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Brittney Griner returns back home to the United States

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Brittney Griner is back on U.S. soil today. The basketball great arrived yesterday after a prisoner exchange with Russia. She was arrested and later convicted on minor drug charges and was held for nine months recently at a work colony. President Biden praised Brittney Griner's fortitude.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: She endured mistreatment and a show trial in Russia with characteristic grit and incredible dignity.

SIMON: NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on some of the reaction and celebration surrounding Brittney Griner's release.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: As TV news footage showed Griner's plane arriving on the tarmac at the U.S. Army's joint base in San Antonio, fans and her loved ones breathed a sigh of relief. At the White House, Griner's wife, Cherelle, called the last nine months the darkest moments of their lives.

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CHERELLE GRINER: And today is just a happy day for me and my family. So I'm going to smile right now. Thank you.

SIEGLER: Griner had been serving a nine-year prison sentence after Russian customs officials found two vape cartridges and hashish oil in her luggage at a stop near the Moscow airport last February. Griner acknowledged having the pot but said she had packed her bags in a hurry and didn't intend to break Russian law. Her case became a flashpoint for the broader collapsed relations between the U.S. and Russia. The Biden administration long referred to her as a hostage. Griner's high school basketball coach, Debbie Jackson, told Houston Public Media that when Griner was transferred to a penal colony and work camp, the coach nearly lost hope.

DEBBIE JACKSON: I'm so thankful Brittney's home. She really has been loved by everybody she's played with and come in contact with. And that's a real tribute to her.

SIEGLER: For Jackson, Griner's imprisonment was just the latest adversity she overcame since coming out as gay at the age of 22 and graduating from Baylor and later drafted by the Phoenix Mercury.

JACKSON: She's a person that never looked for fame. That was not her goal. She never was really comfortable with publicity. She just wanted to play, play hard, play for her teammates.

SIEGLER: That joy was echoed yesterday by Griner's former teammates and fellow WNBA stars like Chiney Ogwumike of the LA Sparks. On ESPN, she called Griner's return to the U.S. a huge moment.

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CHINEY OGWUMIKE: Because what BG represents simply by existing as a Black queer woman, which is often criticized, which is often ignored - this shows to the world that she's worth fighting for.

SIEGLER: Griner was released in exchange for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who was convicted by a New York jury in 2011 on charges that included conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and officials. The deal did not include the release of American Paul Whelan from the same prison. Cherelle Griner said she and Brittney are committed to fighting to bringing Whelan home as well.

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GRINER: As we celebrate BG being home, we do understand that there are still people out here who are enduring what I endured the last nine months of missing tremendously their loved ones.

SIEGLER: But for now, Cherelle Griner beamed and said her family is once again whole.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.