US women’s basketball superstar Brittney Griner is currently in custody in Russia, having been arrested on 17 February by the Russian Federal Customs Service after they found cannabis oil cartridges for a vape pen in her luggage at Sheremetyevo Airport.
The 31-year-old Texan was returning to the country to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg, a Russian Premier League team she has represented since 2014 to supplement the wages she earns playing with Phoenix Mercury in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA).
According to the Russian authorities, Ms Griner stands accused of smuggling a banned narcotic substance and could now face up to 10 years in jail, although it is difficult to see her detention as anything other than a political chess move in light of Russia’s war in Ukraine, which the US has fiercely opposed.
US president Joe Biden has labelled Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” and a “butcher” and subjected the country’s banks, businesses and oligarchs to a heavy regime of punitive sanctions in response to the invasion of the neighbouring sovereign state.
An official from the US embassy in Moscow was recently granted consular access to Ms Griner and reported her to be “in good condition”, US State Department spokesman Ned Price revealed last week.
She has reportedly been reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky in her cell and her primary complaint so far has been about the size of the bed she has been assigned, which is too small to accommodate her 6 foot 9 inch frame.
The authorities must make a decision on her case by 19 May but could simply choose to extend her stay behind bars.
Her plight returned to the spotlight last week when fellow WNBA great Lisa Leslie told the I Am Athlete podcast that she had been advised not to make a “big fuss” over the Griner situation to avoid aggravating a deeply sensitive diplomatic negotiation.
“What we were told, and again this is all sort of passed along through hearsay, but what we were told was to not make a big fuss about it so that they could not use her as a pawn, so to speak, in this situation in the war,” Ms Leslie said in the interview.
Brittney Griner was born in Houston on 18 October 1990, picking up basketball at Nimitz High School where her towering height gave her an immediate advantage over competitors.
She quickly developed a reputation for physicality on the court and a YouTube montage of her slam dunks during practice with the Nimitz Cougars swiftly went viral in early 2007, catching the attention of Shaquille O’Neal, among others.
Houston mayor Bill White later declared 7 May 2009 to be “Brittney Griner Day” in celebration of her record of 52 dunks in 32 games as a high school senior, which included a record seven dunks in one game. The following season, she chalked up a single-season record of 318 blocks.
She went on to play college basketball at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, setting a record number of blocks (223) in her debut season, getting suspended for breaking an opponent’s nose in 2010 and winning the National College Athletics Association (NCAA) championship in 2011/12.
As a professional, she has played in the WNBA for Phoenix Mercury since 2013, winning the championship in 2014 and picking up gold medals as part of Team USA at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and the 2020 Games in Tokyo, as well as at the 2014 World Cup in Turkey and the 2018 World Cup in Spain.
Her first off-season stint overseas came in 2013-14 when she signed a lucrative $600,000 contract to play for Zhejiang Golden Bulls, later admitting to suffering loneliness and isolation abroad but earning 12 times her salary as a rookie in Arizona.
The courtside and financial success of that decision led her to try her luck in Ekaterinburg the following year, where she has played in the off-season ever since until last month’s controversy.
Away from basketball, Ms Griner has spoken out bravely about her experiences of bullying as a child, where she was routinely taunted about her height and her sexuality.
She has previously suffered adverse publicity after police were called to her home in April 2015 to intervene in a domestic violence incident between herself and her then-wife Glory Johnson and caused controversy during the summer of 2020 when she argued that the US national anthem should not be played before games out of respect for the Black Lives Matter movement and the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.