WNBA to give Brittney Griner 'some time and space' before 're-engaging with the WNBA and our players'

Brittney Griner is in United States custody and on her way home following a 10-month detainment and eventual imprisonment in Russia after the U.S. government agreed to exchange international arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner.

And while many will want to hear from the professional basketball star, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the league will give Griner privacy, space and time to reunite with her family and heal from the trauma she endured in Russia before she returns to the spotlight.

"We're obviously going to respect the privacy of this very critical time in her coming back home," Engelbert said in a news conference Thursday afternoon. "Obviously, I'd love to call her. I'd love to see her. We're going to give her the appropriate space and time for that. And then follow, again, what Brittney and her family want to do about re-engaging with the WNBA and our players.

"... It's been a long ordeal, a horrible ordeal," Engelbert added. "Really looking forward to her return and hearing her voice."

President Joe Biden echoed these sentiments when he announced the news of Griner's release alongside Griner's wife, Cherelle, and Vice President Kamala Harris on Thursday morning.

"I’m glad to be able to say that Brittney’s in good spirits. She’s relieved to finally be heading home," Biden said. "And the fact remains that she’s lost months of her life, experienced needless trauma and she deserves space, privacy and time with her loved ones to recover and heal from her time being wrongfully detained."

Thursday's news is only the beginning of the end of Griner's suffering, and the gravity of the hardship she experienced was not lost on Engelbert. The WNBA commissioner explained that the league won't "bombard Brittney" and that she'll undergo an "evaluation and care through, kind of, call it a repatriation system here in the U.S. through government resources" upon her return to American soil.

Griner is flying from Abu Dhabi International Airport in the United Arab Emirates, where the prisoner exchange reportedly took place, to a military medical facility in San Antonio to undergo a health check, according to NBC News.

Engelbert added that mental health resources will be available to Griner from the league and the WNBA Players Association when the time is right and Griner is ready for them.

"We have our mental health resources certainly ready. But let's let her get home, reunite with her family, go through the processes that she'll go through." Engelbert said. "... Again, we're going to give her some time and space but she'll know we're all ready to help emotionally, mentally, physically — all of that has to be evaluated and then we'll certainly be there for her and use our mental health resources at both the NBA, WNBA to help in any way she would need, just like we have available for our players."

Griner last played basketball on Oct. 17, 2021, during the WNBA Finals between her Phoenix Mercury and the eventual champion Chicago Sky. Griner played 41 total games for the Mercury in 2021 and averaged 20.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game during the regular season where she made her seventh All-Star roster. Griner averaged 21.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game during 11 playoff matches.

Like many WNBA players, Griner also played a lot of basketball overseas during the offseason. She's played for UMMC Ekaterinburg of the Russian Premier League since 2014 and was arrested at Sheremetyevo Airport near Moscow on Feb. 17 while traveling to play for Ekaterinburg. The implications of why Griner was playing internationally at all with were not lost on Engelbert.

"I've been a big advocate for letting the players do what they want to do with their offseason. This is their time to figure out what they want to do. But we're also chipping away at the economic model and growing the league," Engelbert said. "I think the players are going to do what they think is best for themselves but we definitely inform them all the time of the security risks of where they might be playing."

Griner's mental health will be a major part of her road to recovery and any possible return to the court.

Cherelle Griner told CBS News in October that her wife was “at her absolute weakest moment in life" after she pleaded guilty to drug charges in July and faced a nine-year prison sentence. She was then transferred to a Russian penal colony in the Mordovia region — about 300 miles southeast of Moscow — in November after her appeal was denied. Yahoo Sports' Jeff Eisenberg wrote Griner likely would have endured "exhausting workdays and extreme isolation."

As Engelbert explained, mental health resources will be made available to Griner. And this is something Griner has used in the past, too. She lauded the WNBA's efforts after she voluntarily left the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Florida during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Griner said counseling "helped me out tremendously" following her exit and it opened her eyes to the greater conversation surrounding mental health.

Griner's return to the U.S. is huge in her path back to normalcy. And Engelbert made it clear she'll have the WNBA's full support for as long as it takes.

The WNBA will give Brittney Griner her space following her 10-month-long detainment. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
The WNBA will give Brittney Griner her space following her 10-month-long detainment. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)