Brittney Griner’s former coaches and teammates as well as a host of elite athletes on Thursday celebrated the US basketball star’s release from a Russian prison after 10 months of captivity.
Griner, arrested in February on drug charges, was traded for arms dealer Viktor Bout in a prisoner swap carried out at an airport in Abu Dhabi.
Supporters of the 32-year-old WNBA and Olympic superstar center expressed joy and relief.
“I was shocked. I cried. Honestly, I cried,” said Dawn Staley, who coached Griner last year on the US team that won gold in Tokyo. “This is the moment we’ve all been praying for.
“My prayers will continue for her strength and her family’s strength, that she can possibly get back to the Brittney Griner we have known her to be.”
Griner is an eight-time WNBA All-Star and two-time scoring champion who sparked the Phoenix Mercury to the league title in 2014.
“Miraculously, mercifully, the count of days detained has ended at 294 and our friend, our sister is headed back home where she belongs,” the Mercury and NBA Phoenix Suns said in a joint statement.
“The emotions for our organization, just like for our fans and so many across the world, are those of joyous celebration, deep gratitude, grief for the time lost, and sincere hope for all families still awaiting the return of a loved one.
“BG’s strength in this process, her unwavering belief that resolution would come and the hope she displayed every day is what kept all of us believing this day would come.”
NBA stars Chris Paul, Trae Young and Kyrie Irving were among those who tweeted their joy at Griner’s release.
– Career future ‘in her court’ –
“Thank you for exemplifying what a true Warrior looks like,” Irving tweeted. “You’re forever loved by so many unconditionally.”
Brianna Turner, a teammate of Griner with the Mercury, tweeted: “BEST NEWS EVER. So happy for BG just in time for the holidays.”
Kim Mulkey, who coached Griner to a 2012 US college crown at Baylor University, told ESPN: “Brittney is on her way home where she belongs. Our prayers remain with her and her family as they recover and heal together.”
Australian Sandy Brondello, the New York Liberty coach who coached Griner for eight seasons with the Mercury, wept when she heard the news.
“There were a lot of tears but tears of joy,” she told MSNBC. “It will be a special moment when we get to see her. It will be a very long hug.”
Brondello was uncertain about whether or not she would see Griner play again.
“I think right now BG needs to rest and recover and be with her wife and her family,” she said.
“I think it’s in her court. I would love to see her back on but if she doesn’t play again, that’s not a problem at all because she needs to take care of herself.”
– ‘Bravery and resolve’ –
USA Basketball praised Griner for her “bravery and resolve over the last nearly 300 days” and added: “We look forward to seeing Brittney again when the time is right.”
Brondello said she can’t see US players ever again playing for Russian teams in the WNBA off-season for extra money.
“You would hope it would (stop),” she said. “I do not think Americans will go back to Russia to play and they shouldn’t.”
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert called it a “great day” and said the league will “look forward to BG having her time and space and recovering from this whole awful ordeal.
“I can’t tell you what this means to the whole WNBA community to have her home safely. This was just really emotional. We really look forward to her return and hearing her voice.”
Women’s tennis legend Billie Jean King thanked Biden and “all those who worked so hard to secure her freedom” while WNBA Most Valuable Player A’ja Wilson, an Olympic teammate of Griner, tweeted: “BG God is so good.”