Within minutes of the White House’s announcement of the release of Brittney Griner, the American basketball star imprisoned in Russia, support and relief poured in from across the sports world — especially from the WNBA, which for months has been advocating for her freedom.
Dawn Staley, who coached Ms. Griner and her American teammates to a gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics last year, has been posting messages to Twitter every day for the last seven months. On Thursday, she wrote, “God’s grace is SUFFICIENT! @brittneygriner is home! I love you BG!”
Brianna Turner, one of Ms. Griner’s teammates on the Phoenix Mercury, in a post on Twitter, thanked “every single person that kept Brittney Griner’s name alive.” Another Mercury teammate, Shey Peddy, said the situation went from “FREE BG to BG is FREE!!”
One of the league’s best-known stars, Ms. Griner was freed Thursday in a prisoner swap for Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms dealer.
A native of Houston, she is one of only a few women to have won titles in the NCAA, WNBA and Euroleague, as well as an Olympic gold medal — of which she has two. Ms. Griner, who is 6-foot-9, starting dunking regularly in high school, where she emerged as the most coveted women’s recruit in the nation.
After a dominant career at Baylor University, where she became the only player in NCAA history — man or woman — to score at least 2,000 points and block at least 500 shots, the Mercury selected Ms. Griner with the top pick in the 2013 draft. Every season since, she has averaged at least 14 points per game and has led the WNBA in blocks per game seven times.
Like many WNBA players, Ms. Griner competes during the league’s off-season in Russia, where salaries are significantly higher than those in the United States. She has played for UMMC Yekaterinburg since 2014.
Ms. Griner, 32, was convicted of drug possession and smuggling in a Russian court and sentenced to nine years in a penal colony after customs officials in February said they found hashish oil in her luggage.
After the State Department classified Ms. Griner as wrongfully detained, the league and its players’ union, along with the Mercury, initiated a coordinated public crusade to push for her release. They put her face on hooded sweatshirts, her initials on WNBA courts and amplified the #WeAreBG hashtag on warm-up shirts and social media.
On Thursday, Jonquel Jones of the Connecticut Sun posted on Twitter: “When I tell you nothing could kill my vibe today! My sis is coming home,” punctuating her message with emojis of smiley faces and hands raised in prayer.
Erica Wheeler of the Atlanta Dream wrote that she was “literally tearing up right now!!! Faith man!!!! Thank God!!! My heart just dropped!!! Thank you to everyone that pushed FREE BG Today feels like a holiday!”
Ms. Griner’s camp intentionally delayed publicly campaigning for her freedom because it was concerned that drawing attention to her could worsen the situation in a tense geopolitical climate, with relations between the United States and Russia over Ukraine at a dangerous moment.
But once the State Department reclassified Ms. Griner as wrongfully detained, her family and friends intensified the pressure on the Biden administration. The players’ union partnered on a Change.org petition addressed to the White House, which urged Mr. Biden to do “whatever is necessary” to bring Ms. Griner home safely.
The Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart, who was named the league’s most valuable player in 2018, has tweeted every day to reflect long Ms. Griner has been detained. On Thursday, she said, simply, “BG is FREE!!! 294 days and she is coming home!!!”
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