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Brittney Griner made ‘personal connection’ with crew on flight home

The Miami Heat celebrate WNBA star Brittney Griner's return to the United States during their game Thursday at FTX Arena. (Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports)

Brittney Griner was eager to speak with those who were with her on the U.S. government plane that brought her home Thursday.

Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, helped bring the WNBA back to the U.S. last week. Per Carstens, Griner told those on the plane that she’s “been in prison for 10 months, listening to the Russians. I want to talk.”

Carstens revealed details from the flight in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” which aired Sunday. Griner asked who everyone on the plane was, then introduced herself, he said.

“She moved right past me and went to every member on that crew, looked them in the eyes, shook their hands and asked about them, got their names, making a personal connection with them,” Carstens said. “It was really amazing.”

The flight took 18 hours in total, and Griner spent about 12 hours of that flight speaking with people on the plane, according to Carstens — and she did speak about her time in the Russian penal colony and her time spent in captivity.

“I was left with the impression this is an intelligent, passionate, compassionate, humble, interesting person, a patriotic person,” Carstens said. “But above all, authentic. I hate the fact that I had to meet her in this manner, but I actually felt blessed having had a chance to get to know her.”

Griner arrived back on U.S. soil Friday and is currently undergoing medical and mental evaluation in San Antonio. Griner appeared to be “full of energy” and she “looked fantastic,” Carstens said.

The WNBA star was released from Russian custody Thursday after being detained for 294 days. Griner had been sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony for the alleged possession of hashish oil in her luggage.

Carstens, who is the U.S. government’s top hostage negotiator, also spoke about the work to bring home Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine. Whelan is being held on espionage charges, which Carstens says the Russian government has been treating differently.

Still, he said that there are “always cards” to play and that he spoke with Whelan on Friday.

“Here’s what I told him. I said, ‘Paul, you have the commitment of this president. The president’s focused. The secretary of state’s focused. I’m certainly focused, and we’re going to bring you home,'” Carstens said. “And I reminded him, I said, ‘Paul, when you were in the Marines, and I was in the Army, they always reminded you, keep the faith.’ And I said, ‘Keep the faith. We’re coming to get you.'”