LeBron James Calls for Brittney Griner’s Safe Return: Everything to Know About the WNBA Star’s Detention

LeBron James Calls for Brittney Griner's Safe Return: Everything to Know About the WNBA Star's Detention 078
Brittney Griner. Shutterstock (2)

The fight to bring a legend home. WNBA star Brittney Griner has been in Russian custody since February 2022, and plenty of her fellow athletes are leading the charge to get her back to the United States.

Ahead of Game 2 of the NBA Finals in June 2022, the Boston Celtics wore T-shirts reading “WE ARE BG” during practice. “The shirts were super important not only showing our support for our sister that is detained over in Russia, Brittney Griner, we just wanted to show that togetherness and love that we have throughout not only the NBA but the WNBA,” player Grant Williams told ESPN of the team’s decision to wear the shirts. “She’s been a vital part of the WNBA over years past, college and in the amount of impact she’s had on young female athletes, USA and overseas.”

LeBron James also called for swifter action on the Olympic gold medalist’s case, sharing a social media post from his Uninterrupted platform encouraging President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to keep pushing for Griner’s return.

“We need to come together and help do whatever we possibly can to bring BG home quickly and safely!!” the Space Jam: A New Legacy star tweeted in June 2022. “Our voice as athletes is stronger together.”

Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport in February 2022 while she was in the country playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA off-season. Russian authorities claimed that the athlete was carrying hashish oil in her luggage. News of her arrest and subsequent detention, however, did not emerge for several weeks.

U.S. officials were initially hesitant to make any aggressive moves on behalf of Griner because of Russia’s ongoing war with Ukraine, but in May 2022, the State Department declared that the Phoenix Mercury player had been “wrongfully detained.” This status change meant that officials could immediately begin negotiating for her release rather than waiting until her next Russian court hearing.

That same month, Griner’s detention was extended until at least mid-June 2022. In the meantime, the Texas native has been communicating with her friends and family via letters. “She jokes in her letters. I don’t know how she does it with what she’s going through,” Amanda Zahui B., a player for the Los Angeles Sparks, told the Associated Press of keeping in touch with her colleague. “She’s an amazing soul. She brings light in a situation like this. I don’t think a lot of people could manage to do that.”

The ESPY winner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, has also been offering her support from afar, speaking to U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken about the case. “You say she’s top priority, but I wanna see it, and I feel like to see it would be me seeing BG on U.S. soil,” Cherelle told Good Morning America in May 2022.

The Baylor University alum added that her wife was only playing in Russia because WNBA salaries are not lucrative enough to support their family. It is common for many WNBA players to go overseas in the off-season to supplement their income.

“BG would wholeheartedly love to not go overseas,” Cherelle explained. “She has only had one Thanksgiving in the States in nine years since she’s been pro, and she misses all that stuff. Just because, you know, she can’t make enough money in the WNBA, like, to sustain her life.”

Keep scrolling for more details on Brittney’s case:

LeBron James Calls Brittney Griner Safe Return Everything Know

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Who Is Brittney Griner?

Brittney is a very successful WNBA star who has played for the Phoenix Mercury since 2013. Prior to going pro, she made history as a college basketball player at Baylor University, setting the all-time single-season record for blocked shots in her freshman year. Since 2014, she has played for Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg women’s basketball team during the WNBA’s off-season.

LeBron James Calls Brittney Griner Safe Return Everything Know

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Why Was She Detained?

Russian authorities arrested Brittney on February 17, 2022, after claiming she was caught with hash oil cartridges in her luggage while going through security at the Moscow airport. Customs officials for the country said that they had opened a criminal case into the “large-scale transportation of drugs,” which can carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison in Russia.

After news of her detention broke on March 5, 2022, some observers connected her detention to Russia’s history of holding U.S. citizens as political prisoners. “This follows a pattern of Russia wrongly detaining & imprisoning US citizens, including Trevor Reed,” Texas Representative Joaquin Castro tweeted at the time. “US citizens are not political pawns. Brittney, Trevor, and other Americans must be safely returned.” (Reed is a former Marine who had been detained in Russia since 2019; he was returned home in April 2022.)

LeBron James Calls Brittney Griner Safe Return Everything Know

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What’s Being Done About Her Case?

In May 2022, the U.S. State Department changed course and declared that Brittney had been “wrongfully detained” by Russia. As a result, Roger Carstens, who is the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, began immediately working to negotiate her release. Her wife, Cherelle, later had a phone call with Blinken to discuss the specifics of the situation.

Meanwhile, the WNBA granted the Phoenix Mercury salary cap and roster relief so that Brittney would receive her full salary for the season without it counting against the team’s limit. All WNBA courts also have a decal bearing Brittney’s initials and jersey number.

LeBron James Calls Brittney Griner Safe Return Everything Know

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Which Celebs Have Gotten Involved?

Brittney’s WNBA teammates have been some of the most outspoken stars, wearing shirts and pins in tribute to their colleague and calling for her release on social media and at press conferences. The NBA has also gotten involved, with commissioner Adam Silver saying that the league is actively working with the U.S. government to “expedite” Brittney’s return. “It’s been now over a hundred days since she’s been illegally held in Russia,” Silver said in June 2022. “I think it’s something that all of us should be heard on, contacting your representatives and others. I will only say we are working in lockstep with the U.S. government and outside experts on trying to expedite her release in any way we can.”

WNBA Star Brittney Griner's Russian Detention Extended for Another 3 Weeks

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Another Extension

In June 2022, a Russian court decided to extend Brittney’s detention for nearly three additional weeks, meaning she will be in custody until at least July 2. According to the Russian media outlet TASS, the athlete’s detention was extended for those 18 days at “the request of the investigation.”

WNBA Star Brittney Griner Finally Gets Trial Date Amid Russian Detention

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When Will Brittney’s Trial Start?

Brittney’s lawyer, Alexander Boikov, told CNN on June 27, 2022, that his client’s trial is set to begin on July 1, with her detention extended for the length of the court proceedings. Russian news outlets previously reported that the athlete would remain in pre-trial custody until at least July 2. That same day, the basketball star made a brief appearance at a court in the Moscow suburb of Khimki for a hearing. Photographs showed her entering the courtroom in handcuffs while in the custody of two guards.

One week earlier, Cherelle told the Associated Press that a previously planned phone call with the U.S. Embassy never happened. “I find it unacceptable and I have zero trust in our government right now,” she said. “If I can’t trust you to catch a Saturday call outside of business hours, how can I trust you to actually be negotiating on my wife’s behalf to come home? Because that’s a much bigger ask than to catch a Saturday call.” The State Department later claimed that the missed phone call happened because of a “logistical error.”

Brittney Griner Pleads Help Amid Russian Detention Im Terrified

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Her Letter to Biden

In July 2022, Brittney wrote a letter to Biden begging for help in getting her home. “As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever,” she wrote. “I miss my wife! I miss my family! I miss my teammates! It kills me to know they are suffering so much right now. I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home.”

She also reminded the president of her father’s military service and noted that she voted for the former senator in 2020. “On the 4th of July, our family normally honors the service of those who fought for our freedom, including my father who is a Vietnam War veteran. It hurts thinking about how I usually celebrate this day because freedom means something completely different to me this year,” she continued. “I voted for the first time in 2020 and I voted for you. I believe in you.”

President Biden Calls Brittney Griner's Wife Cherelle to Discuss Release

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Biden Responds

One day after Cherelle told CBS Mornings that she was worried she might never see her wife again, the White House revealed that Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris had called Cherelle to discuss Brittney’s case. “The President called Cherelle to reassure her that he is working to secure Brittney’s release as soon as possible, as well as the release of Paul Whelan and other U.S. nationals who are wrongfully detained or held hostage in Russia and around the world,” the White House said in a statement on July 6, 2022. “He also read her a draft of the letter the President is sending to Brittney Griner today.” 

Brittney Griner Pleads Guilty in Russian Court

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Her Plea

On July 7, 2022, Brittney pleaded guilty to drug charges in a Moscow court. “I’d like to plead guilty, your honor,” the athlete told the judge, according to Reuters. “But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law.” She added that she needed “time to prepare” her testimony. Her next court date is scheduled for July 14.

Cherelle, meanwhile, said she was “grateful” for the phone call from Biden and Harris. “While I will remain concerned and outspoken until she is back home, I am hopeful in knowing that the President read my wife’s letter and took the time to respond,” she said in a statement. “I know BG will be able to find comfort in knowing she has not been forgotten.”

LeBron James Calls for Brittney Griner’s Safe Return: Everything to Know About the WNBA Star’s Detention

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A Shout-Out at the ESPYs

During the ESPY Awards in July 2022, Megan Rapinoe, host Steph Curry and WNBA players Nneka Ogwumike and Skylar Diggins-Smith urged the U.S. government to take action in Brittney’s case. “I think honestly what we’ve witnessed tonight is the importance of sport and how much we can bring and how much we can get done in the world with our collective power,” Rapinoe said during her acceptance speech. “Every time we say her name, it puts pressure on everyone — puts pressure on the administration, puts pressure on Russia. The most striking thing is that BG isn’t here. BG deserves to be free. We can support her more and let her know that we love her so much.”

WNBA's Brittney Griner Found TK, Sentenced to TK After Detention

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The Verdict

In August 2022, a Russian court found Brittney guilty of drug smuggling with criminal intent and sentenced her to nine years in prison. She was also fined 1 million rubles, or about $16,400. Russia has previously said that any possible negotiation about a prisoner swap would have to wait until after Brittney’s sentencing. 

“I never meant to hurt anybody, I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population, I never meant to break any laws here,” the athlete said during the court hearing. “I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn’t end my life here. I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that that is far from this courtroom.”

Dennis Rodman Says He Will Travel to Russia to Seek Release of Brittney Griner

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How Is Dennis Rodman Involved?

In August 2022, Rodman revealed his plan to help free Griner, telling NBC, “I got permission to go to Russia to help that girl. I’m trying to go this week.”

The former NBA star changed his tune about a week later, however, after the United States government discouraged his plan. “He would not be traveling on behalf of the U.S. government,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told ABC News shortly after Rodman’s declaration. “We believe that anything other than negotiating further through the established channel is likely to complicate and hinder those release efforts.”

Cherelle Reacts to Brittney Sentence CBS Morning News

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Cherelle Reacts to Brittney’s Sentence

In her first interview since Brittney’s sentencing, Cherelle told Gayle King that her life has felt “like a movie” since the verdict was announced. “It terrifies me, because when you watch movies, sometimes those situations don’t end well,” she said during an October 2022 appearance on CBS Mornings. “Sometimes they never get their person back.” The law school graduate also admitted that she worries about never seeing Brittney again. “I’m sitting there like, ‘Do we get her back? Do I ever get to see my wife again? Like, what happens [next]?’ The fact that everything is so unprecedented and everything is, like, changeable, I think is a really good word,” Cherelle explained. “I feel like every day I’m hearing something new, and so it’s just, it’s terrifying.”

Brittney Griner's Wife Cherelle Describes 'Disturbing' Call With Athlete

Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/Shutterstock; CBS Mornings

A ‘Disturbing’ Phone Call

In the full version of her October 2022 CBS Mornings interview, Cherelle detailed the two phone calls she’d had with Brittney since she was arrested eight months earlier. “It was just so delightful just to hear her voice,” Cherelle said of the first call, adding that she thought her wife was doing OK and that they “could survive this.”

The second call, however, was less comforting. “You could hear that she was not OK,” Cherelle explained. “I think I cried for about two, three days straight. It was the most disturbing phone call I’d ever experienced. … I didn’t have words.”

Gallery Update: Everything to Know About Brittney Griner’s Detention

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Birthday Statement

“Thank you everyone for fighting so hard to get me home,” Brittney said in an October 2022 statement via CNN as she turned 32 in prison. “All the support and love are definitely helping me.”

LeBron James Calls for Brittney Griner's Safe Return: Everything to Know About the WNBA Star's Detention 077 Russia Griner, Moscow, Russian Federation - 04 Aug 2022

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Her Appeal

Brittney’s lawyer confirmed to CNN in August 2022 that an appeal was filed against the Russian court’s verdict. The US State Department characterized her arrest as a “wrongful detainment” and officials posed the idea of a prisoner swap in an attempt to bring the athlete home safely.

In October 2022, the appeal was rejected by a Russian court. The White House condemned the decision.

“We are aware of the news out of Russia that Brittney Griner will continue to be wrongfully detained under intolerable circumstances after having to undergo another sham judicial proceeding today,” U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement to The Washington Post. “President Biden has been very clear that Brittney should be released immediately.”

Brittney Griner Moved to Russian Penal Colony


Moved to Russian Penal Colony

In November 2022, the WNBA star’s lawyers shared in a statement that the athlete was being moved to a penal colony and that they “do not have any information on her exact current location or her final destination.”