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Brittney Griner’s ‘Coming Home’ Details Her Terrifying Detainment in Russia and Return to the U.S.

Feature Brittney Griner Memoir Details Terrifying Detainment Return to US
Brittney GrinerLeon Bennett/Getty Images For NAACP

Brittney Griner returned home to the United States in late 2022 after 10 months spent in Russian captivity, and she’s still dealing with the aftermath of her incarceration.

The WNBA superstar, 33, detailed her imprisonment and subsequent release in her new memoir, Coming Home, which hit shelves on Tuesday, May 7. Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport in February 2022 when security officers found vape cartridges containing less than one gram of hash oil in her bag.

As she writes in the book, she’d been prescribed cannabis as treatment for the chronic pain caused by her years of playing basketball, but Russian authorities were unmoved by her declaration that she brought the cartridges to the country by accident. She was eventually sentenced to nine years in prison and fined 1 million rubles (about $16,000).

In December 2022, the White House successfully negotiated Griner’s return to the U.S. in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who had been imprisoned in the U.S. for 10 years. She soon reunited with her wife, Cherelle Griner, and in April, they announced they’re expecting their first baby.

Since her return, Brittney has continued playing for the Phoenix Mercury, but she revealed in her new memoir that she had moments where she thought she would never return to the basketball court. Keep reading for the biggest revelations from Coming Home:

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Brittney Griner Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Her Plans to Stop Playing in Russia

Early in Coming Home, Brittney noted that she and Cherelle had already agreed that 2022 would be her last year playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg, the Russian basketball team that she played for during the WNBA offseason. While she was tired of the extra travel and the periods of separation from her wife, she noted that it was hard to give up the extra income, as the WNBA pays very little compared to its overseas counterparts.

“I take pride in being a breadwinner, promised Relle I’d always provide,” Brittney wrote. “‘You’re not the only source of income,’ she reminded me. … So we decided I’d complete this one last season before leaning into the next one.”

Following her imprisonment, Brittney vowed never to play basketball for another country again, but she noted that she “loved playing in Russia” before her arrest. “We were also better paid than the Ekat men’s team,” she added. “That was how huge women’s pro ball was there.”

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Considering Suicide

Brittney admitted that she contemplated suicide during her incarceration. “In that cell I didn’t care anymore if there was an afterlife,” she wrote. “I just wanted that one to be over. Suicide would’ve been easy. I could’ve broken off a piece of rusty metal, sliced it into my wrist.”

She changed her mind after considering her family and her wife. “That, and Relle’s faith, are what kept me here,” she recalled.

Chain Smoking in Prison

The Mercury center coped with her ordeal by smoking “constantly.” She also took comfort in reading the Bible and keeping a journal in a sudoku book that she’d brought with her. “Every day I wrote in the margins, scribbled my thoughts and the date,” she wrote. “Some pages are filled with entries; others have just a couple.”

In one entry, she recalled writing, “In jail in Moscow and losing my mental. Don’t know if I will survive.”

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Brittney Griner arrives to a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on June 27, 2022. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images

Why She Pleaded Guilty

Brittney explained that she decided to plead guilty because she and her lawyers thought that would be the best way to get her home more quickly. “If I pleaded not guilty, I’d basically be calling the Russians liars,” she wrote. “So rather than spitting in Putin’s face, it seemed smarter to allow him to save face. By pleading guilty, I’d be saying, ‘You’re right, Putin — I did it. I didn’t intend to break the law, but I did.’”

She noted that the U.S. government recommended that she plead not guilty, in part because it would make it easier to understand why she’d been designated as wrongfully detained, but she and her attorneys decided that “kissing the king’s ring was my fastest way to freedom.”

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Harrowing Conditions

Coming Home contains many upsetting details about Brittney’s imprisonment, first at a local jail while she was awaiting trial and then at a labor camp following her imprisonment. She had to ask permission to get her eye checked after developing an infection and at one point felt certain she’d contracted COVID (but wasn’t able to confirm with a test).

She also discovered that one of her cellmates was spying on her and feeding information to guards before she was transferred to the labor camp. The train journey to the labor camp lasted somewhere between six and eight days. Once there, she was tasked with a job in the sewing department and later in fabric cutting. “I had several close calls but never lost a finger,” she wrote. “Still, my hands were horribly bruised.”

Cutting Her Hair

Brittney decided to cut off her signature dreads while in the labor camp because they were freezing and molding in the cold weather. “In prison I needed permission to chop my hair,” she wrote. “Since arriving at IK-2, I’d been frozen, sick, got my hair chopped off. The girl I once was now lay in a heap of dreads on the concrete floor. But the true me, the survivor, remained.”

Brittney Griner Memoir Details Terrifying Detainment Return to US
Brittney Griner and Cherelle Griner Johnny Nunez/Getty Images for BET

Reuniting With Cherelle

The Olympic gold medalist described her emotional reunion with Cherelle after her return to the U.S., writing, “Our hug lasted a full minute. … That hangar floor was covered in tears.”

Later, however, Brittney admitted that her absence had affected her marriage. “When your world is violently upended, you don’t just mourn your immediate losses,” she wrote. “You also grieve a future that no longer feels possible, the peace that might have been.”

Brittney also left her wedding ring in Russia after giving it to one of her lawyers for safekeeping while she was in prison, calling it “an unrecovered item amid so much left behind.”

Her Return to the Court

During her incarceration, Brittney was worried she would never play basketball again. That turned out not to be the case, but it was extremely difficult to get back in shape after nearly a year in prison. She said her first season back “was an emotional roller-coaster,” in part because of the videos about the campaign to bring her home that played before games. “The constant reflection made it tough to get locked into each game,” she wrote. “Our losses intensified my angst. My sense of personal failure created more of the same.

At one point, she considered pausing her return to the WNBA because she was “still playing far below” her expectations after training camp. “My teammates were super encouraging,” she added, noting that her coaches offered similar praise. “I nodded and thanked them as two words reeled through my head: I suck.”

The Importance of WNBA Charter Flights

Charter flights in the WNBA have been a hot topic for years, but their value became even more clear after Brittney’s return to the U.S. During one airport trip with her team, she was harassed by a conservative YouTube personality. She received an exception to fly private for the rest of the 2023 season, but the WNBA didn’t announce plans for the whole league to use charter flights until May 7, 2024 — the same day that Brittney’s book debuted.

“I’m grateful the WNBA allowed me to fly private for the rest of the season. The Mercury paid for it,” she wrote. “But there’s no guarantee me or my teammates will fly private in the 2024 season and beyond. We’ve been told the choice is about money. It seems like it’s about devaluing women, and especially women of color. Approximately 70 percent of WNBA players are Black.”

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Working on Healing

While Brittney is grateful to be home, her reentry hasn’t been without difficulty. She and Cherelle had to move soon after her return because their address had been made public, and she received “dozens of threatening letters” at her home and the Mercury’s practice facility.

Brittney soon realized she was experiencing symptoms of PTSD and began seeing a counselor. “I moped through my days, exhausted after not sleeping well, lamenting how purposeless I felt,” she wrote. “At home I felt adrift, with no reason to get dressed. I was depressed yet refusing to say the word. Saying it aloud would’ve felt like defeat.”

The athlete also noted that her previous coping strategies for dealing with insomnia — playing video games and watching TV — no longer worked. “Minutes later I’d feel anxious,” she recalled. “In detention my world was my bed: I woke up in it, lay on it all day watching TV, went to sleep in it after lights out. I’d always loved watching movies, have over 500 downloaded on iTunes. But watching them alone, on my bed in the shadows, made me feel I was back in prison.”

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