Every day for weeks, the tweet from Storm forward Breanna Stewart is the same, with only the reference to the number of days in confinement changed. And ever-growing.
“It has been 104 days since our friend, Brittney Griner, has been wrongfully detained in Russia. It is time for her to come home. @WhiteHouse, we are paying attention and we are counting on you. #WeAreBG”
For Stewart and other WNBA players, Griner’s continued detention in Russia since mid-February is a tense and tragic situation that continues to hang over the league. They can wear her number on their jersey, put her initials on the court and tweet messages of support, but it doesn’t bring home perhaps the greatest women’s player in the world.
“I mean, no matter what day it is, whether it’s Day One or now Day 105, it’s just really sad thinking about how she’s still wrongfully detained over there,” Stewart said Thursday after the Seattle Storm’s practice at Climate Pledge Arena. “I’m hoping that the president and the White House is going to bring her home soon.
“I have these moments throughout my day where it’s like, I’m able to play basketball, I’m able to continue in the WNBA. And her life, in a sense, has just stopped a little bit. And no person should have to go through that. Especially someone of her stature, who is a global athlete and a global star.”
Just a refresher for those who may have forgotten the details of Griner’s plight (and many of her supporters are concerned that the hue and cry has not been intense or sustained enough to spur action): Griner, 31, was detained at a Moscow airport when Russian authorities searched her luggage and alleged they found vape cartridges that contained oil derived from cannabis.
That charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. The Biden administration said in May that Griner is being wrongfully detained, but her detention was extended another month until at least the middle of June. Griner, who plays in the WNBA for the Phoenix Mercury, could be facing a trial if government efforts to free her are unsuccessful. Those efforts are complicated by the severing of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Russia following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The case really hits home for Stewart for numerous reasons, including her close friendship with Griner that has resulted from being teammates on Team USA and overseas. They are among the elite few who have won a college championship, WNBA and EuroLeague titles and an Olympic gold medal.
But Stewart also notes that Griner was returning home from playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg — the same EuroLeague team that Stewart plays for in the WNBA offseason. If not for the fact she was recovering from Achilles surgery and took the Euro season off, Stewart might well have been making the same journey as Griner.
To her, it’s yet another reason — the most poignant of them all — that the WNBA must make it so its star players don’t need to play overseas to supplement their income. The league has made great strides in that area, but superstars such as Griner and Stewart can still make five times their WNBA salary — into the millions — playing overseas.
“To be honest, it could have been any of us,” Stewart said. “And that’s what makes it even scarier, and continues to put pressure on the WNBA and the other endorsement companies in the United States to be able to help keep us home. We have to go overseas to supplement our income financially. And it would be even better if our country embraced us and helped us all be home for the entire 365 days.”
It was revealed Thursday that Griner has been receiving letters and emails from WNBA players relayed through her attorney, though they are vetted by Russian officials. According to The Associated Press, Griner doesn’t have access to an email account so she’ll either write a response on paper that her lawyers take a photo of, or she’ll dictate a response if she doesn’t have any paper.
Both Stewart and Jewell Loyd of the Storm have sent correspondence to Griner. Loyd was teammates with Griner in All-Star Games and with Team USA and said they became close during the recent Olympics.
“The last couple of years, she’s been a great mentor to me, like a big sister,” Loyd said. “I appreciate everything she’s done for me. She’s just a great person.”
In her letters, Loyd said. “I’m trying to encourage her as much as I can. And just to have her write back is great. I have the letter she wrote back saved on my phone. I just tell her we’re constantly praying for her and just tell her thank you for being a big sister and always giving me words of wisdom.”
Stewart has made a concerted effort to carry on the charitable efforts that Griner was involved in, such as The Phoenix Rescue Mission and the Heart and Sole Shoe Drive.
“I’ve sent her a few letters; I need to definitely send more, but we’re just trying to keep her spirits high,” Stewart said. “Talk about other things going on, not the obvious that she’s still there. But whether they’re inside jokes, or small things, just to kind of keep her spirit high. And at the same time, doing her charity work and relief efforts while she’s gone, trying to continue to make an impact, because she was huge in her community and in the entire league.”
Stewart recently received a response from Griner: “Tell Stewie thank you and I love her.”
Said Stewart: “It makes you feel a little bit better, but then it makes you feel a little bit worse.”
Meanwhile, Stewart will keep tweeting her daily support of Griner and waiting for the day she can hug her friend in person.