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Brittney Griner reflects on 'Coming Home' after nearly 300 days in a Russian prison

Brittney Griner stands in a defendants' cage before a court hearing in Khimki, Russia, on Aug. 2, 2022.
Evgenia Novozhenina
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POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Brittney Griner stands in a defendants' cage before a court hearing in Khimki, Russia, on Aug. 2, 2022.

Ever since her release from a Russian penal colony in December 2022, WNBA star and Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner has had a recurring nightmare in which she's back in Russia, and she has problem with her paperwork.

In her dream, she says, when she goes to the Russian embassy for help, "I'm stuck right back in the cell that I was in, and there's no talk of coming back. So it's just right back into the place where I spent most of the time."

Like many WNBA players, Griner's salary was so low that back in 2014, in the off season, she started playing for a team in Russia where the pay was considerably better than in the U.S. But on Feb. 17, 2022, just days before Russia invaded Ukraine, authorities at the Moscow airport found two vape cartridges containing a small amount of cannabis oil in Griner's luggage.

Though Griner had a prescription for medical marijuana to ease the chronic pain of basketball injuries, she was detained at the airport and eventually sentenced to nine years in prison. She spent 293 days incarcerated in Russia before being released as part of a prisoner swap.

Griner, who is six feet, nine inches, says she felt like a zoo animal when she was in prison. "The guards would literally come open up the little peep hole, look in, and then I would hear them laughing, walking down the hallway," she says.

In prison, Griner watched Russian propaganda on television that linked President Biden to the Nazi party, and brushed her teeth with toothpaste that had expired in 2007. "We would put [the toothpaste] on the mold on the walls because it would help kill the mold growing on the walls," she says.

Griner is preparing for her second season since being reunited with her team, the Phoenix Mercury. She writes about her life in basketball and her imprisonment in the memoir, Coming Home.


Interview highlights

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Knopf

On getting Covid-19 right before leaving for Russia in February 2022, and having a bad feeling about the trip

There was just so many signs of don't go. But ... I grew up on the morals of you finish what you start. And I never want to leave my teammates in a bad position. We were about to win the Euroleague and Russian League, like we always have. So I just wanted to finish it out and then let that be the end.

On the scene at the Moscow airport when she was detained

I've made this trip multiple times in a season. We come back two or three times within one season, [I've] been there eight years. So, I've never seen so much security. ... It was very random. And everybody that was getting pulled to the side looked either American or, you know, non-Russian. And all the Russians were basically just walking through the middle, not getting checked. ...

[Getting detained was] life changing. I definitely just had a moment of just all the horrible thoughts of just never seeing my family, being dragged through the media, through the news outlets, everyone putting in their opinion and all the naysayers having ammunition to just start spewing out all these things about me.

On life inside a Russian prison

You have three toilets and one shower to serve 50-plus women. Then there's no hot water. I had a bucket and a ladle. So you would take a kettle like a tea kettle, warm up water out the sink, pour it into the bowl, into the bucket. You take the bucket and the ladle into the shower. You squat down in the shower and you just scoop and pour. And that's how you take a shower and you have about maybe five minutes because you have about ten, 12 other women waiting in the bathroom area to get into that shower.

On how the hopelessness she experienced in prison reminded her of the isolation she experienced in childhood

I had girls that would come up to me in school and touch my chest and laugh and giggle and say, "Oh, look, she's really not a girl. She's a man. Listen to her voice. Look how big she is." So just dealing with that in isolation. And this is all before sports. Before I became the cool athlete, I was the weirdo and the one that was just so different.

[In prison] ... I was like that spectacle again. When I first [went] into the county cell, and I was in isolation, just the bad thoughts just started creeping in: My life is over. ... Who will be alive when I come out? Will my parents still be there? Will me and my wife make it nine years while locked up? All these bad thoughts started coming in, and it just felt like it would be better if I wasn't here, maybe.

On being reunited with her wife after her release from prison

We have to learn how to be together, but then also have time to heal away from each other too, a little bit. Some of the things that we loved doing before changed. I used to love being in the house all day and the room ... all day watching TV, watching shows. And that was triggering for me because in the detention center, all I could do was sit on my bed for the whole entire day, minus one hour outside. So, I couldn't do it anymore like that. ... We keep the house cold. I hate being cold now. I was agitated, I was just off and ... we realized that me being cold put me back in that cell. So it was just like little things ... and we made the right corrections.

On her return to basketball

If I would have waited longer to get back into it, I think it would have been even that much harder. Honestly, I knew I needed to start getting in shape if I was going to have a return back to the game. I knew I couldn't wait anymore. And I credit my team and believing in me, and they did everything that they could to help me get back on that court. I was glad I did do it. ... I definitely feel 100% like my old self now.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air

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