Brittney Griner: brilliant basketball talent to high-profile prisoner | Brittney Griner
Brittney Griner, who was released from a Russian jail in a high-profile prisoner swap on…
Brittney Griner, who was released from a Russian jail in a high-profile prisoner swap on Thursday, seemed destined for basketball stardom as a high school student when an extraordinary growth spurt gave her a physical advantage. She later finessed her skills to become one of America’s top young players.
Born in 1990 and raised in Houston, where her Vietnam veteran father was a sheriff’s deputy, she was bullied at school because of her appearance and looked to sport as a release, turning her unusual physique into an asset. At high school she grew to 6ft 8in – one inch below her current height – and her ability to dunk a basketball inspired a viral video and predictions that her athleticism and talent would make her an all-time great.
Griner remained in Texas to attend Baylor University in Waco, where her coach called her a “once-in-a-lifetime player”. She set a single-season record for blocked shots but was suspended for two games in 2010 and sent to anger management classes for punching an opponent, breaking her nose. Baylor won all 40 of their games en route to the national title in 2011-12, Griner’s third season, and she was named player of the year.
She was selected by the Phoenix Mercury as the first overall pick in the 2013 WNBA draft and publicly came out that year. She had told her parents while in high school; her mother was accepting, her father much less so. That year, away from the oppressive environment at Baylor, a conservative Baptist institution, she became the first openly gay player to sign a Nike endorsement deal. “If I can show that I’m out and I’m fine and everything’s OK, then hopefully the younger generation will definitely feel the same way,” she told Sports Illustrated.
Known for her exceptional defensive play as one of the world’s best shot blockers, and for her dunks, Griner had a strong rookie season and was named as a league All-Star. The 2014 campaign was even better and the Mercury won the WNBA championship.
The following year Griner and her fiancee, the basketball player Glory Johnson, were arrested on suspicion of assault after a fight between them at their home near Phoenix. They were handed seven-game suspensions by the league and Griner pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and agreed to undergo domestic violence counselling. They married two weeks after the incident but after less than a month of marriage Griner sought an annulment, alleging “fraud and duress”, filing the day after Johnson announced she was pregnant. Griner remarried in 2019, to Cherelle Watson, a teacher who she had first met at Baylor.
After the murder of George Floyd in 2020 Griner called for the WNBA to stop playing the national anthem before games as a protest against racism and police brutality. That stand has now been mocked by some conservative commentators, who have called her unpatriotic, following her release.
Griner, who won gold medals with the US team at the Rio and Tokyo Olympics, has remained with the Mercury and continued to excel while pursuing lucrative deals to play overseas during the WNBA offseason. She reportedly earned $600,000 playing in China in 2013-14 – far more than the $49,440 she received from Phoenix in her rookie year.
In subsequent years she battled loneliness after signing for UMMC Ekaterinburg, one of Russia’s leading clubs. Despite the harsh winters and isolated location about a thousand miles east of Moscow the club is a popular destination for American players because of the high salaries on offer compared to the WNBA. Griner’s imprisonment and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted many of those players to seek opportunities elsewhere.