PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) — Brittney Griner’s loved ones and extended basketball family were thrilled when news broke Thursday of her release from a Russian prison and that she was on her way back to the United States.
It has been nearly 300 days since the WNBA star was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February, when customs officials said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage. She was found guilty in August and sentenced to nine years in prison. Now, four months later, she’s on her way home after the US and Russia held a high-level prisoner exchange on Thursday. The exchange did not include the return of another American, Paul Whelan, who has been imprisoned for nearly four years.
“Today, my family is whole, but as you all know, there are so many other families that aren’t whole,” Brittney’s wife, Cherelle Griner, said at a White House briefing. “BG and I will remain committed to bringing every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today as we celebrate BG being home.”
Griner, who turned 32 in October, returned to Russia in February to play for her foreign team UMKC Ekaterinburg. She went to Russia to supplement her WNBA salary and earned over $1 million playing in Russia.
“There hasn’t been a day in the last 10 months that we all haven’t had Brittney Griner on our minds and hearts and that has now turned into a collective wave of joy and relief knowing that they will soon be reunited will be her family, the WNBA player community and her friends,” said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, who admitted she was very emotional upon hearing the news this morning. “BG has shown extraordinary courage and dignity in the face of tremendous odds.”
Although it is currently unclear if Griner would ever want to play basketball again, she would be welcomed with open arms by both the WNBA and USA Basketball. The WNBA season starts on May 19th. Engelbert said she would give Griner and her family some space and time before discussing her return to the league.
“It has been a long, horrific ordeal and we look forward to her return and to hearing her voice,” Engelbert said.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, a native of North Philadelphia, was a prominent supporter of Griner’s return. Staley, who coached Griner on the 2020 Olympic team, thinks playing again could help the dominant center.
“It was a place where we could tune out everything else and lend a helping hand with our teammates. Hear the incredible viewers supporting our game. The basketball community has so much love for Brittney that they want to show her,” Staley said. “We want her to be back in her happy place. So I hope Brittney laces them up. But if she doesn’t, I would really understand why. We will still support it. We’ll still lift them up. “
Staley said she broke down in tears of joy when she heard the news Thursday morning.
“I was actually shocked … and then, honestly, I cried,” Staley said on ESPN’s First Take. “I cried, and I’m a girl from Philly. We don’t cry very easily. But I cried because this is the moment we all prayed for BG. And I’m just happy like God is real.”
Staley said the past basketball season felt “incomplete” with Griner being incarcerated.
“I had a feeling Brittney would be home before Christmas. I do not know why. Maybe it was a verse someone sent me last week that talked about God’s grace and I just felt like his grace was coming to snatch her up like a thief in the night to take her home.” said Staley, “I’m just so happy, like I’m full.”
Like Staley, WNBA players have done their best to keep Griner’s name in the national spotlight over the past eight months by speaking about her in interviews and posting about her on social media.
On Thursday, they flooded social media with their joy.
“My heart is really singing with joy right now. Our sister is finally free,” said WNBA player Chiney Ogwumike. “This is a monumental moment for everyone who has shown compassion for our WNBA sister over the past 294 days since BG was wrongly arrested.”
Griner is signed to the Phoenix Mercury, who were allowed to pay their full salary of nearly $228,000 from the league last season without counting against their salary cap.
The team was thrilled that their eight-time All-Star was coming home.
“Mercifully the count of days in detention ends at 294 and our friend our sister is returning home where she belongs,” Mercury said in a statement. “The feelings for our organization, as well as for our fans and so many around the world, are one of joyful celebration, deep gratitude, sadness for lost time, and genuine hope for all families who are still awaiting the return of a loved one. BG’s strength in this process, her unwavering belief that a solution would come and the hope she showed every day made us all believe that day would come.”
Griner’s agent, Lindsay Colas, vowed that “BG and our coalition of activist athletes” will raise their voices to help free other Americans imprisoned abroad, including Whelan.
“Throughout this ordeal, BG has carried herself with courage, grace and determination, and President Biden made us a promise, then kept his word and did whatever was necessary to bring them home,” Colas said in a statement. “We are forever grateful to him for pulling through with this engagement.”
ESPN and Associated Press contributed to this report
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https://6abc.com/brittney-griner-release-dawn-staley-russia-prisoner-swap-wnba-player/12549277/ Brittney Griner’s release: South Carolina coach, Philadelphia native Dawn Staley reacts on ESPN First Take