griner coming home
Houston-born basketball star Brittney Griner freed in high-stakes U.S.-Russia prisoner exchange
Houston-born basketball star Brittney Griner is coming home.
A global center of a geopolitical maelstrom, the 32-year-old Griner was released from a Russian prison on Thursday, December 8 in a dramatic, high-stakes prisoner swap between the U.S. and Russian governments. She was serving a more than nine-year prison sentence in Russia for unlawful possession of cannabis after being arrested and convicted there in February.
President Joe Biden announced the exchange in a Thursday morning press conference from the Oval Office. "She's safe, she's on a plane, she's on her way home," Biden said from the White House, accompanied by Griner's wife, Cherelle, and administration officials.
Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner.
She is safe.
She is on a plane.
She is on her way home. pic.twitter.com/FmHgfzrcDT
— President Biden (@POTUS) December 8, 2022
Cherelle Griner beamed a smile and declared, "family is whole."
In exchange for Griner, the U.S. agreed to release convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, arguably the world's best-known illegal arms trafficker who is known as "The Merchant of Death," who is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence. Bout was notorious for using Soviet aircraft to deliver arms all over the world.
According to the Associated Press, The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed the swap, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu-Dhabi and that both parties are headed to their respective homes.
Notably, detained American Paul Whelan, also requested by the U.S. in the deal, was not part of the deal.
As CultureMap reported, Griner, an eight-time all-star center with the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was found guilty of drug possession in a Russian court on August 4 after police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport in February.
The six-foot-nine basketball star tearfully begged a judge for leniency on August 4 in Khimki, Russia. The court, however, believed that the 31-year-old Griner deliberately brought cannabis-infused vape cartridges into Russia, which is illegal there.
October 25, a Russian court rejected the American basketball star's appeal to bring her imprisonment for drug possession to a close.
Her February arrest came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington, just days before Russia sent troops into Ukraine. At the time, Griner was returning to Russia, where she played during the U.S. league's offseason.
The Biden administration then offered to send Bout in exchange for Griner and Whelan. That deal was also nixed by Russia at the time.
Born in Houston, the six-foot-nine Griner was the top-ranked female basketball player in the nation and chose to stay in state and play for the Baylor Lady Bears, where she became one of college basketball’s biggest stars. Famed for her unstoppable post presence, defensive skills, shot blocking, and offensive dominance, she was drafted by the Phoenix Mercury professional franchise. She later led Team USA to Olympic gold medals in the Rio and Tokyo games.
Griner, who boasts a size 17 shoe and a seven-foot-four-wide wingspan, is one of only 11 women to win an NCAA championship, WNBA championship, Olympic gold medal, and an FIBA World Cup gold medal.
Her arrest and conviction was marked with political, ethnic, and sexual identity overtones and brought to light human rights issues and the plight of U.S. prisoners detained in Russia. The Russian invasion of Ukraine forced a delay in negotiations and offered little optimism for months.
But now, after 10 months of ordeal, a hometown favorite is free.