World

With Brittney Griner’s Release, Anxiety turns to Relief

HOUSTON — Brianna Turner was sleeping Thursday morning when her mother burst into her room to say that Brittney Griner, her teammate on the Phoenix Mercury, had been freed in a prisoner swap after nearly a year of captivity in Russia.

“I was debating if I was still dreaming or not,” recalled Ms. Turner, who grew up in the Houston area and watched Ms. Griner play in high school there, long before their years together in professional basketball. “I’m just really excited for her to feel safe, feel secure, be with her wife and kind of just, like, recover.”

The sudden release brought forth an outpouring of gratitude and relief on Thursday after 294 days of anxiety and anticipation, from the suburbs of Houston to the streets of Phoenix, where Ms. Griner had held court as the biggest star in the W.N.B.A.

Because she represented so much to so many, her imprisonment had hit especially hard. Ms. Griner had found support in the L.G.B.T.Q. community, whose leaders feared for her safety as a Black lesbian imprisoned in Russia, and in her native Texas, where pastors and politicians worked to keep her from being left to serve a long, harsh prison term.

To some, her initial arrest on drug charges had seemed like a momentary spasm in the tense diplomatic relationship between the United States and Russia, a minor political situation that would quickly be resolved.

But as the weeks stretched to months, concern grew — particularly over the summer, “when there was no contact,” said Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston, who had helped keep pressure on the Biden administration to negotiate for Ms. Griner’s release, including a rally in June in the city’s downtown.

“We had no way of knowing if progress was being made or if we were losing ground,” said Bishop James E. Dixon, the president of the local chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., who worked with Ms. Jackson Lee. “The uncertainty was a burden to carry.”

Ms. Griner was found guilty of trying to smuggle illegal drugs into Russia after the authorities found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her carry-on luggage on Feb. 17 as she traveled to Russia to play for a high-paying professional team during the W.N.B.A. off-season.

Supporters of Ms. Griner watched with dismay as her situation worsened over the course of the year: from arrest, to courtroom appearances, to a sentence of nine years and then a transfer to a penal colony. “Each one of those moments, where you’re hopeful, but then hopes are dashed,” Bishop Dixon said.

At a home just outside Houston listed as a former address for Ms. Griner, a basketball hoop lay rim-down in the backyard grass, visible from a neatly tended and quiet cul-de-sac. A sign on the front door suggested the long, arduous and public difficulties faced by her family: “No Media. No Trespassing. Just Pray. Thanks.”

Ernest Alfaro, who lives two doors down, said he and his family had been praying for Ms. Griner and for her father, Ray, who he said still lived in the home. In a statement, members of the Griner family thanked President Biden and his administration and requested privacy “as we embark on this road to healing.”

Since the time Ms. Griner disappeared into the Russian prison system, said Mr. Alfaro, a pastor at a local church, “We started praying for her family.”

Ms. Turner, Ms. Griner’s teammate, said she had corresponded by letter with Ms. Griner during her confinement but had not heard from her since mid-October, when she was moved to the penal colony.

“In the beginning, I felt denial, and then I was confused, and then I was like, ‘How is this possible?’” Ms. Turner said. “There’s so many millions of people that live in America, and I happen to know one of the few who are detained in Russia. Even today has felt surreal.”

Vince Kozar, the president of the Mercury, had also been exchanging letters with Ms. Griner. The Mercury had tried to keep her plight in the public eye during her imprisonment as a way of reminding the Biden administration how many people wanted her home, Mr. Kozar said.

So too did Chris Mosier, a pathbreaking transgender endurance athlete who has competed for the U.S. internationally.

A Chicago resident, Mr. Mosier showed up at every Chicago Sky game with signs or T-shirts reminding people about Ms. Griner. He spoke about her whenever given the opportunity: at conferences around the world and across his social media accounts.

“As an athlete, I feel really passionately about this, because this could have happened to any of us,” he said.

And so on Thursday the tension of her captivity gave way to a kind of national exhalation.

Carly Givens, a Phoenix Mercury fan, at a mural featuring Brittney Griner at the Footprint Center in Phoenix on Thursday.Credit…Mark Henle/The Arizona Republic, via USA Today Network

Outside the Footprint Center in Phoenix, home to Ms. Griner’s team, Danae McKnight wore a “We Are B.G.” T-shirt and said she had felt she had to come to the stadium after hearing the news. “So I went, got a beer, celebrated a little bit — it just felt right,” she said.

The imprisonment felt to Ms. McKnight and her wife as though “our friend or our loved one was locked up,” she said.

Ms. Jackson Lee said that while Ms. Griner was initially stopping at a military base in San Antonio on Friday, it was not clear where she would go after that. “We’re just ecstatic for her wife, for her mother and father,” she said.

Ms. Turner, her teammate on the Mercury, said that she did not know when she would speak to or see Ms. Griner — “I don’t even know if she has the same phone number,” she said — but that when they reunited, she would ask where she felt like eating. They bond over food, she said, and when playing on the road, they often visit the cookie chain Crumbl.

“Right now, she should prioritize her recovery and adjusting to being back home,” Ms. Turner said.

Kendra Venzant, the coach of the Lady Cougars basketball team at Chester W. Nimitz High School, where Ms. Griner once played, learned of her release with a constant pinging and ringing on her cellphone as friends and relatives called and texted on Thursday.

The two women had been teammates at the high school outside Houston — Ms. Venzant the senior point guard, Ms. Griner the towering freshman — and Ms. Griner had returned to the school as recently as last year to talk to the next generation of young players.

“I immediately just thanked God, because you never know the time or the hour,” Ms. Venzant said, standing in her office before practice on Thursday. “That situation definitely touched my heart and the players, because I speak of Brittney Griner a lot.”

The news of her release provided a burst of inspiration to the young players who had watched Ms. Griner put their school on the girls’ basketball map.

“To know that she’s safe at home was definitely a blessing,” she said. “Nothing was going to steal my joy today.”

Edgar Sandoval contributed reporting.

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