Brittney Griner sat behind a microphone, her gold wedding ring on her left hand, a barely touched bottle of water sitting to her right. She sported a short, cropped haircut, a shirt that read “Bring our Families Home” and a smile.
After spending 294 days in Russian detainment on drug charges, Griner returned to the United States in December through a prisoner swap. On Thursday, the Phoenix Mercury center spoke to the public for the first time, touching on her journey, basketball and her fight to help other wrongful detainees return home during a press conference before WNBA training camp opens next week.
There were tears during the conversation, like when Griner addressed the resilience that kept her going when she was in Russia.
“I’m no stranger to hard times,” she said. “Just digging deep, honestly. You are going to be faced with adversities throughout your life. This was a pretty big one.”
"You find a way to just grind it out."- Brittney Griner pic.twitter.com/1Z0Dwc6lQ5— Just Women’s Sports (@justwsports) April 27, 2023
"You find a way to just grind it out."- Brittney Griner pic.twitter.com/1Z0Dwc6lQ5
But mostly, the press conference was full of smiles and laughs, with Griner’s self-described “jokester” personality on full display.
She called 40-year-old teammate Diana Taurasi a “walking fossil” and teased her wife Cherelle, saying that the first thing she did when she touched a basketball again was to dunk on Cherelle.
Griner’s ability to share emotions, while staying poised and answering difficult questions, truly showed the resilience she described. Griner endured conditions that others can’t even begin to imagine during her 10 months in Russian prison, yet the 32-year-old has managed to stay true to herself and the qualities that have long endeared the WNBA veteran to the basketball community.
"Who wouldn't want to play with a walking fossil." 💀- Brittney Griner on playing with Diana Taurasi pic.twitter.com/O8amL1fYgG— Just Women’s Sports (@justwsports) April 27, 2023
"Who wouldn't want to play with a walking fossil." 💀- Brittney Griner on playing with Diana Taurasi pic.twitter.com/O8amL1fYgG
During those 10 months, Griner said the little things kept her going. When she felt hopeless, she looked at photos of her family. She read letters and she heard about the various displays of support that were happening back home — such as fans at a Mercury game giving Cherelle a standing ovation and WNBA players wearing Griner’s No. 42 jersey in the second half of the All-Star Game.
Those things gave her hope, which stirred up mixed emotions.
“It made me a little bit more comfortable,” she said. “It made me have a little bit of hope, which is a hard thing to have, a really dangerous thing to have. Because when it doesn’t work, it’s so crushing. I would say to everyone who is wrongfully detained right now, across the world, ‘Stay strong. Keep fighting. Don’t give up.’”
That’s what Griner’s “Bring Our Families Home” shirt is about: “Campaigns to bring attention to the individuals being wrongfully detained overseas and calls on the White House to take immediate decisive action to #bringthemhome,” the organization’s website reads.
Griner and the Mercury will be partnering with Bring Our Families Home throughout the season. The WNBA star wants to use her platform and following to bring awareness to other detainees who don’t have the same reach.
The Mercury will have a letter-writing station at their games, where fans can send their support to people in wrongful imprisonment, just like they did for Griner.
“You don‘t understand how good it felt to get a letter from your family, from random people that I’ve never even met,” Griner said. “It just lets you know that you’re not forgotten. And it’s easy to feel forgotten, to feel like no one is thinking of you. And then you get a letter from people that you know and people that you don’t even know. It does something to you. It gives you a spark of life, to keep holding on, keep fighting and not to give in.”
As for basketball, it’s a process. Griner says simple things, “like doing a plank,” are much harder than they were before her imprisonment, when she closed out the 2021 season in the WNBA Finals against the Chicago Sky.
“As an athlete, you always want to be where you left off,” she said. “And I left off the playoffs, Finals, Chicago, and I wanted to be that player when I started back.”
Griner’s family, teammates and coaches have reminded her to give herself grace, and to understand that getting back to the player she was will take time. As frustrating as that is for Griner, it also gives her a sense of excitement and something to work toward.
“It’s liberating as well, just as a release, getting back to my craft and then being here in Phoenix,” she said.
Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.