5 Takeaways From the Times Interview of Brittney Griner

Less than two years ago, the W.N.B.A. star Brittney Griner was starting her nine-year sentence in a penal colony in Russia, sewing uniforms for the Russian military and subsisting on spoiled food. She lived for glimpses of the sky. She had never been farther from the sport that made her a household name. A smoking habit she’d picked up in prison had diminished her lung capacity. She rarely got to hear from her wife, Cherelle, or her family and friends, and she had no idea when — or if — she would be coming home.

Griner was arrested at the Moscow Airport in February 2022, when officials found two vape cartridges in her backpack with 0.7 grams of cannabis oil. (To treat Griner’s chronic pain, a physician in Arizona had prescribed medical marijuana, but it was against the law in Russia.) She was charged with illegal drug possession and smuggling “a significant amount” of narcotics into the country and was sent to prison.

That December, after 10 months of detainment in Russia, she was finally released. She jumped back into playing, thinking the routine and familiarity would ground her. But the transition was rocky, and she is only now back in shape. On May 7, she’ll publish a memoir, “Coming Home,” detailing her ordeal.

Here are the highlights from my profile of the basketball star after I met her at a practice facility in Phoenix.

She Endured Dehumanizing Treatment

In the cell where she was first held, a feces-stained hole in the ground served as the toilet. The prison guards brought her a milky porridge with a piece of oily fish that sickened her. She had no way to clean herself — no towels, soap, toothpaste, shampoo or deodorant. She ripped T-shirts into several pieces: for her teeth, for her body, for toilet paper.

“I’ve never been so dirty in my life,” she said. The degradation would push her to contemplate suicide.

Griner, an openly gay professional athlete, is nearly seven feet tall. Prison guards stared at her body and questioned her gender. The treatment triggered memories of bullying from her childhood. Anytime she was transported to a doctor or a court appointment, she was forced to sit in a cage too small for her height. Once a guard locked Griner’s wrists together and then chained the lock to the guard’s wrist. Griner felt like a dog on a leash. She was forced to undress and be photographed nude by doctors.

Griner started smoking, up to a pack a day. She transformed physically, losing muscle mass and gaining weight from commissary items, like packaged noodles, muffins, salami and condensed milk. She felt depressed, and even sit-ups in her cell felt beyond her capacity.

Cutting Off Her Locs Was a Rare Moment of Agency

After her initial detainment, Griner was moved to a women’s detention center about two hours outside Moscow.

When images of Griner were first broadcast around the world, her long locs were shorn, and it seemed like an indication of the cruelty she was enduring. But Griner told me that cutting her hair was actually a rare moment of agency during her imprisonment. The prison was barely heated, and her locs never fully dried. She worried that she would catch pneumonia, so she decided to cut them off. ‘‘The cut was horrible but not as bad as it could have been,’’ she told me with a laugh.

GrinerPersonally Appealed to Biden

Griner wrote a letter to President Biden that was sent on July 4, begging him not to forget about her. “Please do all you can to bring us home,” she said. “I still have so much good to do with my freedom that you can help restore.” Dennis Rodman (publicly) and Donald Trump (privately)said they would fly to Russia to get her. (Neither did.)

Griner’s most devoted and persistent advocates were Black women, many of whom argued online that their government’s response felt muted. Thousands sent Griner messages in prison.

A Guard Slipped Her a Note Saying She Was Going Home

In late November, about a month after she’d been moved to a penal colony 200 miles outside of Moscow, Griner got a call from the U.S. Embassy. They said that discussions for a prisoner swap were underway. She was excited but cautious. On Dec. 2, she was loaded into a cageand transported to a men’s prison, where she feared she would have to serve the rest of her sentence.

That night, a guard slipped her a note telling her she was going home. The next morning, she boarded a plane, with no idea where it was going. The plane landed in Abu Dhabi. Greeting her was Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs in the State Department. In that moment, Griner knew she really was going home.

She Suffered From PTSD After Her Return

In prison, Griner had a singular focus: freedom. At home, she felt adrift. She was determined to return to basketball, undergoing a rigorous 100-day training regimen and re-joining her W.N.B.A. team, the Phoenix Mercury. But her 2023 season was uneven, and she experienced symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Therapy has taught her that there is no “before” anymore.

As she prepares for the upcomingseason, she likes to go deep into the mountains near her home in Phoenix. “That’s a big thing for me — getting away from the screens and the cameras.”

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