Brittany Griner’s WNBA influence is evident as fans await word from Russia

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Brittany Griner’s WNBA influence is evident as fans await word from Russia

When Brittany Griner is on the basketball court, everyone knows. At 6-foot-9, she outdoes most other players. She snatches rebounds on her opponents’ outstretched arms, and her teammates know the surest way to score: to pass the ball to her.

1 overall in 2013, she has become one of the most influential players of all time: a seven-time All-Star, a WNBA champion, and a two-time Olympian with a gold medal. with.

But now Griner, 31, is caught in a geopolitical dilemma. Instead of preparing for the WNBA season in less than two months, he is believed to have been detained in Russia on what customs officials described as drug charges, with little word on his case or Ukraine. for his well being during the war.

“With all the problems with Russia and invading Ukraine, has Brittany become a political bargaining chip?” said Debbie Jackson, Griner’s high school basketball coach. “Is it part of politics? So much of it doesn’t matter to me that I find it hard to believe it’s actually true of what happened.”

Griner was playing for a professional basketball league in Russia, a common off-season practice for WNBA players who may earn salaries in foreign leagues more than what their American teams pay. The date and circumstances of Griner’s possible detention were not known, and the WNBA said all of its players except Griner were out of the country as of Saturday.

Griner is said to face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of drug charges, based on allegations that his luggage contained vape cartridges containing hashish oil. Russian officials, who said Saturday they had detained an American athlete on these drug charges, did not name Griner, but Russian news agency Tass did.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday she had seen reports about Griner but that federal privacy laws bar the US government from discussing the detention of a person without her written consent. US officials have repeatedly accused Russia of detaining American citizens on pretext.

Griner’s representatives have declined to comment on Griner’s condition beyond a statement that they were working to bring him back to the United States. The uncertainty has sparked an uproar among fans and supporters of Griner, a groundbreaking player known for his unmatched blitz and standing as one of the most prominent gay athletes.

A congresswoman in Griner’s hometown of Houston has called for her release. WNBA players have posted “Free Britney” messages on Twitter.

“There are no words to express this pain,” Brittany’s wife Cherrell Griner wrote in an Instagram post addressed to Brittany on Monday. “I’m hurting, we’re hurting. We look forward to the day to shower love upon you as a family.”

Griner was a 5-foot-8 freshman on the volleyball team at Nimitz High School in Houston when Jackson approached him about playing basketball.

Griner initially laughed at the idea of ​​trying out for a game he had never played and knew little about. But she quickly fell in love with it, Jackson said. It helped that she became almost a foot, 6 feet 7 inches tall by her senior year.

“She wasn’t like a clumsy tall person who had to grow into her body,” Jackson said. “She was actually quite talented as a coordinator.”

Griner earned a basketball scholarship to Baylor University, where for four years she performed with a combination of size, skill, fluidity and speed unlike any other female basketball player in the country. She could score at the bottom of the basket all she wanted, and the highlight-reel dunk enchanted her.

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“Nobody can do what she can,” Nancy Lieberman, the first woman to play on a professional men’s team, said during Griner’s freshman season at Baylor. “Not Cheryl Miller. Not Lisa Leslie. Not Candace Parker.”

Griner led Baylor to an undefeated record during the 2011–12 season, which the Bears achieved with a victory over Notre Dame in the national championship game. He won the Big 12 Player of the Year award three times and made 18 dunks at Baylor. Before that, few women had taken the plunge into college sports at all.

The Mercury drafted Griner in 2013, in the hopes that she would rejuvenate her franchise. The turnaround was swift, with Griner playing alongside WNBA career scoring leader Diana Taurasi. The Mercury made the playoffs during Griner’s rookie season and won a championship in his second. Last season, he was the key to Mercury’s race to the WNBA Finals, where they lost to the Chicago Sky.

“In terms of talent, she was absolutely a force to be reckoned with and remains a force to be reckoned with,” said former head of the WNBA Players Union, Pamela Wheeler. “I think everyone was looking to him to help guide the league, which he did, into a new era.”

The year Griner was drafted, the league was re-branded, changed its logo, and focused on promoting three rookies: Griner, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Elena delle Donne.

Griner seemed a good fit, with a charming personality, a willingness to laugh at himself, and a passion to overcome bullying. She was also open about being gay, which has become more common in sports because of her.

“I’m up to the challenge,” Griner said of being part of the rebranding at the time. “I turned stuff in college basketball, I guess you might say, so I’m up for it. I’m never shy of anything. I’m up for whatever’s thrown at me.”

As he raised his game domestically, Griner also made a name for himself in international basketball. She won two Olympic gold medals with the United States women’s national team in 2016 and 2021, and began playing for teams in Russia and China during the WNBA off-season.

About half of the WNBA’s 144 players are believed to be playing for international teams this off-season, including more than a dozen players in Russia and Ukraine. Griner has played for the Russian team UMMC Yekaterinburg for several years.

“While many players are also doing this for the money,” said former union leader Wheeler, “they are also doing it for the love of the game and being able to play and sustain themselves. The size of the game .

The maximum base salary for WNBA players is approximately $228,000, but international teams have been known to pay several million dollars, and even more than $1 million. Griner is set to earn under WNBA Max in the 2022 season. With the WNBA minimum wage of around $60,000, many players earn the bulk of their income playing abroad.

But playing overseas isn’t a “tourist opportunity” for most players, said Courtney Cox, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon, who said she traveled to Russia in 2018 for a book about women’s professional basketball around the world. to research for.

“It’s the Whisper Network where it’s safe to play, where players are sharing information: where you get paid on time, where they look for you, better coaches, all this information,” Cox said. “There’s a kind of trauma bond, I think, that happens when you play some of these places where you can be one of the only American players, depending on the league’s policies.”

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After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, WNBA players from both countries fled.

Playing in the United States can come with its own set of issues. In his memoir “In My Skin”, Griner wrote about his time at Baylor, a Baptist-affiliated school that had an official policy against homosexuality at the time. In the book, Griner said that his coach, Kim Mulkey, had warned Griner to “keep his business behind closed doors” and asked him to cover his tattoos and remove social media posts about his girlfriend and LGBT issues. was asked for.

But Griner, who entered the WNBA, showed a determination to show that she was comfortable being herself. He talked about being gay, wearing fitted suits and bow ties, showing off his tattoos and modeling men’s clothing for Nike as the first openly gay athlete endorsed by the brand.

“She framed herself as someone who was just herself,” said Amira Rose Davis, an assistant professor at Penn State University who specializes in race, sports, and gender. She continued: “So, when she signs with Nike and when she leans back on gender roles or when she’s doing cover shoots, it’s the power of athletes in sport to write their own story about themselves. increasing.”

Little has been said publicly about Griner’s situation in Russia. Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Kolas, declined to provide details, including whether Griner was detained.

Kolas said in a statement that she was “aware of the situation” in Russia and had been in contact with Griner and his “legal representation”. “As we work to bring her home, her mental and physical health remains our primary concern,” Kolas said.

Jackson, Griner’s former high school coach, doubts the allegations.

“It’s hard to believe that Britney, or any professional athlete who knows that country’s laws and cultural differences and norms and a completely different political system, even has something like that in her carry-on bag. Will also think about keeping the substance which was banned in that country,” he said.

Public demands by US officials for the release of Americans detained abroad usually have little effect on foreign detainees. Such matters are often resolved through behind-the-scenes diplomacy, and the details may never be made public. Some analysts said raising the issue in the political arena with angry demands could make it more difficult to resolve and pressure another country to give up without a clear victory.

Griner’s family and friends just want his home. His ex-wife Johnson posted a message of support on Instagram.

Cherrell Griner said on Instagram that it was “one of the weakest moments of my life.”

“My heart, our hearts, are skipping beats every day,” she said.

Lara Jake And Michael Crowley Contributed to reporting.

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