Brittney Griner speaks to Robin Roberts in an ABC News interview. (Screenshot: ABC News)

Coming Home: Brittney Griner Speaks Her Truth

Brittney Griner says she thought about killing herself during the first few weeks she spent in a Russian jail, during her grueling 10-month wrongful detention in Russia in 2022. Now, 17 months after her release, Griner’s still recovering from the trauma; her healing includes mental health support from a therapist.

In a new memoir, “Coming Home,” released May 7, the WNBA All Star and two-time Olympic Gold medalist details how she navigated the punishing Russian penal system and how her life as a Black queer woman and the discrimination that entails had perhaps given her some resilience to face the arduousness of that ordeal.

Griner also writes at length about her life, coming out, her career, her family and her wife Cherelle, who fought for her release. Griner details how she was mentally and physically humiliated by guards, how she was in constant pain from not having a bed to accommodate her 6-foot-9 frame and being kept in too-small cages. She also explained her isolation and her physically punishing incarceration. She was even forced to cut her locs because it was so cold in the penal colony that her hair literally froze and was making her sick.

In two exclusive network and cable TV interviews, with ABC’s “GMA” anchor Robin Roberts, who is also a lesbian and a former basketball player, and MSNBC host Joy Ann Reid, Griner revealed herself to be funny, warm, self-effacing and deeply grateful for her release while other Americans are still in detention. She spoke at length with both women about the details of her incarceration, as well as with NPR’s Juana Summers. She shared how hopeless she felt and the harsh conditions of living in a Russian penal colony and how fearful she was after she was sentenced to a decade there.

Griner also talked about being targeted in Russia, where she was a well-known sports super star, having won multiple championships for her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, for whom she played for seven years, and how she thinks her being a well-known and easily identifiable figure led to her arrest mere days before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine.

Griner told Roberts, “I wanted to take my life more than once in the first weeks. I felt like leaving here so badly.”

“I did not feel like a human at that point, and just everything was setting in on the unknown,” she told NPR’s “All Things Considered” in a May 6 interview with Summers. “I just sat there and thought about ending it — just came up with a plan on how I could do it.”

Griner said one thing that kept her from taking her life was how her wife and family would respond and the pain it would cause them. She also said she feared Russian authorities would not release her body to her family. “What is my mom gonna say? What is my dad, my brother, my sister, my wife…I couldn’t do that to them. I’m already locked up abroad. I can’t add any more stress to them like that.”

As PGN first reported just days after Griner’s detention, Griner was headed to what was planned to be her final season with Russia’s EuroLeague team when she — a 6’9″ Black woman with long braids — was pulled out of the customs line for a “random” luggage check. That search revealed two small vape cartridges, with traces of prescription cannabis oil that Griner takes for pain related to injuries she’s sustained.

After months of languishing in a jail outside Moscow, including two months awaiting the U.S. State Department decision to deem her detention wrongful, Griner was convicted on drug charges and sentenced to nearly a decade in a Russian penal colony. Between her pre-trial detention and sentence, Griner was held for 10 months before a prisoner swap with notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout secured her release.

Griner said her initial arrest was terrifying. “Oh my God, it was kind of like one of those moments people talk about before a crash or something, and you see your life flash [before your eyes], or it’s just like the breath is completely took out of your lungs,” she said. “That’s the exact feeling. And I literally started contemplating everything that could go wrong.”

And go wrong it did. Griner only speaks a few Russian phrases and there was no one to translate for her after she was held at the Moscow airport. She texted her wife, Cherelle, and then she says papers were forced at her to sign. She thought they would mean her release, that perhaps she’d have to pay a fine. She had no idea what she was signing as she would explain in court months later.

Griner described the conditions where she was incarcerated and where guards made her stand outside for punishment.

“I’ll never forget the first day walking into quarantine and literally seeing some scissors and a pretty nice-sized knife just sitting on the table. And I’m like, ‘Well, this is already different.’ One person barely spoke English a little bit. So it was a lot of pointing and just unknown. Not knowing if my lawyer knows where I’m at, or if anyone knows where I’m at.”

She said, “I basically had to drink this milky sediment water that came out of the sink. Just the isolation, the most filthiest place you can think of times 10. And on top of the blistering cold and having to stand outside, it was very harsh.”

Things were grim. Griner said she had no toothbrush, no soap, no necessities.

“I literally had two shirts, sweats and a hoodie. And my shoes on my feet. And I had to take a shirt and rip it up into different pieces to use to clean myself, wash off with. It was the most degrading and just flat-out dirtiest I’ve ever felt in my whole entire life. I did not feel like a human at that point.”

In both her book and interviews, Griner said there were parallels between her freedom being taken from her in prison and the restrictions she feels in her life as a Black lesbian. She said, “I’ve definitely seen the other side of being discriminated against just being part of the LGBT community and being a Black athlete and being told that I need to shut up and play, I’m just an athlete, I just need to be grateful.”

She spoke about the reason she was in Russia to begin with: “The pay inequity that we have in between our league and the men’s league — quite frankly, that’s why I was even in Russia in the first place, to make up that pay gap that we have here, unfortunately.”

Griner said before she was released, she was forced to write a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“They made me write this letter. It was in Russian,” she said. “I had to ask for forgiveness and thanks from their so-called great leader. I didn’t want to do it, but at the same time, I wanted to come home.”

Griner said she was upset when she boarded the plane for the prisoner swap and discovered that Paul Whelan, another American who has been detained in Russia, wasn’t with her.

“I walked on and didn’t see him, maybe he’s next. Maybe they will bring him next,” she said. “They closed the door and I was like, are you serious? You’re not going to let this man come home now?”

Griner has become an advocate for political prisoners like she was since her release.

After all the months without contact with her wife Cherelle, Griner says being reunited with her was “Breathtaking. It just reminded me of the first time I ever saw her on campus. It was just, I didn’t think I was going to see her again anytime soon. I thought it was going to be a good nine years before I saw my person. When I saw her through the window, I immediately broke down. I couldn’t get off that plane quick enough. I’ll never forget that. It was just hugging, hugging, hugging and just holding each other crying.”

The couple is expecting their first child, a boy, Griner revealed. “So I’m just looking forward to parenthood and just enjoying every single moment of it.”

The two-time Olympic Gold medalist also hopes to represent the U.S. at the Olympics in Paris this summer. She told NPR “that will be an amazing return back to overseas and represent my country that literally came to my rescue. I wouldn’t be here without my country. And to go and potentially win another gold medal for us, it’s just going to mean so much standing on that podium and watching the flag go up.”

An essay by Griner titled, “The day I landed in Russia and wound up in prison,” appeared in the Washington Post May 8. Another piece by Brittney Griner, “What I Endured in a Russian Prison,” appeared in TIME May 3.

Griner plays for the Phoenix Mercury. The WNBA season begins on May 14. Her book is available everywhere.

Story courtesy of Philadelphia Gay News via the National LGBTQ Media Association. The National LGBTQ Media Association represents 13 legacy publications in major markets across the country with a collective readership of more than 400K in print and more than 1 million + online. Learn more here: