Brittney Griner took up basketball relatively late, during her freshman year at Houston’s Nimitz High School in 2005–06. That she would become the greatest women’s player the state of Texas has ever produced only adds to the superhero quality of her life.
She’s now 31, and her career highlights include leading Baylor to a national championship in 2012, winning gold medals at the 2016 and 2020 Olympics, and helping the Phoenix Mercury to a WNBA title in 2014. But Griner’s mostly charmed life is suddenly being tested in ways she surely never could have imagined.
She’s a political prisoner, or at least probably on her way to becoming one. Griner has been in Russian custody for about three weeks, after being arrested last month on drug charges at the Sheremetyevo International Airport, and she could face up to ten years in prison. WNBA players often supplement their salaries by playing overseas in the off-season, and Griner had been a mainstay for the Russian club UMMC Ekaterinburg since 2014.
The Russian Federal Customs Service, which only confirmed the arrest on Saturday, said officials found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in Griner’s luggage. Her arrest comes as the United States leads dozens of nations in imposing economic sanctions on Russia’s economy and its wealthiest citizens in response to the invasion of Ukraine. Russian president Vladimir Putin called the sanctions “akin to a declaration of war.”
“There’s only so much I can say given the privacy considerations at this point,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday, responding to the news of Griner’s arrest. “Whenever an American is detained anywhere in the world, we, of course, stand ready to provide every possible assistance, and that includes in Russia.”
Whether the charges are legitimate will be difficult to figure out. Less difficult to understand is that Griner is one of the world’s most recognizable women athletes and a desirable target. As ESPN’s T. J. Quinn noted on Twitter: “There is a history of Russian security ‘finding’ drugs in luggage, and Griner’s size, sexuality and color make her an obvious target. Maybe she tried to sneak something out, but for all purposes she’s a POW now.”
Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, called her detention a warning for American citizens in the country. “I obviously don’t know the circumstances of her detention, but Griner’s arrest should serve as a wake-up call to all Americans in Russia,” he told the New York Times. “Get out. Shut down your businesses now.”
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, posted on Instagram: “Thank you to everyone who has reached out to me regarding my wife’s safe return from Russia. Your prayers and support are greatly appreciated. I love my wife wholeheartedly, so this message comes during one of the weakest moments of my life. I understand that many of you have grown to love BG over the years and have concerns and want details. Please honor our privacy as we continue to work on getting my wife home safely.”
Griner grew up in and around Houston, a happy, outgoing kid who grew to be six-foot-eight by her senior year in high school. Her dad was a Houston cop and a Vietnam veteran who got his daughter interested in tinkering with cars, hunting, and sports.
Her first love was volleyball, and she wasn’t especially interested in basketball. But when she did get into it, she was phenomenal almost from the beginning. With her size, quickness, and instincts, she did things on the basketball court that few women—or few men, for that matter—had ever done.
At Nimitz, she blocked 25 shots in one game and was credited with 52 dunks in 32 games as a senior. Despite her lack of experience, Griner was so smooth around the basket that she could adjust to opponents’ countermoves in an instant. Part of her shot-blocking magic was her ability to let a defender get past her, then trail the play and still have the size and anticipation to swat the shot away.
In four years at Baylor, her teams finished with a combined record of 135–15, including a magical 40–0 run to the national championship in 2011–12. When reporters would ask her coach, Kim Mulkey, to compare Griner to some other great player, perhaps even a great male player, Mulkey would stop them right there.
“You’re never going to see another Brittney Griner,” she’d say. “She’s a once-in-a-lifetime player. She’s the first one in practice and the last one to leave.”
Recently retired Texas A&M coach Gary Blair believes he’s found a valid comparison. “How does she change the game? About the way Wilt Chamberlain changed it,” he once told me. “She’s so blessed. She’s got Hakeem Olajuwon’s fadeaway jumper. She’s got great hands. She can run the floor.”
The Phoenix Mercury made Griner the number one pick of the 2013 WNBA Draft, and she helped deliver a championship in her second year with the team. She has averaged more than twenty points per game in four of her last six seasons and made seven All-Star teams in her nine WNBA seasons.
Griner’s life was never completely charmed. As far back as high school, but especially at Baylor, she faced relentless taunts from opposing fans and endured an array of elbows, cheap shots, and constant double- and triple-teams from opposing defenses.
Griner pushed back with some taunting, chest-thumping, and trash talk of her own, and on some occasions, she let her temper get the best of her. During her freshman year, in the second half of a game at Texas Tech at which the crowd’s jeers had been particularly ugly, the nineteen-year-old Griner punched a Tech player in retaliation for a hard foul.
A month later, at the Women’s Final Four, University of Tennessee band members chanted, “Don’t hit me.” Her reaction? “I looked at them and said, ‘Really?’ ” Griner recalled.
In the WNBA, she shoved Chicago Sky guard Cappie Pondexter in the face during a 2016 in-game scuffle, and she was suspended for three games in 2019 for a fight with Dallas Wings center Kristine Anigwe that devolved into a brawl involving both teams.
Mulkey, who left Baylor for LSU last year, has told stories through the years that attempted to paint a more complete portrait of Griner, emphasizing that she was way more than a bully of a player who intimidated opponents with her size and strength.
At the 2011 Big 12 basketball tournament in Kansas City, Baylor players participated in a required appearance for fans near a street fair. Amid the games and the fried foods was an obstacle course, and Griner and Bears teammate Melissa Jones had a ball going through it. They sprinted through the barriers, laughing, pushing one another, competing as if a trip to the Final Four was on the line. Mulkey watched as her players came rolling out the other side.
“What I like most about Brittney doesn’t really happen on the court,” Jones told me that day. “It’s like who she is as a person off the court and how you can just have a good time with her and just have fun and goof around.”
Now Griner’s future looks like it could become collateral damage in a power struggle she has nothing to do with. Whether she’s a bargaining chip or simply a different kind of victim will be one of the countless questions to be answered in the coming days, weeks, or months.