Hopes are growing that a deal will be struck between Russian and American officials in the coming weeks to allow jailed American basketball star Brittney Griner to return home.
- WNBA player Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison in Russia last month
- Griner was arrested when a small amount of cannabis oil was found in her vape canisters.
- US President Joe Biden has met with Griner’s partner to help her return home
Griner’s teammates will be watching developments as they begin defending their FIBA World Cup title in Sydney on Thursday, a title she helped them win four years ago.
Griner flew to Russia in February, where she was signed to play during the WNBA offseason, but was arrested when a small amount of cannabis oil was found in her vape canisters.
A week after their arrest, Russia invaded Ukraine, further worsening Moscow’s bilateral relations with Washington.
Griner’s sentence was extended three times before a trial began in July, and a nine-year sentence was handed down in August.
Ariel Atkins, a Team USA player who made her FIBA World Cup debut, said that Griner was primarily on the minds of the players who went into that tournament with the goal of winning an 11th world title.
“GB, her spirit, transcends anything that’s going on,” Atkins told ABC.
“It’s definitely a tough situation and it’s hard to talk about.
“This season in the WNBA has been really tough without her.
“She’s a big part of who is women’s basketball in America and it’s definitely pretty tough, but at the end of the day we know we represent her.
“We want her to know that we love her and [we’ll do] anything we as players can do to help her get home. We want her home.”
Jonathan Franks, a spokesman for the Bring Our Families Home (BOFH) campaign, told The Ticket one of his clients was released following the intervention of former US Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, who happened to be back last week was for meetings in Moscow.
The former New Mexico governor founded the Richardson Center, which specializes in negotiating the release of hostages and prisoners held by enemy regimes or criminal organizations.
“He went back to Russia like in February for my client Trevor Reed,” Franks said, referring to a US Marine arrested in Russia in 2019.
“It’s a great thing for Brittney Griner.
“He’s so good at this hostage work, he has the contacts… he was able to bring us the knowledge and first-hand information that the Russians were willing to cut a deal for my client.
“[Mr Reed’s] The parents then went back to Washington in late March…protested outside the White House, protested in the Oval Office, and 27 days later their son was home.”
Late Friday, US President Joe Biden met in the Oval Office with Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and a relative of US Marine Paul Whelan, who is also jailed in Russia.
“The President held the meetings to reaffirm his continued commitment to using all available avenues to bring Brittney … home safely,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement.
Griner’s situation isn’t just being closely watched by the US team at the FIBA World Championship.
Australian Opals superstar Lauren Jackson previously played in the Russian Superleague, and Opals coach Sandy Brondello worked with Griner when she coached WNBA team Phoenix Mercury.
“It really affected all of us. I coached Brittney for eight years and she’s part of my family,” Brondello told The Ticket.
“It’s very sad, I’m still getting quite emotional because I can’t believe this is happening and she’s still there [in Russia].
“Hopefully we’ll just keep asking [US] Government to continue to do your best to bring her home…she is in our prayers and hopefully she will be back soon.
FIBA Secretary General Andreas Zagklis said the sport’s governing body played no role in Griner’s release but shared Brondello’s views.
“FIBA doesn’t matter, that’s outside of their jurisdiction…this is a legal case…also with a number of political or geopolitical factors coming into play.
“We obviously want one of the best players in the world and a very good character to return to the pitches as soon as possible.
“There are legal processes in place and I think political processes too to make sure sooner rather than later she’s got her hands on a basketball and playing at the highest level, we’re talking about one of the best players in the world.”
Griner’s case helped raise awareness of several other Americans who have been deemed “wrongfully detained” by the US government.
Jonathan Franks said Griner’s case forever changed the way these situations would be handled.
“Brittney’s case changed everything. Families grew stronger, we saw my client Trevor Reed’s parents ride a thermal created by Brittney – the intense media attention at the time our government asked Brittney’s camp to remain silent.
“And when Trevor was released, it further strengthened the families here in America who, over the past few months, have been conducting a fairly successful pressure campaign to convince the American government to do business to bring loved ones home.”
The USA take on Belgium in the first of their group stage game at the Sydney Superdome on Thursday at 11.30am.
Australia play their opening game against France on Thursday at 20:30 CET.