The two-time Olympic gold medalist and seven-time WNBA all-star for the Phoenix Mercury was taken into custody when she arrived Feb. 17 at Sheremetyevo International Airport near Moscow. Griner, who plays for the Russian UMMC Ekaterinburg team during the WNBA’s offseason, is accused of having vape cartridges containing hashish oil, which is illegal in Russia.
Since then, Griner’s family and State Department officials have been working behind the scenes to try to secure her release, and the Biden administration recently reclassified her situation as “wrongful detainment.” Publicly, the WNBA sent a message by placing decals with her initials and No. 42 on its teams’ floors.
“Things like that matter, like, it has her hopeful,” Cherelle Griner told “GMA” host Robin Roberts. “It lets her know she’s not forgotten. … Those small moments, I know give her some type of hope.”
Cherelle Griner said she first learned of the situation when Brittney texted her upon arriving in Russia, saying, “’Babe, babe, wake up. They have me in this room. I don’t know what’s going on,’” according to Cherelle. “I instantly texted back, ‘Who are “they” and what room?’”
At that point, Brittney’s phone was taken from her and the two have been able to communicate “sporadically,” Cherelle said, adding, “I’m grateful for even that.”
Cherelle said she has been in contact with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “I was grateful for the call,” she said. “You say she’s top priority, but I want to see it. I feel like to see it would be me seeing BG on U.S. soil.
“At this point, I don’t even know who I’m getting back when she comes back.”
Former U.N. ambassador Bill Richardson, who has worked privately as a hostage negotiator and has taken Griner’s case, said in a recent appearance on HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” that he is “optimistic” that Griner’s return to the U.S. will “happen soon.”
In the interim, Cherelle hopes to speak with President Biden. “I just keep hearing that he has the power; she’s a political pawn.”
A recent law school graduate, Cherelle pointed out that Griner, like many other WNBA players, has to head overseas in the offseason to supplement her salary. Griner earns $227,900 playing for the Mercury and, Cherelle said, has had a positive experience playing in Russia.
“You know you’re a GOAT when you can actually play in Russia on the team BG plays for,” she said. “They treat them like superstars.”
Still, the WNBA pay, compared with other sports leagues, is a problem. “BG wholeheartedly would love to not go overseas,” Cherelle said. “She has only had one Thanksgiving in the States in nine years she’s been a pro. She misses all that stuff just because she can’t make enough money in the WNBA to sustain her life.”
Griner last appeared May 13 in a Russian court at a scheduling hearing in which another 30 days were added to her pretrial detainment. That day, Russia’s state news agency reported that U.S. and Russian authorities were discussing a prisoner swap of Griner and convicted arms smuggler Viktor Bout. The development came 10 days after the Biden administration officially reclassified Griner’s arrest, in a signal that U.S. officials would ramp up efforts to obtain her release rather than wait for the Russian legal system to play out.
Griner, 31, appeared at the hearing wearing an orange WNBA hoodie that mostly hid her face. Her lawyer, Alexander Boykov, said in a video published by the Associated Press that he believes the relatively short extension of her detainment could be a signal her case will come to trial soon.
In a statement provided to The Washington Post on May 13, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said that representatives from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow attended Griner’s hearing and were able to speak with her, echoing a March statement in which it said she is “doing as well as can be expected in these circumstances.”
“We do believe that we can best and most effectively achieve potentially successful outcomes if we do have space to conduct private conversations. We are closely engaged on this case and in frequent contact with Ms. Griner’s legal team.”
Griner’s case received renewed attention after U.S. Marine veteran Trevor Reed was freed from Russia as part of a prisoner exchange last month. Former Marine Paul Whelan has been detained in Russia since 2018. Cherelle Griner said she has been in contact with the families of both men and had been urged to overcome her reluctance to speak about the situation, adding that she “obviously [wants Whelan] back, too.”
In the first week after Griner was detained, Cherelle said she “lay on this couch and cried my eyeballs out. I was numb. I couldn’t move.”
“Every single day matters for me to be sound, for me to be alert, for me to be attentive to make sure that she comes back, but it’s hard,” she said. “It’s hard.”