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Brittney Griner is back home and she intends to play basketball this season

By Abby Phillip and Ray Sanchez, CNN

Brittney Griner departed a medical military facility in Texas on Friday and returned home to Arizona, vowing in an Instagram post to play in the WNBA this season as she took another step in her reintegration into American life after her detention in Russia.

“It feels so good to be home! The last 10 months have been a battle at every turn,” she wrote in her post. “I dug deep to keep my faith and it was the love from so many of you that helped keep me going. From the bottom of my heart, thank you to everyone for your help.”

Griner, 32, said she was “grateful to each person who advocated for me” and thanked the staff at the Texas military facility she briefly called home. She also remembered another foreign prisoner in Russia whose release could not be secured in the prisoner swap that secured her freedom.

“President Biden, you brought me home and I know you are committed to bringing Paul Whelan and all Americans home too,” she said. “I will use my platform to do whatever I can to help you. I also encourage everyone that played a part in bringing me home to continue their efforts to bring all Americans home. Every family deserves to be whole.”

Griner plans to return to WNBA’s Mercury

Griner took off from San Antonio around 11 a.m. on Friday, CNN confirmed via her agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas.

As she boarded the plane, Griner was greeted by Phoenix Mercury GM Jim Pitman, team president Vince Kozar and teammate Diana Taurasi. They made a surprise appearance to welcome her home.

Griner was headed back to Arizona, though her representatives would not confirm exactly where, citing security concerns. CNN previously reported that Griner and her wife, Cherelle, had already made plans to move upon her return to the United States.

“I also want to make one thing very clear: I intend to play basketball for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury this season, and in doing so, I look forward to being able to say ‘thank you’ to those of you who advocated, wrote, and posted for me in person soon,” Griner said.

The two-time Olympic gold medalist was released last week in a prisoner swap after nearly 300 days in Russian custody.

Her detention, after Russian officials found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage, became an international cause during a tense time in relations between Washington and Moscow. US officials deemed it a wrongful detention.

She had traveled to Russia to play basketball in the WNBA offseason and was arrested on drug smuggling charges at an airport in the Moscow region on February 17.

Despite her testimony that she had inadvertently packed the cannabis oil in her luggage, Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison in early August and was moved to a penal colony in the Mordovia republic in mid-November after losing her appeal.

A delicate diplomatic dance between US and Russia

The Mercury center became a pawn in Russia’s war in Ukraine and returned to the US on December 9 after the prisoner swap for notorious convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

For months, a delicate diplomatic dance played out between the US and Russia, which waged war in Ukraine. The US enacted sanctions in response to the conflict while diplomats kept open lines of communication with Moscow over prisoner negotiations.

President Joe Biden said efforts to bring Griner home took “painstaking and intense negotiations.”

In a scene out of a spy thriller, the one-for-one prisoner swap occurred on a tarmac in Abu Dhabi on December 8.

Once on US soil, one of Griner’s first moves was a dunk on a Texas basketball court, according to Colas.

She donned a pair of black Chuck Taylor shoes, Phoenix Suns shorts and a T-shirt touting Title IX as she returned to the court after a long hiatus. Months ago, in pre-trial detention in Russia, Griner was offered a basketball and a hoop but declined to play, Colas said.

Griner also got a haircut to clean up what family and friends jokingly called her “Russian fade.” Her long, signature dreadlocks were cut while in captivity as she continuously battled the flu because her wet hair kept freezing, according to Colas.

A bittersweet return

Still, her return has been somewhat bittersweet. Griner is heartbroken that Whelan is still detained, her agent said.

Whelan is a US, Irish, British and Canadian citizen who is imprisoned in a Russian penal colony after he was arrested in December 2018 on espionage charges, which he has denied. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

Like Griner, Whelan has been declared wrongfully detained by US officials.

Griner is eager to use her power and influence to help others, especially Whelan, according to her agent.

“She is thinking about his family and talked about her intention to call them as soon as she gets home,” Colas told CNN. “She’s really committed to telling this story and making sure that this population of wrongfully detained Americans, that people know their names.”

Griner stayed at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio for a week for routine evaluation. She stayed with her wife in a residential facility on the base. A Christmas tree decorated their living space.

“I appreciate the time and care to make sure I was okay and equipped with the tools for this new journey,” she wrote on Instagram, referring to staff at the San Antonio base.

Her arrest and conviction brought attention to the plight of other Americans in Russian custody, including Whelan and Trevor Reed.

Whelan’s release could not be secured in the latest prisoner swap, while Reed returned to the US in April after a nearly three-year ordeal.

The Griner prisoner exchange prompted criticism from Republicans, who accused the Biden administration of releasing a dangerous prisoner back to Russia while not securing Whelan’s release.

In multiple engagements over the past weeks and months, Russian officials made clear that releasing Bout was the only way they would free Griner from her detention.

Her flight to Arizona Friday is just one more step in her reintegration.

She opted into the Department of Defense’s post-isolation program, which other wrongfully detained Americans, including Reed, have participated in, according to Colas. The program focuses on helping formerly captive people regain a sense of control over their lives after lengthy detentions.

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