(WASHINGTON) — Brittney Griner said “digging deep” helped her get through her detainment at a Russian prison last year.
“I’m no stranger to hard times,” the WNBA star said, tearing up during her first press conference since being freed from a Russian prison late last year. “You’re going to be faced with adversities throughout your life. This was a pretty big one.”
Griner, who is entering her 10th season in the WNBA, all with the Phoenix Mercury, said she relied on her hard work during practices to get her through the ordeal.
“I know this sounds so small, but dying in practice and just hard workouts, you found a way to just grind it out, just put your head down and just keep going, keep moving forward. You can never stand still,” the 32-year-old center said. “And that was my thing — just never be still. Never get too focused on the now and just looking forward to, you know, what’s to come.”
Griner thanked everyone who played a part in bringing her home, shouting out the WNBA and Vice President Kamala Harris, among others, as she also urged people to continue to fight for others who Americans wrongfully detained overseas, such as former Marine Paul Whelan and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich.
“I have that mindset — no man, no woman left behind. So it hurts,” she said, noting that her father was a Marine and she comes from a military family. “It hurts, it hurts. Because no one should be in those conditions. Like hands down, no one should be in any of the conditions that I went through or they’re going through.”
“I hope that everyone continues to bring awareness and fight to bring home everyone,” she continued.
Griner said her agent has been in touch with the family of Gershkovich, who the U.S. has determined was wrongfully detained by Russia, and “just sharing knowledge.”
“It goes a long way, because, I mean, you’re in foreign territory. You’re in unknown waters,” she said. “There’s been a lot of communication between both teams.”
Griner was returning to play for her Russian club, UMMC Ekaterinburg, when she was taken into custody at a Moscow-area airport in February 2022 in possession of vaping cartridges containing hashish oil, an illegal substance in Russia.
She pleaded guilty in July and was sentenced to nine years in prison on Aug. 7. She appealed the sentence, but was quickly rejected in October.
Griner was freed in December when the U.S. swapped the WNBA star for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Griner said she does not plan to play overseas again, unless it’s representing the U.S., while lamenting it was unfortunate she and other players had to do that to “pay my light bill.”
“It’s a shame that we have to leave our families for holidays,” she said. “Hopefully that changes.”
While detained, Griner said looking at photos of her family and getting letters of support gave her hope.
“It gives you a spark of life,” she said.
Among those in attendance at Thursday’s press conference were Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs and Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner.
“Round of applause for my wife, honestly,” Griner said. “She had the hardest job. Thank you so much, babe, for being there for me. You the one.”
In advance of the season, which starts next month, the team said Thursday it will unveil a 30-foot-wide mural on the Footprint Center, its home arena in downtown Phoenix, that features the faces of Griner and more than a dozen detained individuals.
The team said it plans to bring more attention to the plight of detainees throughout the season, including a letter-writing campaign at home games.
The efforts are through a partnership with Bring Our Families Home, a campaign that advocates for American hostages and wrongful detainees held overseas home and provides resources to their families.
“Brittney Griner’s wrongful detention educated our organization, fan base and the Valley about the plight of hostages around the world and their families here at home,” Mercury President Vince Kozar said in a statement. “We learned that, outside personal safety, the biggest fear is being forgotten and we know those currently being held do not automatically have the same public platform or receive the same media attention Brittney’s case did.”
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