Credit: Haley Tweedell

Brittney Griner was everywhere at the 2022 WNBA All-Star Weekend in Chicago. On July 9 and 10, all around Wintrust Arena in the South Loop, you could see her initials, BG, printed in block letters onto T-shirts, her name scrawled across homemade signs. And at the game itself, all 22 players emerged from the locker room after halftime in matching Griner jerseys, paying tribute to the honorary all-star. The crowd roared in response.

Griner wasn’t there physically, of course. She is still in a prison cell outside Moscow.

The saga of her detainment began in February, when Griner flew to Russia to play with UMMC Ekaterinburg, a team she’d first signed with in 2014. There was nothing unusual about this arrangement: nearly half of the WNBA’s 144-person roster spend their offseasons playing overseas to earn higher wages. That’s because the league’s “supermax” base salary is capped at $228,294, even for the superstars.

Until this year, Ekaterinburg was considered a kind of crown jewel in overseas contracts because of its deep pockets. Griner has played there for more than seven years, in a city not far from Siberia, with WNBA superstars Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, as well as the Chicago Sky’s own Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot.

But what should have been another routine trip to Russia was different. On February 17, Griner was arrested after customs agents at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport allegedly found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. Days later, Russia invaded Ukraine.

When news of Griner’s arrest broke on March 5, Russian media released a grainy airport video and a single mugshot of the basketball star. They also denied her access to representatives from the U.S. embassy, a basic right for any American arrested overseas, for five weeks. Two months later, on May 3, the U.S. State Department formally classified Griner as wrongfully detained. On the Fourth of July, she wrote a letter to President Biden pleading for help.

But that didn’t end her imprisonment. Now, Griner’s freedom depends on a high-stakes political negotiation between the United States and Russia, with the Kremlin promising to use “maximalist” demands in exchange for her release. If convicted, which is nearly certain in wrongful detainment cases (nevermind Russia’s conviction rate of over 99 percent), she faces up to ten years in prison.

This is the brutal reality of hostage diplomacy that the world of women’s basketball has come to know over nearly five months. And at the first-ever All-Star Weekend in Chicago, it inspired overwhelming, community-wide support. But this rallying cry, and the insistence of Griner’s superstar legacy on and off the court, is at risk of being drowned out by a growing media frenzy.

All-Star Games often lack the defensive tenacity typical of the regular season, making them the perfect opportunity to slam an easy bucket. So throughout Griner’s seven WNBA All-Star appearances—the real appearances, in physical form—she’s had a habit of dunking. During the 2019 All-Star Game in Las Vegas, buoyed by fans’ cheers, she dunked three times. On the final dunk, Griner hung from the rim and playfully stuck her tongue out, leading to raucous applause.

This is Griner’s power: as a player, and as a person, her energy and strength are infectious. “She’s just someone who’s always happy, always coming in the gym just full of life,” Allie Quigley told the Athletic in May. “She’s [6’9”], but her personality is even bigger than that.”

And women’s basketball fans have watched her blossom over the years. In 2013, when Griner was first drafted by the Phoenix Mercury as the number one overall pick, she was still a sometimes-shy college student, itching for life beyond campus. In part, that’s because at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas, Griner was explicitly told to keep her sexuality as a lesbian hidden from public view, behind closed doors. When she later spoke publicly about the experience, she said, “No matter how much support I felt as a basketball player at Baylor, it still doesn’t erase all the pain I felt there.”

As Griner began openly embracing her identity, she also encouraged others to do the same. In the WNBA, she has become known for her advocacy around mental health. In 2021, she told reporters, “We really don’t talk about our feelings. . . . That’s something that hurts us as a society. It’s something that’s going to change with more athletes speaking up about it.”

This is the Brittney Griner women’s basketball fans had come to know: driven by the will not only to succeed on the court, but to help others. This is the person who has been missing from the sport for over 150 days.

July 10 was a gorgeous summer day in Chicago. For die-hard WNBA fans and Sky season ticket holders like Rochelle Huber and Taylor Roberts of Uptown, “it was like a cherry on top after winning the championship last year.” Huber and Roberts celebrated All-Star Weekend alongside the players, splurging on a suite at the JW Marriott across from Wintrust. “I don’t think it stopped being a party all weekend—for us, or for the players,” Huber said.

By 10:30 AM on Sunday morning, the couple had joined thousands of “ready to go” fans outside the arena. They streamed through the doors a full 90 minutes before tip-off, filling the stands and buying out the merch booths. “It was completely packed. It was completely packed,” Roberts said.

By noon, there were nearly 10,000 people in attendance. Inside Wintrust, the lights dimmed and the top stars in the league—including four players from the World Champion Chicago Sky—stood as all-stars under the bright lights.

The final player, named an honorary all-star by the league, was absent.

But suddenly, there she was. Griner’s 6’9’’ frame, magnified on the Jumbotron. Fans, including Huber and Roberts, were ready. “BG is always at the forefront,” said Huber. “It’s the one issue that unites everyone.” Around them, in the stands, scores of people wore T-shirts, many of them homemade, with the slogan “We Are BG.” Hundreds of others wore “Free Brittney Griner Now” pins. Signs insisting “Bring Brittney Home” waved in the air.

And the WNBA’s message even reached through the walls of prison. Days after the game, at her last court hearing on July 15, Griner brought with her a printed-out photograph of her teammates, all wearing number 42. She held the photograph within the metal cage in the courtroom, where she sits during trial proceedings.

According to the James W. Foley Foundation, an organization that advocates for American hostages held abroad, there are more than 60 Americans wrongfully detained overseas. In wrongful detainment cases, it’s considered lucky when someone comes home within months, and it’s typical for such imprisonment to stretch for years. This leaves the families of detainees—hundreds of people—fighting for their loved one’s freedom over unimaginably long periods of time. Now, the wrongful detainment community also includes thousands of players, coaches, and fans from the WNBA.

But there’s a striking difference between how Griner is recognized by her own community and how she has been portrayed in mainstream media.

Before her detainment in February, Griner was relatively unknown to the general public, despite her accomplishments. The lack of coverage by mainstream media outlets of her superstar career made her initial arrest seem to many as a kind of baffling blip in the news cycle.

But for those who knew Griner, the arrest was shocking, unprecedented, and overwhelming. Initially, her family and teammates followed the State Department’s advice to remain quiet, which is typical in these cases. Making noise, the government warned, could only worsen her situation, provoke Russian President Vladimir Putin’s temper, and turn Griner into a political pawn.

At the same time, experts like Gissou Nia, director of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Litigation Project, sounded the alarm. “Is Brittney Griner a Russian hostage?” she wrote for NBC News on April 12. “What we know about her detention doesn’t support the theory that this was just a routine arrest.” Nia cited several hallmarks of a wrongful detainment in her case: the denial of consular access, a basic right for any foreign national detained; the strikingly timed invasion of Ukraine one week after her arrest; the lack of physical evidence despite the severity of the charge.

And yet, across major U.S. outlets, Griner’s story remained tucked into short backpage paragraphs, even once Griner was officially classified as “wrongfully detained” in May.

But after Griner’s trial began on July 1, media coverage exploded.

Experts say that in the case of wrongful detainment, the legal system is often weaponized and used as a kind of Trojan horse for state-sponsored hostage-taking. Many have warned that Griner faces a “kangaroo court” where the outcome is puppeteered from above. Wrongful detainment advocates such as Jonathan Franks are familiar with this pattern. Franks, a crisis management consultant who has worked closely on several wrongful detainment cases, recently helped to free former Marine Trevor Reed, who was imprisoned in Russia for over two years. “Wrongful detentions are never resolved judicially,” Franks says. “They’re resolved politically. . . . This is not a court and it’s not going to conduct a trial. It’s going to conduct a PR and propaganda exercise for the [Russian] regime.”

But the logic of a “trial” has a bewitching quality. And as Griner’s case turns into a media spectacle, many U.S. outlets are simply reprinting the Russian government’s narrative with headlines like “WNBA star Brittney Griner stands trial in Russia on drug charge” and “Brittney Griner’s trial on drug charges formally begins in Russia.” This framing adds legitimacy to what is widely known to be a sham. The evidence Griner is being railroaded is clear: on July 7, prosecutors testified that Griner was carrying only a fraction of a gram of hashish oil in her luggage. And yet, she faces up to a decade in prison for “large-scale transportation of drugs.”

Now, millions of Americans are coming to know Griner as a detainee in handcuffs, hunched over, led through a Moscow courthouse by armed guards. The optics of incarceration make a particular kind of sense to American audiences. It’s something we should assume Putin’s regime is aware of as well. Narratives that criminalize a six-foot-nine Black lesbian come easy for mainstream media here in the United States.

That’s also what makes the legacy of the first-ever WNBA All-Star Weekend in Chicago so important. It revealed a cathartic outpouring of support from Griner’s community of loved ones and fans. And it sent a direct missive of solidarity to a superstar imprisoned halfway around the world, a message much bigger than basketball.

As Huber put it: “BG is our number-one priority this season.”

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