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Courtney Vandersloot shares new details on Brittney Griner’s arrest

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LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JULY 14: Courtney Vandersloot (L) #22 and Brittney Griner #42 of Team Stewart talk after a WNBA All-Star Game team practice at Michelob ULTRA Arena on July 14, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

A new tell-all about the circumstances surrounding Brittney Griner’s detainment and arrest in Russia was released by ESPN on Friday, with Courtney Vandersloot revealing new details about the circumstances surrounding her teammate’s arrest and the immediate aftermath.

Griner declined to be interviewed in the article, although ESPN’s TJ Quinn spoke with a number of people close to the Phoenix Mercury star, including Vandersloot.

Following Griner’s arrest on Feb. 17, Griner’s Ekaterinburg teammates reported for practice on the 18th. Griner was absent, which wasn’t odd at first.

“It wouldn’t have been the first time that someone came late,” Vandersloot, who was Griner’s teammate in Russia for four seasons, told ESPN. “We all talked about it like, ‘OK, BG’s not here. We’ll see her tomorrow or the next day.'”

Both Vandersloot and her teammates said they were aware of rising tensions between the US and Russia, but felt safe returning to play in Russia because of the relationship between team owners and the Kremlin.

“We’re all hearing it because we’re reading American news and Western news in general, that Europeans are just as concerned, but whenever we brought it up to Russians, it was like, ‘Oh, this is normal. They’re always threatening this. You don’t understand, we’ve been living like this for 10 years,'” Vandersloot said. “It’s constantly, ‘We’re about to go to war.’ They were always downplaying it.”

Griner’s initial absence from practice wasn’t cause for alarm. Jonquel Jones, Griner’s closest friend on the team, didn’t know what was happening, but did tell teammates that Griner wasn’t responding to her. Vandersloot, as well as her wife and teammate Allie Quigley, was convinced that something was going on when it became clear that Griner wasn’t responding to any of her teammate’s texts.

“Allie asked [Griner’s] translator, ‘Where is BG?’ And she was really uncomfortable,” Vandersloot said. “You just knew something was up and she was just kind of trying to play it off.”

Five days later, on Feb. 23, the team was informed of Griner’s arrest by general manager Maxim Rybakov.

“He started the meeting with, like, ‘We have some serious issues to discuss.’ So we knew it was big and it probably had to do with BG,” Vandersloot said. “His face — he looked like he hadn’t slept in a week.

“He said, ‘We wanted you guys to all know that she’s been arrested for drugs.’ I feel like he even said, ‘a big amount of drugs.’ It was like a punch to the stomach. We all were like, we could throw up at any time as soon as we heard. I was like, no. No way. There has to be a mistake.”

Vandersloot said she was “so worried” about Griner being in jail, and couldn’t explain the feelings she was having. The team also had to go out and play a game right after being told.

“I can’t even explain the feeling I had in my stomach after that because I was so worried about BG being in jail,” she said. “I couldn’t even grasp that — how scared she must be, how lonely she must be. Those were the conversations we were having — I can’t believe that she’s in there. Now we have to go freaking play a game? You think we care about this game? All we’re worried about was our teammate, our friend. I remember not paying attention to the damn game at all.”

The assumption was that Griner would be released soon, that she “was a phone call away from being released.” Griner was especially popular in Russia. One teammate, Yevgenia Belyakova, noted that “everyone loves her.”

Of course, the reality was much different. It took almost a year for Griner to be released from Russian detainment.

Players on the team were told Griner was arrested for a “big amount of drugs.” But when Griner’s American teammates found out the true amount – which was no more than two vape cartridges – it was a relief.

Still, there was tension between the Russians and the Americans on the team, who didn’t understand how big of a deal drug possession was in the country.

“We were fighting against each other. I’m Russian, and I tried to explain why she really broke rules in Russia, why it is so difficult to do this,” Belyakova said. “I tried to explain to them how it works in Russia. It was me against everybody.”

“It wasn’t just her — it was all the other Russians, even the translator,” Vandersloot said. “It was almost like they were saying, ‘These are the rules,’ and we were like, ‘We don’t give a damn what the rules were.'”

Team owners also couldn’t do anything, because of the quantity of drugs.

“I remember them emphasizing this to us: ‘There’s nothing we can do because of the amount.’ I was like, I don’t know what the hell they’re doing,” Vandersloot said. “Then I heard how much [the amount was] on the news. I was like, ‘Wow, this is what they were talking about? What a big amount is?’ I kind of lost confidence in their ability to impact this.”

On Feb. 24, Russia invaded Ukraine. Players were then advised to leave the country. One by one, foreign players opted to leave. Vandersloot said that it was hard knowing that they were leaving Griner behind.

“Do you know how s—ty that feels? How hard it is that we’re leaving, but we’re leaving something so important to us behind?” Vandersloot said. “It was so early we thought we were going to get out and then she’d be right behind us. We knew BG would want us to get out and be safe; that was definitely a discussion. But how do we just take off and go?”

Read the full ESPN report here, on the one-year anniversary of Griner’s release.