Metro Weekly

Brittney Griner Says She Intends to Return to WNBA This Season

Phoenix Mercury WNBA Center Brittney Griner – Photo: Lorie Shaull, via Wikimedia.

WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was released from a Russian penal colony last week after being held in custody for 11 months, said in her first public statement since being released that she is “grateful” to be back in the United States and plans to play for the Phoenix Mercury next season.

“It feels so good to be home!” Griner said in a Dec. 16 Instagram post. “The last 10 months have been a battle at every turn. I dug deep to keep my faith and it was the love from so many of you that helped keep me going. From the bottom of my heart, thank you to everyone for your help.”

But Griner, a center for the Phoenix Mercury, also vowed to return to her love of basketball and play in the upcoming WNBA season, which kicks off on May 19, 2023. 

“I also want to make one thing very clear: I intend to play basketball for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury this season, and in doing so, I look forward to being able to say ‘thank you’ to those of you who advocated, wrote, and posted for me in person soon,” she wrote.

Griner’s chances of returning to the Mercury seem fairly likely, as she appears to be held in high regard by people within the Mercury franchise. Mercury general manager Jim Pitman, team president Vince Kozar, and teammate Diana Taurasi were among the people who met Griner on the tarmac in San Antonio when she first arrived in San Antonio from the United Arab Emirates, where the prisoner swap went down, reports ESPN.

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert had previously said she would give Griner time to determine whether she wanted to play professional basketball again.

Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, told ESPN that Griner took part in a light workout last Sunday, picking up a basketball for the first time in 10 months and dunking it — a move that appeared to signal her eagerness to return to playing.

Griner, who previously played professional basketball in Russia in the off-season as a member of the UMMC Ekaterinburg team for several years, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February after airport security claimed to have found vape cartridges with traces of cannabis oil in her luggage. She later pleaded guilty to drug smuggling charges for bringing the cartridges in her luggage, but claimed she had packed them in error while hurriedly packing for her trip.

A Russian court sentenced Griner to nine years in a penal colony in August, as part of what the United States called a “show trial,” arguing that Griner was wrongfully detained and that Russian authorities were particularly harsh with her and other American prisoners in response to the United States’ condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. 

U.S. and Russian authorities later negotiated a prisoner swap, in which Griner was released from Russian custody in exchange for the United States releasing Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer. Bout was arrested in 2008 for allegedly attempting to sell surface-to-air missiles and armor-piercing rocket launchers to an undercover agent posing as a representative for a Colombian guerrilla group, with the intent — as far as Bout knew — to use those weapons against U.S. military personnel in Colombia.

Griner, who has been staying with her wife, Cherelle, at a hotel at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio since returning to the United States last Thursday, is now headed back to her home in Phoenix, where she’ll spend the holidays with her family.

In her Instagram post, Griner thanked President Biden for his administration negotiating her release, and vowed to use her public platform to advocate for bringing Americans who are detained abroad back home.

Among those unlawfully detained are Paul Whelan, a former Marine and security expert who has been detained by Russian authorities since 2018 after being accused of spying, and whose name was floated as someone whom might be released as part of the prisoner swap that ultimately freed Griner.

“President Biden, you brought me home and I know you are committed to bringing Paul Whelan and all Americans home too. I will use my platform to do whatever I can to help you. I also encourage everyone that played a part in bringing me home to continue their efforts to bring all Americans home. Every family deserves to be whole.”

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