geopolitically complex times. I’m overjoyed that BG will be reunited with her parents, her mom and dad. As a mom myself, I can’t imagine the anguish they’ve been going through.”

Engelbert indicated that when Griner arrives in Texas, she will receive a medical evaluation and that the league will give her time to reacclimate to being home.

“So, we’re obviously going to respect the privacy of this very critical time in her coming back home,” she said. “And obviously I’d love to call her. I’d love to see her. We’re going to give her the appropriate space and time for that, and then follow what Brittney and her family want to do about re-engaging with the WNBA and our players.”

“I know our players are very anxious to re-engage and reunite with Brittney as well,” Engelbert continued. “So, we’ll follow the players’ lead. We’re a players-first league and what they want to do is what we’ll try to broker. But let’s give Brittney some space and her family. It’s been a long ordeal, a horrible ordeal. And really look forward to her return and hearing her voice.”

Reactions from Dawn Staley and Others

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, who coached Griner during the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021, has been an outspoken advocate for Griner since February. Her statement on Griner’s freedom:

“It’s an incredible day – we are so thankful to have our sister and friend coming home! Thanks first to God, who I believe has always had a plan for Brittney; thanks to the work of the Biden Administration – President Biden, Vice President Harris, Secretary Blinken and more – and thanks to everyone who kept her name and story in the public eye during her detainment. My heart is full, but I know that the work is not over for BG; and we all need to continue to throw our arms around her as she processes everything that she has been through in these 293 days. As joyful as we are, I know BG would also want us to keep in our hearts and minds other Americans wrongfully detained overseas and their families and friends. We know what you are going through, and we continue to pray for you as well.”

When South Carolina played at Stanford in November, both coaches wore t-shirts that included an image of Griner. Before the game, the coaches met on the court during a presentation and after a moment of silence in honor of Griner. VanDerveer’s statement:

“We are thrilled to learn of Brittney Griner’s return to the United States of America. She, and her family, have shown extreme amounts of courage and determination in the face of adversity. We are thankful for President Biden and his administration’s work to bring her home, along with countless other leaders across the country and her sisters across the WNBA. We’ve prayed and fought to bring attention for this day to happen and hope that Brittney can heal and resume her normal life again soon. We will not stop focusing our attention on Paul Whelan and every wrongfully detained American in hopes for their safe returns as soon as possible.”

The WNBA player’s union, the WNBPA:

The enormity of this moment cannot fully be captured in words. BG, Brittney Griner, is coming home.

“Today culminates 294 days of relentless effort to free BG from her wrongful detainment. We, as a Union, have not been whole since February 17, 2022. But, today, our 144 is complete.

We express our deepest appreciation for anyone and everyone who supported our campaign, and thank the Biden Administration for its continued efforts over the past 10 months to bring BG home. Whether you signed the petition, posted on social media, wrote a letter, wore a shirt, told your friends to advocate, or called our community to action – what you did made a difference. Your actions kept BG’s name top of mind and her humanity in focus. BG is a daughter, a sister, a wife, a friend, a teammate, and you showed up for her.

We are here to support and love BG as she begins to heal from this injustice, and ask that everyone respect her family’s request for space and time during this process. Today, we also have Paul Whelan and his family in our hearts. We will continue to advocate for the release of all wrongfully detained Americans and reaffirm our commitment to the Bring Our Families Home campaign.

Thank you for standing in solidarity with us, with Cherelle, with BG.”

Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon:

“The entire Las Vegas Aces family was relieved and overjoyed to be awakened this morning by the news that after 294 days, our sister is finally coming home. To all those who kept Brittney in your thoughts over these 10 long months, and to the members of the Biden Administration who worked tirelessly to secure her release, thank you. Please continue to keep BG, and her loved ones in your prayers, along with the families of those Americans who remain wrongfully detained.”

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