Brittney Griner: Who is the freed US basketball star?

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Britney GrinerImage source, Getty Images

American basketball star Brittney Griner has been released after nearly 10 months in Russian custody, as part of a long-rumoured prisoner exchange brokered by officials in Washington and Moscow.

Griner is arguably the greatest female basketball player of all time and is the marquee player for the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) in the US.

The 32-year-old disappeared on 17 February - just days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine - as she was passing through Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport.

She was later charged with carrying cannabis oil in her luggage and sentenced to nine years in prison.

The future WNBA star was born on 18 October 1990 to Raymond and Sandra Griner in Texas. Her father was a veteran of the Vietnam War, where he served two tours of duty as a US Marine, and he later became a police officer in Houston.

She grew up in a strict household and later wrote in her autobiography that her father had "so many damn rules" designed to keep her safe and "on the right path".

The star - who is 6ft 9in (2.05 metres) tall - recalled being bullied for her height and tomboyish appearance as a child.

She wrote in her autobiography that she spent much of her time "wishing away so much of what would eventually make me successful at basketball: my size, strength, and tenacity".

Despite wishing to be "normal", her unique talent on the basketball court was quickly noticed by coaches at the Nimitz High School in Houston.

While playing for the school's team, the Nimitz Cougars, her ability to dunk a basketball attracted massive attention.

During her junior season, a video compilation of her dunks racked up 6.6 million views on YouTube and lead to a meeting with LA Lakers legend Shaquille O'Neal.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Griner with NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal, an early admirer of her talent.

After leading the Nimitz Cougars to a state championship game in her senior year - during which she dunked the ball a record 52 times in 32 games - she was named to the illustrious Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) All-American team, and scored 20 points in its showpiece game.

Griner came out as gay at the age of 22, at the start of her promising career, becoming one of the most prominent LGBT athletes in the world.

Coming out in an interview with Sports Illustrated, she told the publication that the decision "wasn't hard at all".

"I've always been open about who I am and my sexuality," she said. "If I can show that I'm out and I'm fine, then hopefully the younger generation will feel the same way."

In 2013, Griner became the first openly gay player to be endorsed by Nike in a multi-million dollar deal.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Brittney Griner with her wife Cherelle Griner

Tamryn Spruill, a sports journalist who is writing a book on the WNBA and Griner's contributions to the league, told the BBC earlier this year that her decision was groundbreaking for the sport.

"Before Griner, there was this shadow over the league, where it was like 'don't say gay,'" Ms Spruill said. "She was just like 'screw that, this is who I am.'"

"BG's always been one to be a pioneer," Griner's teammate, Diana Taurasi has said.

In 2019, she married her partner Cherelle Watson after a heavily publicised divorce from her ex-wife and fellow WNBA player Glory Johnson.

After a successful college career with Baylor University, Griner was drafted as the number one pick in the 2013 WNBA draft by the Arizona-based Phoenix Mercury.

The star went on to become one of the WNBA's most dominant players in history, widely considered the best offensive player in the league - and her ability to dunk remains unmatched.

She has won a WNBA championship, eight WNBA All-Star awards, four EuroLeague titles and two Olympic gold medals.

Image source, Getty Images

"She's every bit the Tom Brady of her sport," Melissa Isaacson, a sportswriter and professor at Northwestern University in the US state of Illinois, said, adding: "You could argue very accurately that she is one of the best athletes in the world."

Despite all this, Griner had a second job, and that was why she flew to Russia - to play for EuroLeague team UMMC Ekaterinburg, who she has played for during the WNBA off-season since 2014.

Roughly half of WNBA players compete overseas in the off-season. For most, it's a way to boost their income: WNBA players receive roughly five times more in Russia than they do in the US.

"If she were Steph Curry or LeBron James, she wouldn't be over there at all because she'd be making enough money," Ms Spruill said.

Griner's counterparts in the men's league make more than 200 times the maximum WNBA salary.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Britney Griner during a Euroleague game

Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, the EuroLeague suspended all Russian teams, and US and WNBA officials began calling players out of the country.

But it was too late for Griner, who is believed to have entered Russia one week earlier, on 17 February, though the timing remains unclear.

Initially, US authorities and representatives for Griner were largely silent, other than to say they were working to bring her home.

In early May, however, the State Department said it considered Griner to be "wrongfully" detained, and a lengthy campaign to secure her release began.

Griner's wife, Cherelle, posted on Instagram in April about the painful wait.

"People say 'stay busy.' Yet, there's not a task in this world that could keep any of us from worrying about you. My heart, our hearts, are all skipping beats everyday that goes by," she wrote.

"There are no words to express this pain. I'm hurting, we're hurting".

On Thursday, following Griner's release, her wife embraced US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office.

"I'm just standing here overwhelmed with emotions," she said.

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