Last fall, as she played in her second WNBA Finals, Brittney Griner did what she does so easily, which is shift the topic away from her sport. “I’m not your typical basketball player,” she said, not defensively or defiantly, but just because she knows it’s true. So during a week when her Mercury battled the Sky for the championship, Griner was sharing her plans for when she stops playing basketball.
“I want to go to Sturgis,” she said. “I love motorcycles, so I want to ride my bike from my garage to Sturgis, like, the real way.”
On Thursday, one day before the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was scheduled to begin in South Dakota, Griner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison. The rally is surely not top of mind for her right now. But it’s fair to assume she misses the open road, and all that it represents.
The Griner case has unspooled slowly since her February arrest. A hearing, a trial, some outrage, an inevitable verdict, a predictable sentence and now: a wait. It has been obvious from the beginning that Griner’s case is not just muddled by geopolitical tensions; it is a product of it. Russia imprisoned her not just for taking two cartridges of hashish oil into the country, but because she has value to Russia—and for that reason, the next logical step is a prisoner swap with the United States.
That’s the first reaction to her nine-year sentence. They won’t keep her there for nine years, right? They can’t. The Biden Administration can’t let this linger. Russia can gain more from negotiating her release than keeping her. There are incentives for both sides to make a deal.
It all makes sense. But until Griner gets off a plane on U.S. soil, anybody who loves her must be nervous. You can know she is a pawn in a larger game, you can believe it and be confident about it, and still, how can you relax? The #FreeBG hashtags won’t and shouldn’t end until somebody actually frees BG.
Then there is the price Griner has already paid and will continue to pay.
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This story, even more than most, is easy to think of as a movie: a stunning opening scene, a hammer dropping, tension building, a superpower showdown, a devastating setback and finally (one hopes) a happy conclusion. But Griner has already spent more than five months detained in Russia. She has been told she has to stay for nine more years. Even if the U.S. negotiates a prisoner swap tomorrow, Griner will carry this experience with her for the rest of her life.
It will change her. We just don’t know how.
Some of this will play out in front of us. Griner is 31. If Russia keeps her for most of this sentence, that could effectively end her career. But let’s assume the U.S. and Russia strike a deal relatively soon, and Griner comes back.
Griner has always been a hard player to define. Her Olympic and Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi said in Tokyo last summer that she is always pushing Griner because she thinks Griner can be even better than she is. Griner is 6'9", taller than any superstar ever, blessed and cursed with the kind of talent that makes her seem like she can do anything … and yet, she is an undeniably great player. Would basketball mean even more to her if she returns—or less? Either would be understandable.
Reacclimating to American life is the dream but will also be difficult. Griner, a self-described “adrenaline junkie,” is a bit of a daredevil. Will the trauma of being held by Russia make her cautious? How will it affect her personal relationships? Last fall she admitted, “I’m not the best communicator sometimes,” and that therapy had helped.
Every day that Griner spends in Russia adds to the challenge when she comes home. It probably won’t be nine years. But it’s already been five months. No matter how and when this standoff ends, Griner has already lost.
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