Griner won't play abroad again, vows to fight for US prisoners
Phoenix (AFP) -
WNBA superstar Brittney Griner vowed never to play basketball overseas again on Thursday in an emotional first press conference since being released by Russia as part of a prisoner swap last year.
Speaking in Arizona as she prepares to resume her career with the Phoenix Mercury, Griner pledged to keep fighting on behalf of people wrongfully detained around the world.
Asked what her message would be for Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and US citizen Paul Whelan, both held in Russia, Griner replied: 'I would say to everyone that's wrongfully detained right across the world: 'Stay strong, keep fighting, don't give up'.
'Just keep pushing. Because we're not going to stop. We're not going to stop fighting. We're not going to stop bringing awareness to everyone that's left behind right now.'
Griner teared up as she took questions about her ordeal, saying that the lessons learned during her basketball career had helped forge resilience during a spell behind bars that included time in a Russian penal colony.
'You know, I'm no stranger to hard times,' she said, her voice cracking with emotion.
'Just digging deep. You're going to be faced with adversities throughout your life. And this was a pretty big one.
'But I just kind of relied on my hard work and getting through it. I know this sounds so small, but dying in practice, and hard workouts, you find a way to grind it out, just put your head down and keep going, keep moving forward.'
- Pay gap dilemma -
A two-time Olympic gold medalist, WNBA champion and LGBTQ trailblazer, Griner was arrested on drug charges at a Moscow airport in February 2022, against a backdrop of soaring tensions over Ukraine.
At the time of her arrest, Griner had been playing for a professional team in Russia, as a number of WNBA players do in the off-season.
She was accused of possessing vape cartridges with a small quantity of cannabis oil and sentenced in August to nine years in prison.
She pleaded guilty to the charges, but said she did not intend to break the law or use the banned substance in Russia.
Griner was eventually released as part of a deal that saw her swapped for notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout -- known as the 'Merchant of Death' -- in December.
She defended cash-strapped players who look to supplement their salaries with overseas contracts during the WNBA's off-season.
But the 32-year-old said she would never play basketball abroad following her imprisonment.
'I can say for me that I'm never going overseas to play again unless I'm representing my country at the Olympics,' Griner said. 'If I make that team, that would be the only time I would leave US soil -- to represent the USA.
'The whole reason a lot of us go over is the pay gap. A lot of us go over there for the income, to support our families. So I don't knock any player that wants to go overseas and make a little bit extra money.'
Griner meanwhile said that the knowledge that efforts were under way to secure her release during her incarceration had helped her during her time in Russia.
'Just knowing that and being aware of that, when you don't know anything... those times when I was able to see what was going on, it definitely made me a little bit more comfortable,' she said.
'It made me have hope, which is a hard thing to have, a dangerous thing to have, because when it doesn't work, it's so crushing.'
Griner's remarks on Thursday came as the US government added new sanctions on Russia's FSB intelligence agency and Iran's Revolutionary Guard for taking 'hostage' Americans like journalist Gershkovich, who has been charged with spying by Russia.
'The United States will never stop working to secure the release of US nationals who are wrongfully detained or held hostage and reunite them with their loved ones,' Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.