PHOENIX (AP) — Hope bounced around Brittney Griner like a buoy and an anchor.
Hope of returning home, hope of a miracle, was all she had all those months in a Russian prison. On the days hopelessness crept in, days that grew as her detainment stretched into a second winter, optimism drowned in despair.
Photos of her family half a world away kept Griner afloat.
“Just being able to see their faces, that did it for me,” Griner said Thursday in her first news conference since being released. “The moment where you kind of want to give up, you look at the photos and it kind of brings you back to what you’re waiting on. You’re waiting to be back with your families, with your loved ones in a safe place.”
Griner has been safe since a nearly 10-month detainment in Russia on drug-related charges ended with a prisoner swap in December.
Griner kept a low profile following her return to the U.S. while adjusting to life back home, outside of appearances at the Super Bowl, the PGA Tour’s Phoenix Open and an MLK Day event in Phoenix.
She returned to the spotlight at a news conference on Thursday, an event attended by roughly 200 people inside the lobby of the Footprint Center, home of the Phoenix Mercury and the NBA’s Phoenix Suns.
Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and members of the Mercury organization gave the WNBA star a standing ovation as she appeared from behind a banner and climbed onto the riser.
“Different than a basketball press conference today,” said Griner, her eyes beaming and a huge smile across her face. “A LOT of media in here today.”
Griner gained international attention in February 2022, when she was arrested after Russian authorities said a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. She later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine years in prison.
After months of negotiations between Washington and Moscow, Griner was exchanged in the United Arab Emirates for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout on Dec. 8.
Griner kept her emotions in check during the news conference while thanking everyone who helped secure her release, including President Joe Biden, but had to take a moment to compose herself after being asked about her resiliency through the ordeal.
“I’m no stranger to hard times,” Griner said, fighting back tears. “Just digging deep. You’re going to be faced with adversities in life. This was a pretty big one. I just relied on my hard work to get through it.”
Griner faced an adjustment period once she returned to the U.S., one that’s still ongoing.
She spent some time in San Antonio, where she picked up a basketball for the first time in nearly a year. Wearing low-stop shoes on an outdoor court, Griner put up a few shots, even trying to see if she can still dunk (yes, she can).
“I thought I was like 16 again,” she said. “I mean, my ankles did not like it, but it was good.”
Once back in Phoenix, Griner walked around town, taking in the scenery of her hometown with a newfound appreciation that comes with a freedom she didn’t have for nearly 10 months.
“Walking around town was a little bit different, but it felt good being back to being on U.S. soil, especially when you’re back here in the Valley,” Griner said. “It was really warming and nothing but love, being out and about, just trying to get back to just being normal.”
Normal will include a return to the Mercury.
Griner announced shortly after her release that would play in the WNBA this season and re-signed with the Mercury on a one-year deal. The six-time WNBA All-Star and two-time league defensive player of the year started slowly and has ramped up training in preparation for the Mercury’s opening game on May 19.
“I feel like I’ve hit the corner and just loving it now, but at first there was a point where it was like, wow, dang, I really want to do this this fast right now?”
“But no, it was so worth it. So worth it.”
Griner is returning to the WNBA but won’t be playing overseas again, unless it’s with Team USA.
“I’ve never playing overseas again,” the two-time Olympic gold medalist said. “The only time I would want to would be to represent the USA.”
Griner’s new normal also will include working with Bring Our Families Home, a campaign formed in 2022 by the family members of American hostages and wrongful detainees held overseas.
Griner said her team has been in touch with the family of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who’s being detained in Russia on espionage charges.
Griner and BOFH unveiled a mural outside the Footprint Center with the faces of Americans detained overseas and will work to bring as many of them home as possible.
“No one should be in any of the conditions that I went through or they’re going through,” she said.
The Russian prison conditions at times spiraled Griner into hopelessness. The familiar faces of her family always brought her back, hope returning until she was finally able to reunite with them.
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