‘I Will Never Forget Any of It’: Brittney Griner Is Ready to Talk

On the March afternoon when I met Brittney Griner in Phoenix, the wildflowers were in peak efflorescence, California poppies and violet cones of lupine exploding everywhere. Griner was in bloom too. She was practicing with some local ballers brought in by her W.N.B.A. team, the Mercury, to prepare its players for the start of the season in May. On the court, Griner was loose, confident, trading jokes with the other players between runs. She snatched a pass out of the air, drove it hard in the paint and pulled up to shoot, the ball kissing the net as it sailed through. Everyone, including Nate Tibbetts, the Mercury’s newly hired head coach, who dropped by to watch, erupted in cheers. Griner nodded to herself in quiet satisfaction, keeping her head down as she jogged back to run the play again.

Listen to this article, read by January LaVoy

Less than two years ago, 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, which she could see only through weathered rebar when the guards took prisoners outside. She had never been further from the sport that made her a household name. She could barely get through multiple rounds of horse, her lung capacity shot from smoking so many cigarettes. 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.

When, after 10 months in Russia, she was finally released, she jumped back into playing, thinking the routine and familiarity would ground her back in herself and her life. But the transition was rocky. All last season, she was plagued by injuries and insecurities. The confidence of being one of the W.N.B.A.’s most powerful “bigs” had evaporated. It got so bad that she took a midseason leave. “I don’t feel like I really got my body back until right now,” she told me in Phoenix. “When I look back at the videos, it’s cringe. The season, any pictures from last year — I don’t want to see it or look at it.” She had a lot of self-doubt and didn’t think she could do it. “Maybe I should stop. Maybe I’ll never be the same player that I was before. Maybe this was the big rift in my career, where it’s like, I’m never going to get to that top.”

The next day, Griner loped into a conference room above the court, wearing team-branded workout clothes and an elegant chain, dimples prominent in her wide grin. Her teeth were perfect — her first big purchase after going pro. She was gracious and kind, offering to retrieve drinks from the team fridge, making sure everyone around her was comfortable, taking her seat last. “I actually feel like my old self,” she told me. “I’m moving like my old self. But still, in the back of my head, there’s a nagging ‘What if?’ You know, what if it doesn’t go the way you want it to?”

Brittney Griner standing courtside before her first game back with the Phoenix Mercury in May 2023.Credit…Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

On May 7, Griner will publish her memoir “Coming Home,” written with Michelle Burford, documenting her harrowing ordeal in Russia and her return home. The book is brutal, rendering in excruciating detail the conditions of her imprisonment and the fear and desperation that consumed her daily. Griner has always relied on writing for her sanity, starting in middle school, when she endured bullying for her height and androgynous appearance, and this memoir reveals someone deeply familiar with her interiority — she’s vulnerable and raw but has also had enough therapy to use humor to process tragedy. In Russia, she journaled in the margins of her Bible and a Sudoku book, but the details are also seared in her mind. “I will never forget any of it,” she told me, enunciating each word to make her point.

As we talked, Griner did her best to arrange her 6-foot-9 frame into a low-slung leather chair. She initiated our conversation by asking what hair products I used: Her curls, she confided, have been in recovery, too. When images of Griner were broadcast around the world with her long locs shorn, 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. Her locs were always damp. There was no hair dryer, and her hair never fully dried after a shower. All the women were forced outside to exercise, she recalled, despite freezing temperatures and snow. The prison was barely heated, and she worried she would catch pneumonia. She decided to cut her locs off. “The cut was horrible,” she told me with a laugh, “but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.” There was a makeshift salon in prison, and she found tenderness in the hairdresser’s care. “Minus the bars on the window,” she said, “I was like, I kind of felt like I was in an actual shop right now. At least I can get away in here, a little bit.”

“I thought I was going to be there for the long haul,” Griner says. “At least like three or four years, maybe.”Credit…Mickalene Thomas for The New York Times

It might have been the only time during those 10 months that she felt somewhat free. Griner writes in her book that in elementary school, she saw white Bengal tigers on a school trip to the Houston aquarium. She watched them, wondering what they were thinking. In her own captivity, she had a sense. Anytime she was transported anywhere in Russia, she writes, she was put in a steel cage so small that she had to sit sideways, her knees cramped against her chest, her head brushing the top. Once, at a court appearance, a guard locked her wrists together and then chained the lock to her own wrist. Griner felt like a dog on a leash. The humiliating treatment felt deliberate, spectacle as punishment: She was a prize or a pawn, paraded as an example of Russian power.

Griner’s voice, a languid baritone, remained steady as she told me about the horrors in prison: watching fellow inmates being treated roughly and denied medication; hearing of a young woman who died of cancer; being forced to undress and be photographed nude by doctors. She told me that she prefers when people ask her to talk about what happened rather than avoiding it out of politeness. “People walking on eggshells?” she said. “That doesn’t help me.” But as she spoke about her experiences, her eyes locked on mine and they lost some of their natural impish glint. She wrapped her arms protectively around her rib cage and chest. “The waves have gotten better,” she told me, describing the fluctuations of her emotional state. Athletes are used to dissociating from pain to play. Joints without cartilage, tweaked backs, aching ankles — Griner has had them all, and is well accustomed to pushing through. But this is an experience that will linger in her bones.

On the morning of Feb. 15, 2022, Griner didn’t want to leave her warm bed, where she was cuddling with her wife, Cherelle Griner, at their home in Phoenix. But she had to make her plane to Russia. She’d been playing for a team there for nearly a decade to supplement her W.N.B.A. salary. As one of the highest-profile players in the league, she recently signed a contract for a little over $150,000 for the 2024 season; in Russia, though, she could net more than $1 million. Playing there wasn’t entirely about the money. A kid from Texas, she relished the opportunity to live and travel abroad. And she was treated to the real superstar experience: elite parties, fancy dinners, chartered planes. It was a taste of the life enjoyed by her higher-paid peers in the N.B.A. But working year-round was taking a toll on her body. She thought that this season in Russia might be her last.

Her wife usually packed her bags, loading them with American staples like candy, Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce, pancake mix and Creole seasoning. This time, Cherelle organized only the big roller bags, leaving Griner responsible for her carry-ons. When Griner finally got up, she didn’t clear them out and repack them. Instead, she hurriedly shoved in her essentials, a Nintendo Switch, a few pairs of underwear and sweatpants and her laptop. She nearly missed her plane.

Griner playing with her Russian team in 2017 during the W.N.B.A. off-season.Credit…Pavel Lisitsyn/Sputnik, via Associated Press

When she arrived in Moscow, she stopped in customs before her transfer flight to Yekaterinburg, a smaller city where her Russian team was based. She loaded her carry-ons onto the conveyor belt at the security checkpoint and prepared to walk through the metal detector. She noticed agents pulling people out of line — all foreigners. “They were singling out anybody that didn’t look Russian,” she said. “I just felt like they were searching for something.”

At first, when they flagged her bags, Griner wasn’t too concerned. This was her eighth season in Russia; she paid taxes there and was familiar with the country and its laws. The customs agent asked her to search her own items, which she found unusual. As soon as she felt the cannabis-oil cartridge stowed in a zippered inner pocket in her backpack, her stomach sank. Medical marijuana had been prescribed by a physician in Arizona to treat her chronic pain, but it was illegal in Russia. “I was like: Oh, [expletive]. Oh, this is about to be bad,” she told me, and continued to detail the events of the day. Another cartridge was found in a roller bag. She panicked, calling and texting Cherelle and her family. No one answered. It was the middle of the night in the United States, and they were all asleep.

Griner was told to wait while the agent took the cartridges for testing, along with her passport. Other officials arrived and demanded that she sign a document in Russian. Nyet, she replied, pushing it away. She used Google Translate to look up another word: advocat, meaning “lawyer.” They pressured her to sign until she buckled, writing her name. The agents took her outside and loaded her into an unofficial-looking sedan and drove her to a redbrick building. The officials later came back with terrifying news: They had tested her cartridges and said they found 0.7 grams of cannabis oil total in two vape pens. Griner was charged with illegal drug possession and smuggling a “significant amount” of narcotics into the country, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of a million rubles, which was then about $15,000.

By now, Cherelle and Griner’s agent, Lindsay Colas, were awake. Griner had been able to send a location pin through WhatsApp of where she was being held, and Colas frantically arranged for a Russian lawyer, Alex Boykov, to meet her. When Boykov arrived, investigators continued interrogating Griner. They wanted to know why she was in Russia, why she was bringing “drugs” in, whom they were for. Afterward, she was handcuffed and squeezed into another tiny civilian car. For hours, she sat hunched over in pain as she was driven all over Moscow — a sightseeing tour from hell. The car finally stopped at a local detention center.

Griner was led to a cell and given some bedding for a discolored mattress. Her phone had been taken, but she had been allowed to keep a small bag of personal items, which she packed with some clothes and her Sudoku book. The room stank: 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. The bed was too small for her frame, and her calves dangled over the edge. Her old sports injuries flared up as she lay there, writhing in agony. The next morning, prison guards snickered outside her cell. She caught some English mixed with the Russian: “American,” and then, “basketball.” They flipped open the peephole and peered at her. “I’ve never been so dirty in my life,” she said. The degradation would push her to contemplate suicide. “I felt horrible.”

At her arrest hearing on Feb. 19, she was put in a small cage and watched facial expressions for clues about the proceedings. Boykov translated: She was denied bail and house arrest and told she would be detained for at least 30 days. Later, Griner got even worse news: On Feb. 24, Russia invaded Ukraine. President Vladimir V. Putin warned the United States not to get involved in Russian affairs. The stakes of her arrest were already high, but the war ratcheted them up; Griner understood that she was now caught in the middle of a standoff between global rivals.

Soon, Griner was moved to a women’s detention center about two hours outside Moscow. Her head spun. “Going from being free, you know, having freedom of movement, to have absolutely nothing, not even the necessities. … ” Her face turned stony as she sat in the memory. “That quick change to being in a box, not knowing what’s coming next, what’s going to happen tomorrow, or the middle of the night when you hear a door open and footsteps coming to your door, and you’re like, Is this the moment?”

She lay awake at night, anxious thoughts looping through her head, as she did when she was a child. She thought about Cherelle and her family. She agonized over bringing shame to the Griner name, over feeding into caustic stereotypes of Black people as drug abusers. There were real threats to deal with as well: She was subjected to a psychiatric evaluation. In Russia, homosexuality is often called a mental illness, and Griner worried that she could be institutionalized. She was asked about her “sick thoughts” and “drug problem” and pressed to admit that she was guilty.

As Griner’s imprisonment stretched on, however, her world expanded in unexpected ways. She writes that she became particularly close to her bunkmate Alena, a former volleyball player who had been an exchange student in London and was fluent in English. They were together 24 hours a day. Alena translated everything, telling Griner what the guards were whispering, helping her order water and food from the commissary and barter with other incarcerated women, warning her that herpes and H.I.V. were rampant in the prison and that she should avoid medical exams if she could. At one point, she helped when Griner got a severe eye infection and urgently needed care. (Griner heard that the person who treated her was a veterinarian.) They would watch a 90-minute trashy Turkish soap opera that replaced Griner’s beloved “Grey’s Anatomy,” with Alena translating each twist.

The days were stultifying, the nights sleepless. “My life became a blur of sweeping and dusting, cleaning and praying, hoping I could somehow get home,” she writes. “I hurt because I knew I’d handed the world a weapon.”

Griner during her trial in Russia in July 2022.Credit…Alexander Zemlianichenko/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images

To relieve her stress, Griner picked up the habit of smoking cigarettes, up to a pack a day. At one point, her Russian team donated a basketball so she could shoot on a hoop in the prison yard, but she kept getting winded. She lost muscle mass and gained weight from commissary staples — packaged noodles, muffins, salami, condensed milk — that felt safer to eat than the fish porridge. She felt depressed, and even sit-ups in her cell felt beyond her capacity.

Griner surprised herself by taking solace in the Bible. In the past, she associated religion with pain and intolerance. But Cherelle was a preacher’s daughter, and in her letters, which were often delayed, she encouraged Griner to lean into her faith. Griner requested a Bible, and the warden approved. She studied it every morning after cell search and showers and sneaked in a few more passages after lights out. A favorite was Psalms 56:3-4: “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise — in God I trust and am not afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” Freedom held the luxury of resisting faith, but prison required embracing it.

Griner spent her childhood in the Bellewood section of Houston. She was close to her older sister and her two older half siblings from her father’s previous marriage. In her 2014 memoir, “In My Skin,” Griner describes a comfortable but constrained childhood. By middle school, she towered over her classmates and felt like an outcast. Kids called her “freak.” They antagonized her for her height, her undeveloped chest, her deepening voice. Once, a popular girl walked up to Griner and groped her. She turned to her friends and declared that Griner “must be a boy.” The constant harassment weighed on her, and she became anxious and depressed. Instead of talking about her emotions, she mouthed off to teachers. There were a few knock-down, drag-out fights with other girls. Griner obsessed over being “normal” and drew grim pictures and fantasized about suicide. She was wishing away so much of what would make her successful later in life — her size and strength.

Her father, who worked in law enforcement, governed the household with a severity rooted in paranoia. She was to come straight home after school, her play limited to the yard. There were no sleepovers. But his vigilance helped Griner sharpen her own. She also inherited his stubbornness — refusing to bend to his tough punishments and judgments of her. Their best moments together were in the yard or the garage, cutting grass or fixing the family cars. Griner worked shirtless, like her father.

She writes that she once heard him sneer that a woman was a “dyke.” Her mother was gentle and accepting. Griner wanted to be loved by them both for her full self. She tried to send subtle signals to her father, like leaving her boxers in the laundry. At school, she sagged her Girbaud jeans and wore oversize T-shirts. She used the family computer to look up the words “gay” and “lesbian” and immediately knew she was reading about herself. It was a relief: There were blueprints, communities, outlets beyond her immediate world.

Griner was growing so fast that her parents had her tested to make sure nothing was wrong. No illness; just luck. The logic of her body made perfect sense when she finally stepped on the basketball court in ninth grade. Her gifts were undeniable. Her wingspan, at 7 feet 3½ inches, is longer than LeBron James’s. When she was in high school, a video of her dunking went viral. Watching her, the way she lifts the ball over the rim and into the net as gently as if she were returning a lost child to a parent, brings to mind the way the filmmaker and artist Arthur Jafa describes Black ingenuity in the sport: “We didn’t invent basketball, but we created it.”

She was recruited to play at Baylor University, a Baptist school in Waco, Texas, not far from where she grew up, and became the team’s star player. She and her coach, Kim Mulkey, had a tense relationship. Griner says she felt singled out by Mulkey for various reasons, including being gay. (Mulkey has denied treating gay players differently.) But it didn’t diminish her love of the game. She polished her footwork, learned to shoot with precision and efficiency and likened the energy on the court to “turning the volume way up on a good song.”

In 2013, she arrived at the W.N.B.A. draft in a gleaming white custom-made three-piece suit. She looked poised and confident. When the Mercury selected her with the No.1 draft pick, even though she knew it was coming, a shy grin touched her lips. A few days later, she gave an interview to Sports Illustrated and answered a probing question about her sexual identity by saying, “I’ve always been open about who I am.” The following year, Griner became the first openly gay athlete to be endorsed by Nike. Her boldness set a new standard, helping to normalize queerness in American sports, especially for women.

Prison in Russia reopened old wounds, memories of her adolescent body as an object of fascination and prurient speculation. Guards heckled her, made lewd jokes, asked about her genitalia. Once, she recounted, while returning from the shower with a towel draped around her neck, a guard stopped her and looked her up and down. The guard used her baton to push the towel out of the way and stared at Griner’s chest. Griner was furious but unable to do anything about it.

Griner thought constantly about her family — her wife’s well-being, her parents’ growing frailty. She struggled to write to her father, fearing his disappointment. When she finally did, she said she would “never let you down like this again.” Weeks later, she received his unequivocal reply. “I love you and always will, no matter where you are,” he wrote. “Nothing and nobody can change that.” His affirmation was simple. It allowed her to release some of the debilitating shame and gather herself for what she would have to endure.

The world got its first glimpse of the imprisoned Griner on July 1, 2022, nearly five months after her arrest, when she arrived in court in Moscow for the start of her trial. In photos and videos, she looked stunned, eyes unnaturally wide. Griner had always understood that she was well known in Russia — some guards had even asked her for photographs and autographs — but she didn’t grasp the scale of her case until that moment. There were nearly 100 journalists present, shouting questions and snapping photographs; it reminded her of the media circus around the N.B.A. Finals.

Griner came dressed in a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt in symbolic protest; Hendrix was arrested on a drug charge in 1969 in Toronto and found not guilty. She also held photographs of her wife and Mercury teammates against the bars of her cage. She wanted to try to shape the narrative, to remind the people in Russia and back home that her story went beyond a single mistake.

Griner’s family and legal team still hadn’t spoken with President Biden directly. And they were devastated after a scheduled call between Cherelle and Brittney was bungled by the State Department and never went through. “The roots of Black skepticism go back generations,” Griner writes, “in a country that hasn’t always had our backs; it was too busy breaking them.” Griner, in consultation with her wife and lawyers, decided to plead guilty. It seemed unwise to call the Russian government liars; they were betting that an American humbling herself before Putin would get her home faster. She also wrote a letter to Biden to be 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.”

In early July, Cherelle was interviewed by Gayle King to raise awareness, noting that Griner’s team had yet to meet with the Biden administration. The president reached out to tell Cherelle that talks about a prisoner swap were underway and to caution that pressuring him in public “would play into Russia’s hands.” He replied to Griner’s letter, saying that “getting you home is top of mind for all of us.” Griner’s team revved up its online efforts, rallying the Rev. Al Sharpton and her teammates and other players to call for a lenient verdict.

Cherelle and Colas, her agent, crafted a hashtag that became the rallying cry to keep Griner’s story relevant over the months. They initially considered “LoveBG” but ultimately went with “WeAreBG.” The choice shortened the distance between Griner and those who had ever worried about their safety at home or abroad. Colas told me that the intention was to remind people of Griner’s universality, despite the unusual circumstances. “Britney stepping into her power and sharing about herself has always given people permission to be themselves and be loud about it.”

Brittney GrinerCredit…Mickalene Thomas for The New York Times

During the 2022 W.N.B.A. All-Star Game, the players wore Griner’s jersey number in solidarity during the second half. N.B.A. players like LeBron James and Stephen Curry publicly questioned what seemed like the U.S. government’s inaction on the case. But her most devoted and persistent advocates were Black women, many of them arguing online that the government’s response felt muted, a continuation of the culture of neglect that fails to adequately protect them and gender-nonconforming people. Kerry Washington and Roxane Gay campaigned for her in the American media. Thousands sent Griner messages of support in prison. In the acknowledgments of her book, Griner thanks Black women in the press for keeping her name alive throughout her detainment.

“Russia understands the way American public opinion matters to the presidency,” Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a scholar at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the intersection of Blackness and the Eastern Bloc, told me, “and they played with it.” The tactic worked: Griner’s case incited rancor and debate between those who argued that the American government wasn’t doing enough and those who cast Griner as a criminal and argued that other American detainees in Russia, like Paul Whelan, a former Marine accused of spying, should be a higher priority.

On Aug. 4, Griner returned to court for sentencing. Her defense team detailed the mishandling of her case: She had no lawyer during initial questioning and was pressured to sign documents she didn’t understand, and the amount of cannabis was exaggerated, among other things. Griner was given the chance to read a statement, which she insisted on writing herself. “My parents taught me two important things,” she read, hands shaking. “One, to take ownership for your responsibilities. And two, to work hard for everything that you have. That’s why I pled guilty to my charges. I understand the charges that are against me, … but I had no intent to break any Russian law. I want the court to understand that it was an honest mistake that I made while rushing and in stress.” She apologized to her American and Russian teammates, her family, her friends.

The judge was unmoved. Griner was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony. Her release date would be Oct. 20, 2031. She froze, unable to digest the information. Her Russian lawyers surreptitiously called Cherelle on FaceTime and held the phone up through the bars of Griner’s cage, and they wept together. A nearby guard saw but did not intervene. He seemed as shocked as they were.

In early November 2022, Griner was loaded onto a train with other female inmates. After seven or eight days of traveling in cages in the dark, they finally stopped and were met by guards with automatic weapons and barking German shepherds. Griner had been taken to a repurposed Soviet-era gulag in Mordovia, 200 miles outside Moscow. Inmates referred to the region as “the ass of Russia,” and Griner would soon understand why. For several days, no one in her family or on her legal team knew where she was.

She was given a uniform of thick green corduroy that was too short to cover her body and a head wrap similar to a hijab. She moved into a room crammed with bunks for 20 women, and the bathroom was shared by 50. She was put to work for 12-, sometimes 15-hour shifts, cutting big pieces of fabric for Russian military uniforms with rusty, dangerous spinning blades. Separated from Alena, her lifeline, and the smaller jail setting that had become familiar, she was desolate. She decided to adopt a new survival strategy: letting go of hope. “I thought I was going to be there for the long haul,” she told me. “I’m tired of waiting for the day. It’s easier to just accept the situation I’m in. I’m an inmate.”

Sometimes she would volunteer to shovel the snow and ice around the prison — the manual labor reminded her of her training. “It made me feel like I was lifting weights, because snow is super heavy,” she said. The exercise distracted her, kept her busy. In this remote prison, she had even less contact with the outside world. There were few visits from her lawyer. Almost no one spoke English, and she began to lose some fluency. There were small kindnesses: Welders made her a bigger bed, and another woman sewed her mittens and a prison uniform that fit and kept her somewhat warmer in the uninsulated cell. Ann, the head cook, spoke English and recruited her to help with kitchen duties. When the electricity went out for a few days, Griner carried hunks of cow from the freezer to the fields where they cooked meals, warming up by the fires. She celebrated Thanksgiving alone with a smoked turkey leg and rice with soy sauce that she bought from the commissary.

At home, Cherelle spoke about Griner every chance she got: on “The View” and at awards ceremonies. Her case was still a lightning rod: Dennis Rodman (publicly) and Donald Trump (privately) each said he would fly to Russia to get her.

In late November, after about a month in Mordovia, Griner was pulled from work to take a call from the U.S. Embassy. She was told that discussions for a prisoner swap were underway and that she should keep quiet about it. Griner was elated, but cautious. For a week she heard nothing. Once again, she was summoned to the warden’s office and told that the trade was imminent. She began preparing, donating her possessions — shampoo, food, clothes — and giving Ann the money she made working for five weeks, less than $100. The other incarcerated women brought photos of their kids for her to sign, which she did. Then, she waited.

On Dec. 2, she was loaded into a cage inside a van with four guards. They rode in the dark, without a translator, for eight hours. They stopped at another prison and started the process of booking her. Alarmed, she realized that it was a men’s facility. She felt a rising panic: Had she been tricked? Would she be forced to serve the remainder of her sentence here? She soothed herself by watching the World Cup, Portugal versus Switzerland. Around lights out, a guard slipped a note through her door. It held the words she’d been waiting months to hear: “You leave tonight.” She stayed up all night, praying that it was real.

In the morning, she writes, she was taken to an examination room, where a man who said he was a doctor stood with seven armed guards. She was told to remove her clothes, which she did. He gestured for her to remove her boxers too. Fear coursed through her, but she complied, standing without covering herself or cowering. They began photographing her from every angle — a final display of total power and control over her body.

Afterward, she was driven to a plane and boarded, though she had no idea where it was going. She was too wired to sleep and too scared to eat, afraid of being poisoned. The plane finally landed, in Abu Dhabi. As she disembarked, she was greeted by Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs in the State Department. He handed her a pin that read “We Are BG.” Griner exhaled, allowing relief to sink in for the first time. As she walked onto the tarmac, a man walked toward her. She recognized him as Viktor Bout, the notorious Russian arms dealer for whom she had been traded. As they passed each other, he reached for a handshake, and she instinctively complied. He offered congratulations. His hands were soft compared with her roughened ones; later she heard that he spent his time in prison painting pictures of cats. She boarded the plane Bout had come from.

When Griner arrived in San Antonio, Cherelle was waiting on the tarmac, surrounded by supporters waving American flags. Griner leaped down the airplane stairs and ran toward her. They embraced, in tears. They were ushered to a private lounge where they could get reacquainted. They sat as close as they could get, kissing, tracing each other’s features.

At first, being home was a nonstop adrenaline high. Griner reunited with her parents, her siblings and their children. She ate well, indulging in barbecue and snacks, luxuriating in hot showers and cuddling with Cherelle and bingeing movies. But as time went on, Griner struggled to adjust. During the trial, her home address was leaked, and she and Cherelle had to move into a safe house. She did a deep dive on social media of the coverage of her case and saw the vitriol directed at her. There were people who called her ugly slurs and said she should have been left to rot overseas. “We’re getting all this hate about how unpatriotic I am,” she told me. “That I’m un-American and shouldn’t be alive right now.”

In prison, Griner had a singular focus: freedom. Now she felt adrift, confused. Basketball had always been her compass, so she decided to start playing as soon as she could. The very first week she was back, she and Cherelle played one on one. She tired easily — chain-smoking in prison had shredded her lungs. Griner decided to see if she could still dunk. She could, though her back ached for days after. She started working out again, hard, though her go-to exercises like planks and curls with 50-pound dumbbells were nearly impossible. But the routines felt like home. She mapped out a 100-day conditioning plan to get ready for the upcoming W.N.B.A. season. Still, she felt overweight, and her lifelong struggles with body image resurfaced. There were days when she wouldn’t eat. “It was trying, big time,” she said. She wondered if she should quit, if this was the end of her career.

Griner at the Phoenix Mercury’s practice facility in April.Credit…Mickalene Thomas for The New York Times

As the 2023 season began, she continued to feel disoriented. Each arena stop meant a reunion with players she hadn’t seen since she was detained, and during each game, video commemorations of her release were played. She appreciated the acknowledgment of what she had been through, but as time wore on, the reminders were triggering: It was hard to keep her head in the game. The Mercury lost 31 of 40 games. As the season wound down, without her usual plan to go overseas, she began to have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. “People say it’s OK to not be OK,” she told me. “But what the hell does that mean? Just cry when I want to cry? Or be angry when I want to be angry? Or does that mean talking about it? Like, I had to figure that out.”

This season, Griner is grateful to return to the game she loves. And the timing couldn’t be better. Women’s basketball has garnered renewed attention, fueled in part by the exhilarating performances of Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese in the March Madness tournament, followed by an electric W.N.B.A. draft. Griner’s detainment has also galvanized the women’s league and drawn national attention to a question it has long needed to address: pay-equity issues that push players abroad in the off-season. There’s a chance to invest in the future of the league more broadly. “We can build the type of stable league that could be financially worth it for players to stay home throughout the year,” Sue Bird, a former player for the Seattle Storm who is heavily involved in shaping the league, told me. “It could be a whole new world in the W.N.B.A.”

In 2025, the W.N.B.A. will have the opportunity to renegotiate player contracts. It’s a chance to advocate new pay structures, maternity support, a bigger percentage of revenue generated by licensing games to networks and streaming platforms and more security. “I’ve always talked about that, but I’m seeing it more now,” Griner told me. Last year at Dallas Fort Worth Airport, Griner was accosted by a conservative media personality who pushed a microphone in her face and shouted that she “hates America.” Unlike their peers in the N.B.A., W.N.B.A. teams still fly commercial during most of the regular season, exposing them to altercations like the one Griner experienced.

Before her imprisonment, she and Cherelle liked to spend lazy Sundays in bed, watching television and laughing. But being in a single room with a bed reminds her too much of prison. So does being cold. She has nightmares that she has to go back to Russia to file some errant paperwork and becomes trapped all over again. Between seasons, she and Cherelle used to venture down to Mexico for a few romantic days of relaxation. Now she’s afraid that she could be a valuable target for another hostage situation. “If I go to the wrong country,” she said, “they could literally just grab me.” (She will travel to Paris to play basketball in the Olympics this summer, but that feels wrapped in enough American security protocols to be safe.) Therapy has taught her that there is no “before” anymore. Her brain is different, and so is her life. One of the biggest signs that she’s recovering, she says, is that her words are back. When she first got home, she felt and sounded like a child feeling for language. “I felt like I went backward,” she told me.

Since her return to Phoenix, Griner says that making space for private time and getting out into nature have become coping mechanisms. “It feels like time slows down.”Credit…Mickalene Thomas for The New York Times

During our meetings, Griner was raw and unguarded, willing to go as deep as the conversation required. But it hasn’t been easy or comfortable navigating her emotions in the public sphere: Because of her size, people often don’t always see her fragility. “There’s no room for tears as women,” she said. “If we have a moment, it’s like, Oh, she’s weak, being bitchy or irrational. We don’t get to process; we have to be on 24/7.” It’s clear that she continues to struggle with the feeling that her freedom is conditional, not something she inherently deserves. “I’m on borrowed time,” she told me. She plans to continue campaigning for other American detainees, including Paul Whelan and the journalist Evan Gershkovich.

Before we parted ways, Griner told me that going into nature — she loves off-roading in the dusty red mountains — has been one of her coping mechanisms. Before her ordeal in Russia, she didn’t need time away from people, to ground herself. But now, sometimes it’s the only thing that helps. “That’s a big thing for me — getting away from the screens and the cameras,” she said. “It feels like time slows down when I’m in nature.” She’s learning about the value of carving out a private identity. Not every part of her existence has to be an example or a cause. She and Cherelle are expecting their first child, and that will also reshape the way Griner engages with the public. Before I left Phoenix, I took her advice. I drove deep into the mountains, winding upward until the clouds thinned and the air grew clearer, sharper. I thought of Griner up there alone, without cell reception, a reprieve from the demands of her life. The dry desert mountains were covered in an astonishing amount of grass. They looked like green waves. It was a reminder that life grows in even the most arid conditions.

Read by January LaVoy

Narration produced by Anna Diamond and Krish Seenivasan

Engineered by David Mason

Styling by Marquise Miller and Aaron Christmon.

Mickalene Thomas is an artist known for her paintings of African American women that combine historical, political and pop-culture references. Her solo show “All About Love” starts its tour at the Broad in Los Angeles in May.

Back to top button