WNBA player Brittney Griner is home on U.S. soil, but her future remains unclear. The 32-year-old Houston native picked up a basketball during a workout at Sam Houston, the medical facility in San Antonio where she’s recovering after a nine-month jail stint in Russia. Her first move: a dunk.
ESPN reports that she donned Phoenix Suns shorts, a Title IX T-shirt and Converses, to work out for the first time since she was taken into custody on Feb. 17 at Sheremetyevo Airport near Moscow. Griner was convicted and sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony for possession of trace amounts of hashish oil in vape pens found in her luggage. She was returning to Russia to play for the Russian women’s basketball team UMMC Ekaterinberg.
But her agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, says that Griner has not yet decided on a return to the Phoenix Mercury, where she’s won two championships, nor is she expected to return to her home in Phoenix right away.
Griner landed in San Antonio last Friday without her signature long locs. Her lawyers said that she cut them due to the brutal Russian winter, which made it hard to dry and maintain them. Her cut has since been shaped up by the San Antonio Spurs’ barber and Nike provided the 6-foot-9 athlete some clothing to supplement what she brought back from Russia. Griner broke her glasses in Russia last week, and they’ve been replaced as well.
She and her wife, Cherelle, are staying at a hotel on the property.
The couple reunited after a psychologist and doctor boarded Brittney’s plane to evaluate her condition, ESPN reported. They were able to have their long-awaited reunion with an extended hug while military and government personnel stayed at a discreet distance, then they went to a designated space stocked with Griner’s favorite snacks: Dr. Pepper, Cheetos and Reese’s peanut butter cups. Brittney’s family visited her there and brought her barbeque from Smoke Shack, billed as San Antonio’s best barbeque.
Though she has yet to make a public statement, Brittney Griner is expected to do so sometime this week. Cherelle posted on Instagram, saying that the couple is grateful for all the support and help they’ve received both publicly and behind the scenes in bringing Griner home.
But Griner can’t return home right away, her agent says. There has been a firestorm of criticism, mostly from the right about the U.S. government swapping Griner for Viktor Bout, the Russian-born so-called “Merchant of Death” who is a convicted arms dealer said to have provided guns and weapons for conflicts in Africa.
“There’s no timeline on her return at this point,” Kangwa Colas told ESPN. “She’s reintegrating into a world that has changed for her now. From a pure security standpoint, she’s not going to be able to move in the world the way she did. It’s not a fate that she asked for, but I think she’s going to try to utilize her fame for good.”
There is also controversy that disgraced former Marine reservist Paul Whelan who is serving out his 16-year sentence for espionage was not part of the prisoner swap. Biden says that while his administration is trying to free Whelan as well, the Russians are treating his case very differently from Griner’s.
“It is so important to me that it is clear that we do not begrudge Ms. Griner her freedom,” David Whelan, Paul’s brother said in an email provided to media last Thursday. “As I have often remarked, Brittney’s and Paul’s cases were never really intertwined. It has always been a strong possibility that one might be freed without the other.”
Brittney Griner was accompanied on the plane home by Roger Carstens, Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, who said she was first asked if she wanted to be alone to decompress. She told him “No, I want to talk, I’ve been listening to Russian for months.” He said not only did she talk for approximately 12 hours of the 16-hour flight, but she also wanted to know who was on the plane with them and introduced herself to everyone.
“I was left with the impression this is an intelligent, passionate, compassionate, humble, interesting person, a patriotic person,” Carstens said. “But above all, authentic. I hate the fact that I had to meet her in this manner, but I actually felt blessed having had a chance to get to know her.”
The Phoenix Mercury could use Griner if she wants to return. Despite being the eighth seed, they made it all the way to the conference finals this past season, led by All-Stars Skylar Diggins and Diana Taurasi, losing to the Las Vegas Aces in August. The Aces went on to win the WNBA championship. Taurasi has retired and Diggins, 32, is currently expecting her second child. The WNBA kicks off its 27th season on May 19 with a 40-game schedule, the most games the league has ever had.
“I think the players will want to see her and they’ll fly anywhere to go see her,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbart said at a press conference after the announcement of Griner’s release.
“We’re obviously going to respect the privacy of this intricate and critical time of her coming back home,” she added “I’d love to call her and see her, but we’re going to give her the appropriate space and time for that. We’ll follow what Brittney and her family want to do about re-engaging with the WNBA and our players.”
Kangwa Colas says that whatever Brittney Griner decides, she’ll have a lot of support.
“If she wants to play, it will be for her to share. She has the holidays to rest and decide what’s next without any pressure,” Colas said. “She’s doing really, really well. She seems to have endured this in pretty incredible ways.”