Brittney Griner on what she endured. : Consider This from NPR Brittney Griner didn't know the flight she was taking to Moscow in February 2022 would upend her life. But even before she left for the airport, Griner felt something was off.

It was a premonition that foreshadowed a waking nightmare.

She had accidentally left two vape cartridges with traces of cannabis oil in her luggage. What followed was nearly 10 months of struggle in a cell, and diplomatic efforts from the U.S. to get her home.

Griner reflects on the experience in her new memoir, 'Coming Home' and discusses it in depth with NPR's Juana Summers.

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Brittney Griner shares her experience behind bars in Russia

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JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The flight that Brittney Griner took to Moscow in February 2022 would upend her life. And Griner says even before she left for the airport, she felt like something was off.

BRITTNEY GRINER: I felt like the universe was kind of telling me like, hey, don't go, from waking up late to couldn't find my phone.

SUMMERS: Griner, of course, was a star for the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury. In the off-season, she was also a star on a Russian EuroLeague team, a job that paid her many times more than her WNBA salary. She was flying to Russia to rejoin her teammates for what she thought might be her last season there.

GRINER: It was just so many things that was like, hey, don't go, but I had to finish what I started, though.

SUMMERS: So she boarded her flight. When she arrived at the airport in Moscow and went through customs, an officer asked her to empty her bag, and she realized she had accidentally left two vape cartridges with traces of cannabis oil in her luggage. It was prescribed by a doctor, but in Russia, it's illegal.

GRINER: Oh, my God. It's kind of, like, one of those moments, like, people talk about before, like, a crash or something, and you see, like, your life flash or it's just, like, the breath is completely took out of your lungs. That's the exact feeling - like, I don't know, elevator and it just fell. And I literally started contemplating everything that could go wrong.

SUMMERS: Of course, a lot did go wrong.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner was apparently detained last month. This video released...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Brittney Griner's detention in Russia has been extended now, based on reports...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Brittney Griner convicted today on drug charges in Russia.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Today, a Russian judge gave her a nine-year sentence after finding...

SUMMERS: CONSIDER THIS - Brittney Griner spent nearly 10 months in detention in Russia. For the first time, she is sharing details of what she experienced. We'll hear from her after the break.

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SUMMERS: From NPR, I'm Juana Summers.

It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR.

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SUMMERS: Brittney Griner was first detained in February 2022. That was just a week before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The relationship between Russia and the U.S. was getting progressively more hostile. And so Griner became, in her words, a chess piece in a showdown between superpowers. And while that geopolitical chess match unfolded in news stories across the world, Griner lived through a very lonely, very painful detention.

GRINER: It was very harsh.

SUMMERS: In her new memoir "Coming Home," Griner details mental and physical humiliation in Russian custody. She recounts constant pain from squeezing her 6-foot-9 frame into cramped beds and cages and cutting her locs because it was so cold that her hair literally froze.

GRINER: I did not feel like a human.

SUMMERS: The U.S. negotiated her release in a prisoner swap for a convicted arms dealer, and Griner returned home in December 2022. In my interview with her, we talked about what she went through in Russia and the challenges she's continued to face since coming home. Here's our conversation.

For those that may be hearing these details, this part of your story for the first time, can you describe some of the conditions in situations that you faced first in detention, then during your trial and later in the labor camp?

GRINER: Yeah. The detention center - I'll never forget the first day walking into quarantine and literally see 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 to - I basically had to drink this milky sediment water that came out of the sink. Just the isolation, the super just filthy - the most filthiest place you can think of times 10, you know, those conditions on top of the blistering cold and having to stand outside.

SUMMERS: You wrote that, at one point, you had thoughts of ending your life. How often did you feel like that?

GRINER: Definitely when I got put in the county cell, and I had literally nothing - no toothbrush, no soap, no necessities, nothing. 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. Everything was setting in on the unknown. I didn't know anything at that point. Like, it was very early on. And I just sat there and thought about ending it, just came up with a plan on how I could do it. But you know, after a couple of days, you know, and just thinking about it, you know, what is my mom going to say? You know, what is my dad, my brother, my sister, my wife - you know, I couldn't do that to them. I already am locked up abroad. I can't add any more stress to them like that.

SUMMERS: You write about your time in Russian detention in prison, but you also talked so much about the ways in which you had already been denied certain privileges and freedoms because of your appearance, because you're a Black queer woman. And, I don't know, I can't help but see some clear parallels between those two situations.

GRINER: Yeah. You know, I've definitely seen the other side of being discriminated against, you know, with just being part of the LGBT community and being a Black athlete and, you know, being told, you know, that I need to shut up and play. I'm just an athlete. I just need to be grateful. The pay inequity that we have in between our league and the men's league - and, I mean, 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.

SUMMERS: I want to ask you about that pay gap. I mean, we're in this moment that is an incredible celebration of women's sports, of women's basketball, due to some of the superstars in the college game who recently were drafted, people like Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese. And yet this pay gap that you've discussed prominently still persists. How do you square those things? How are you feeling about this moment for your sport?

GRINER: I mean, I'm feeling hopeful for sure. I mean, just this last March Madness, you know, the ratings definitely showed that people are tuning in to the women's game. We've come a long way, and, you know, we're starting to get into those rooms and being able to advocate for ourselves, you know, with Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, even the younger ones coming up - Paige and JuJu. It's just going to keep getting better. We're just going to keep growing and keep pushing the envelope.

SUMMERS: There is this moment that you write about in the book that I'm hoping is a story you can tell us. It's when you and Cherelle were reunited on the tarmac in San Antonio after you spent 293 days separated from one another.

GRINER: Yeah.

SUMMERS: What was that like?

GRINER: Breathtaking. It was just - kind of 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, you know, 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. I just remember I was just hugging, hugging, hugging, just holding each other, crying. And then, you know, I was like, all right, let's get off this tarmac. Let's get inside.

SUMMERS: I mean, I just can't even imagine, given how much it's clear that you two love each other from what you've written, living with that uncertainty of not knowing when you're going to see your person again. What was it that got you through those days when you just didn't know?

GRINER: Just relying on my faith, honestly. And it definitely grew more while I was gone. I was just coming into honestly my faith with my wife. She was helping me with that. That's why I always say she saved my life in so many ways. You know, she opened my eyes to religion in a positive way 'cause there was a lot of days where I just didn't have the energy. I just didn't have the willpower. I had to give it to something higher than me and just believe and hope.

SUMMERS: After what you've been through, how do you cope when you hear people suggest that you don't deserve to be home with your wife, with your family, to be back with your teammates?

GRINER: It hurts. It definitely hurts. I mean, I'm human, so it hurts a little bit. But at the end of the day, you know, everyone's entitled to their own opinion, and, you know, I can't let it affect me. But I will say this. If it was up to me and it was in my hands, everybody that was in Russia would have came back. And I remember getting on that plane when I did get the chance to come back, and, you know, I was really hopeful that, you know, Paul was on that plane with me.

SUMMERS: You're talking there about Paul Whelan, who's among the other Americans who has not been able to return home yet.

GRINER: Yes, ma'am.

SUMMERS: Throughout the book, you wrote so movingly about the guilt that you felt and about the fact that something that was an honest mistake, as you've said, led to months away from your wife and family, months under the conditions that you've been telling us about. And you also wrote about how, despite getting forgiveness from your family, from your wife, it was hard to let go of that guilt. How did you get to a place where you felt able to let that go and to forgive yourself, if you have?

GRINER: A lot of counseling. A lot of the counseling was just therapy, talking. Everybody kept telling me to, you know, give myself grace, and that was the hardest thing to do because at the end of the day, you know, my dad taught me, you just take ownership for things that you've done, like, willingly and unwillingly. So I had to take responsibility. And it was just - it's really hard. I think at times, I still feel like I haven't forgiven myself, honestly, because I'm just, like, I robbed my family of time with me. You know, I robbed my wife of, you know, those special moments - graduating and just being there for her. That's probably my last healing piece that I will hopefully get to eventually.

SUMMERS: Yeah. How are you thinking about the future, Brittney?

GRINER: I mean, when I think of the future, I think it's going to be good. You know, we have a little one on the way.

SUMMERS: Congratulations.

GRINER: Me and my wife, we're - thank you. We're expecting a little boy on the way. So I'm just looking forward to parenthood and just enjoying every single moment of it. And, you know, all the talks my dad and mom gave me growing up and just saying, you know, one day you'll understand how much we worry and why we worry and why we give you lectures - and I'm already worrying about my kid, and, you know, they haven't even got here yet. I mean, they're here, but we're not at the birth date yet, so - but I'm already starting to worry. I'm starting to see what they mean and just enjoying every moment we can.

SUMMERS: Last year you said that you would not play overseas again unless you were representing the United States in the Olympics. And the Paris Games, they're less than 100 days away. You think that's going to be on the cards for you?

GRINER: I hope so because that will be an amazing return back to overseas and to represent my country that literally came to my rescue. I wouldn't be here without my country. And to go and win - potentially win another gold medal for us would - it's just going to mean so much standing on that podium and watching our flag go up.

SUMMERS: We've been speaking with Brittney Griner about her memoir "Coming Home." Brittney, thank you for your time.

GRINER: Ah, thank you so much.

SUMMERS: If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing or texting 988.

This episode was produced by Elena Burnett and Connor Donevan with audio engineering by Phil Edfors. It was edited by Ashley Brown and Courtney Dorning. Our executive producer is Sami Yenigun.

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SUMMERS: It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. I'm Juana Summers.

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