Griner leaves Texas base, pledges WNBA return and support for Whelan
By Tania Ganguli
It had been 10 months since the last time Vince Kozar had a conversation with Brittney Griner, since he could see her face and hear her voice.
The 6-foot-9 Griner, who has a wingspan over 7 feet, wrapped her arms around him in an embrace Friday morning when Kozar, the president of the Phoenix Mercury, joined two other members of the WNBA team to surprise Griner for her flight home.
“I don’t want to be naive and say she seemed like the same person, because obviously I can’t imagine an experience like this not changing you,” Kozar said. “But it felt like talking to BG.”
He continued: “It was the same energy and the same jokes and her laugh and her disarming personality that makes you want to be around her, which I’ve spent nine months talking to people about as an explanation for why so many people miss her and why so many people rallied around her. It’s that. And that was all still there.”
Griner, an American basketball star, on Friday left the military base in San Antonio where she spent the eight days since her release from imprisonment in Russia. She said on Instagram that she planned to spend the holidays at home with her family and that she would play basketball for her Mercury when the WNBA season begins in May.
“The last 10 months have been a battle at every turn,” she said in her first public statement since her release from a Russian penal colony, where she was serving a nine-year sentence after pleading guilty to a minor drug charge. “I dug deep to keep my faith and it was the love from so many of you that helped keep me going. From the bottom of my heart, thank you to everyone for your help.”
Her wife, Cherelle, said in a separate post of her own: “I’m so happy you’re home and safe babe.”
Griner left San Antonio from a private airport Friday morning, according to her agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas. She had been at Brooke Army Medical Center since returning to the United States last week. Kagawa Colas said Griner was going home but did not say whether that meant a residence in Phoenix. Hospital and State Department officials declined to comment.
Three members of the Mercury organization surprised her at the airport in San Antonio and shared the ride home with her: star player Diana Taurasi; Jim Pitman, the general manager; and Kozar.
Kozar said he spoke to Griner over FaceTime on Thursday night and felt a rush of emotion at hearing her voice and seeing her face in such a personal setting after so long.
The group spent the flight home catching up and talking about basketball, food, weather and music — things that Griner had missed out on in the past 10 months.
Some wondered if the trauma of her experience would make her not want to return to playing basketball. But Kozar had an inkling she would. She often mentioned basketball and asked about her teammates in letters they exchanged.
“I was really hesitant to talk about her in terms of basketball because her basic humanity was at stake,” Kozar said. “But I came to realize that basketball was one of the things taken away from her, along with freedom and family and friends. When I really thought about how big a part of her life basketball is, how much she missed it and the fact that it had been taken away from her, I felt like she would eventually want to play.”
Griner thanked numerous people in her post, including the staff at the U.S. Army’s Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, where she arrived at the medical center one week ago. Brooke Army Medical Center has long been a place the U.S. government has sent people who need to be debriefed or who require sensitive medical care after going through an ordeal like Griner’s. The hospital treats both civilians and military personnel who have survived torture or other trauma.
Griner also thanked her family and President Joe Biden, and she pledged to help him seek the release of Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence in Russia on espionage charges that the United States has said are politically motivated.
“I also encourage everyone that played a part in bringing me home to continue their efforts to bring all Americans home,” she said. “Every family deserves to be whole.”
In a separate Instagram story post, she shared information about how to write letters to Whelan.
Griner was detained at an airport near Moscow in February after customs officials said they found a small amount of cannabis oil in vape cartridges in her luggage. The State Department categorized her as wrongfully detained and sought a prisoner exchange for her release. Officials in Moscow had said that a prisoner exchange would not happen until after her trial concluded.
A Russian court convicted her of drug smuggling, and in August she was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony known for its harsh conditions. Her appeal was denied in October, and she was sent to the IK-2 female penal colony 300 miles southeast of Moscow.
She was released Dec. 8 in a prisoner swap for Viktor Bout, an arms dealer who had been convicted in 2011 on charges including conspiring to kill Americans.
That day, when Kozar heard Griner had been released, brought him to tears. He also cried on opening day of last season.
“There were a lot of emotional days like that, and there were also days that made us pretty optimistic,” Kozar said. “Getting letters for her or seeing the outpouring of support. Hearing her situation talked about by the secretary of state of the United States and our entire team getting to meet with members of the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.
“There were some really, really great moments in there, too, in a really, really terrible situation. It’s been a roller coaster of a lot of things, and I think all of that has just sort of come flooding back these last eight days.”