Flanked by anonymous suits, wrapped in a red-and-black lumberjack, and sporting newly cropped hair in place of her trademark dreadlocks, Brittney Griner marched across a nondescript airport runway in the UAE.
In the opposite direction strolled the middling middle-aged, Soviet-born arms dealer who was freed in exchange for her release from a Russian penal colony.
‘I wish you good luck,’ Viktor Bout told the 6-foot-9 WNBA champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist as the two crossed paths on December 8, 2022.
Griner didn’t appear to pay him much attention, and she didn’t need to. For all the fearful uncertainty she faced between her drug arrest at a Moscow airport, 10 months of imprisonment, and the controversial prisoner exchange, her path forward was crystal clear: She was returning to the United States, basketball, her loving wife Cherelle, and whatever lay in store for the man known as the ‘Merchant of Death’ was out of her control.
As it turns out, Bout has made a seamless transition from dealing arms in the war-torn Middle East and Africa into a pseudo-political career, which probably says more about Vladimir Putin’s Russia than it does about the newly freed 56-year-old. In Bout, Putin has a vocal supporter of his largely unpopular invasion of Ukraine, and the fact that this reassurance is coming from a war criminal is largely irrelevant to the Russian President.
And it’s that war that hung like a blood moon over Griner’s trial, conviction and nine-year sentence for a crime that Russia typically punishes with mere weeks in jail. Yes, it was Griner’s medically prescribed hash oil that Moscow airport security discovered in February of 2022. But it was Putin who turned her into a geopolitical pawn until he was able to finalize the prisoner exchange with the Biden Administration one year ago today.
Brittney Griner flies home with negotiator Roger Carstens (right) and others who helped secure her release from Russia
Griner (in red) is seen being exchanged for Bout (carrying the manila envelope and hugging a man) on December 8, 2022
Brittney Griner, negotiator Roger Carstens, and Brittney’s wife Cherelle are seen after the WNBA star’s return
Brittney Griner embraces her wife Cherelle following her release from prison in Russia in December of 2022
Griner gets out of a plane after landing at the JBSA-Kelly Field Annex runway in San Antonio on December 9, 2022
The daughter of a Houston sheriff’s deputy and Vietnam veteran, Griner says she was bullied growing up for everything from her immense size to her sexuality.
But, thanks in part to that size, she also had basketball; and as she developed athletically, she soon gained local and national notoriety. As a high school senior, Griner dunked a reported 52 times in 32 games, and once blocked 25 shots on a single night. YouTube stardom, a meeting with fellow Texan Shaquille O’Neal, and host of scholarship offers soon followed.
By the time Houston mayor Bill White declared May 7, 2009 to be ‘Britney Griner Day’ in the city, she was committed to national powerhouse, Baylor, and her success only continued.
Between 2009 and 2022, Griner won an NCAA title and was named the outstanding player of the Final Four, she was picked first in the WNBA Draft by the Phoenix Mercury, was named to nine All-Star teams, and captured both club and Olympic titles.
She was eventually released in a prisoner exchange on December 8, 2022, and one year on Griner is calling for attention to turn to other Americans ‘wrongly detained’ across the world
Griner was among the first above-the-rim players in women’s basketball, dating back to her days at Houston’s Nimitiz High (left) and her college days in Waco, Texas at national powerhouse, Baylor (right)
Since 2014, Griner had been supplementing income with UMMC Ekaterinburg, a Russian powerhouse at the base of the Urals
But for all of her success, Griner’s personal life was clearly difficult.
An engagement to fellow WNBA player Glory Johnson led to a domestic violence arrest for both players, and although they did eventually marry, they quickly divorced resulting in Griner being forced to pay child support for their twin daughters.
Griner eventually found Cherelle in 2018 and they’d get married by the following year.
But even as her personal life was improving, Griner was beginning to attract public criticism for her social activism.
In protest over the 2020 police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, Griner joined the chorus of athletes refusing to stand for the national anthem.
‘I honestly feel we should not play the national anthem during our season,’ she told reporters. ‘I think we should take that much of a stand.’
As an outspoken, gay African-American basketball star, Griner was an unlikely candidate to play professionally in Putin’s Russia, which was increasingly identified with racism and homophobia.
But without the eight- and nine-figure contracts of the NBA, Griner and other WNBA stars had traditionally spent their offseason enduring the chilly winters in Eastern Europe in hopes of padding their bottom line.
Griner is seen on security footage going through airport security in Moscow, where she was arrested for cannabis possession
Since 2014, Griner had been supplementing income with UMMC Ekaterinburg, a Russian powerhouse at the base of the Ural Mountains, which is where she was returning in February of 2022 when she was stopped by airport security in Moscow.
Having spent years battling knee and ankle problems, Griner had previously secured a medical marijuana prescription in Arizona to combat the chronic pain, which is why she was in possession of cartridges containing less than a gram of contraband. (She later surmised that she had forgotten to clean out her suitcase thoroughly because she was in a rush to make her flight)
Although the western world didn’t know at the time, Griner was being held in police custody and her entire future was now in jeopardy.
By month’s end, with Putin gearing up for his invasion of Ukraine, several American players had begun returning from Eastern Europe, including another former WNBA MVP, Breanna Stewart, and ex-NBA guard Shabazz Napier.
It wasn’t until the following month that Griner’s situation became known, publicly, by which point Cherelle had begun her frantic efforts to be reunited with her partner.
The problem was, publicizing her situation wasn’t so easy. The US State Department had angered Russia by declaring Griner to be ‘wrongfully detained,’ and there remained concerns that Putin could retaliate against her if he was displeased with the western media coverage.
‘I love my wife wholeheartedly, so this message comes during one of the weakest moments of my life,’ Cherelle posted on Instagram. ‘I understand that many of you have grown to love BG over the years and have concerns and want details. Please honor our privacy as we continue to work on getting my wife home safely.’
With her trial looming, Griner penned a letter to President Joe Biden in a desperate attempt to secure her release.
‘I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever,’ she wrote in July of 2022, while referencing other Americans imprisoned in Russia such as accused spy Paul Whelan.
‘I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and … other American detainees. Please do all you can to bring us home.’
Brittney Griner is seen being escorted in a court building in Khimki outside Moscow, Russia on August 4, 2022
Brittney Griner sits inside a defendants’ cage after the court’s verdict during a hearing in Khimki outside Moscow
Griner’s trial played out as expected.
Pictured in a cramped holding cell that could hardly contain her lanky frame, Griner pled guilty in hopes of a reduced sentence, telling the judge that she had never intended to break Russian law.
Unmoved, the judge followed Russian prosecutors’ suggested nine-year sentence, and when Griner’s appeal was denied, Cherelle started to lose hope.
‘I’m sitting there like, ”Do we get her back? Do I ever get to see my wife again?”’ Cherelle told CBS as Griner was being sent to a penal colony. ‘Like, what happens [next]? The fact that everything is so unprecedented and everything is, like, changeable, I think is a really good word. I feel like every day I’m hearing something new, and so it’s just, it’s terrifying.’
IK-2, a female penal colony in Mordovia, is notorious: Slave-like conditions, 16-hour labor shifts, frigid days and colder nights, all while cohabitating with violent criminals from across Russia.
It was there that Griner cut off her dreadlocks, which could easily freeze in the plummeting temperatures.
While she toiled away, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, former Arkansas Governor Bill Richardson and Bring Our Families Home, an advocacy group for political prisoners, continued pushing for Griner and Whelan’s release.
Curiously, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman helped broker the deal just 48 hours after the US dropped a lawsuit blaming him for the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Russia remained uninterested in releasing Whelan, who continues to be imprisoned. (In fact, earlier this week, Putin’s representatives rejected another State Department proposal for Whelan and imprisoned Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, both of whom are accused of espionage)
Former US Marine Paul Whelan (left) and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich (right) have been imprisoned in Russia on allegations of espionage since 2018 and last March, respectively. Griner has continued to push for their release
Freed arms dealer Viktor Bout is seen sending a telegram to former US President Donald Trump on April 8, 2023
But unlike Whelan, Griner wasn’t accused of spying, and perhaps because of that, Russia was more flexible on her release.
The price, however, was steep: Russia wanted Bout, who had been in US custody since his arrest in Thailand in 2008 for trying to sell weapons to Colombian separatists accused of targeting American military.
[Biden] made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home
David Whelan, brother of imprisoned former US Marine, Paul Whelan
In what former President Donald Trump slammed as a ‘one-sided’ deal, Griner would be returning home without Whelan. Other conservatives soon followed, blasting the Biden Administration for ostensibly prioritizing a basketball player over a former US Marine.
Critics of the deal failed to mention that Trump, too, had failed to secure Whelan’s release following his 2018 arrest in Russia. Nor did they seem to care when Whelan’s own family voiced their support for the swap.
‘As the family member of a Russian hostage, I can literally only imagine the joy she will have, being reunited with her loved ones, and in time for the holidays,’ David Whelan, Paul’s brother, said in a statement in December of 2022. ‘There is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed and for them to go home.’
The Whelans had been informed about the Griner-Bout swap before it occurred and remained supportive.
‘[Biden] made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen,’ David wrote.
After her conviction, Griner was moved to IK-2 in Yavas, one of several penal colonies in the region, according to Reuters
Griner is seen eating among other Russian prisoners shortly before being released in exchange for Viktor Bout
Visitors unload gear at the entrance of penal colony IK-2 in the town of Yavas in Mordovia, where Griner was imprisoned
Griner is seen filling out paper work at a Russian penal colony moments before her release in a prisoner exchange
Griner has ignored the critics.
Overjoyed to be reunited with Cherelle and the rest of her family, Griner spent the days following the exchange surrounded by loved ones. It wasn’t until more than a week after returning to Texas’ Fort Hood that Griner shared her thoughts, thanking her supporters and pleading for the release of Whelan. (Gershkovich wasn’t arrested until March of 2023)
‘It feels so good to be home!’ Griner wrote on Instagram. ‘The last 10 months have been a battle at every turn. I dug deep to keep my faith and it was the love from so many of you that helped keep me going. From the bottom of my heart, thank you to everyone for your help.
‘President Biden, you brought me home and I know you are committed to bringing Paul Whelan and all Americans home too,’ she continued. ‘I will use my platform to do whatever I can to help you. I also encourage everyone that played a part in bringing me home to continue their efforts to bring all Americans home. Every family deserves to be whole.’
Griner has kept her word, too.
When she returned to court for the Mercury in April, a tearful Griner pleaded for the release of Whelan and Gershkovich.
‘I have that mindset — no man, no woman left behind. So it hurts,’ she said. ‘It hurts, it hurts. Because no one should be in those conditions. Like hands down, no one should be in any of the conditions that I went through or they’re going through.
‘I hope that everyone continues to bring awareness and fight to bring home everyone,’ Griner added.
Ultimately Griner was awarded the WNBA community assist award for her continued advocacy of wrongfully detained Americans.
Biden announces the prisoner exchange as Antony Blinken, Kamala Harris and Cherelle Griner look on from behind
Griner now stands proudly for the anthem: ‘What I went through and everything, it just means a little bit more to me now’
Griner also paused to thank her personal hero, Cherelle.
‘Round of applause for my wife, honestly,’ Griner said. ‘She had the hardest job. Thank you so much, babe, for being there for me. You the one.’
Griner’s 2023 season was a success before she even stepped onto the court, but the Mercury finished a league-worst 9-31 despite a team-high 17.5 points a game from their All-Star center.
But aside from her team’s dismal record and her new, shorter haircut, there was another major change for Griner: She began standing proudly during the national anthem.
She’s not turning her back on social justice or her battles against racism and homophobia, but Griner no longer rejects The Star-Spangled Banner.
‘What I went through and everything, it just means a little bit more to me now, so I want to be able to stand,’ she said in May. ‘I was literally in a cage and could not stand the way I wanted to, and a lot of other different situations. Just being able to hear my national anthem, see my flag, I definitely I want to stand.’