Brittney Griner reflects on 'Coming Home' after 293 days in a Russian prison The WNBA star, who is six feet, nine inches, says she felt like a zoo animal in prison. "The guards would literally come open up the little peep hole, look in, and then I would hear them laughing."

Brittney Griner reflects on 'Coming Home' after nearly 300 days in a Russian prison

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's been less than 1 1/2 years since my guest, WNBA star Brittney Griner, was released from a Russian penal colony, where she was serving a nine-year sentence. She'd already spent 293 days incarcerated in Russian prisons. Now she's preparing for her second season reunited with her team, the Phoenix Mercury.

Like many WNBA players, her salary was so low that back in 2014, in the off-season, she started playing for a team in Russia, where the pay was considerably better than in the U.S. She continued playing in Russia during the off-season until 2022. Then when she arrived at the airport in Moscow, she was unexpectedly stopped, questioned and asked to empty the contents of her luggage. She discovered that there were two nearly empty cartridges of cannabis that she'd neglected to remove before the trip.

She had a prescription for medical marijuana to ease the chronic pain of basketball injuries. But in Russia, there's no such thing as medical marijuana, and she was accused of having a significant amount of cannabis, which was just not true. Her imprisonment made national headlines, and a movement formed to demand her release. The Biden administration eventually was able to negotiate a prisoner swap. In return for releasing Griner, America handed over Viktor Bout, an infamous Russian arms dealer known as the Merchant of Death.

Griner is a women's basketball star. In her senior year playing for the Baylor Lady Bears, she was named the most outstanding player of the Final Four. She was the WNBA's No. 1 overall draft pick in 2013. The following year, her team won the WNBA Championship. She holds the WNBA record for most dunks. She won Olympic gold medals in 2016 and 2020. Now that she's reunited with her wife, they're expecting a baby in about three months. Brittney Griner has a new memoir called "Coming Home."

Brittney Griner, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on your freedom. Congratulations on playing again. Congratulations on being reunited with your wife and on expecting a baby.

BRITTNEY GRINER: Thank you so much. I'm glad to be here right now.

GROSS: I just want to say before we start for real, that I know because you write about this that when you got back from your imprisonment in Russia, you had trouble - you kind of withdrew for a while and had trouble even talking with your wife about what you'd experienced because it was so traumatic. And I know you've written a memoir, but it's one thing to work on a book and another to be interviewed on mic. So if I ask anything that would be too traumatizing, too upsetting to talk about, I hope you'll let me know, and that way, I can be guided and drop it.

GRINER: All right, thank you so much. I appreciate that.

GROSS: So let's start with, how are you now? How are you physically?

GRINER: Physically I'm doing good now. Doing better than definitely when I first came back. There was a lot of growing pains and just getting the body back into normal shape and then trying to get it back into athletic shape.

GROSS: Has your back recovered - you had cracked your back in high school playing basketball, and I wasn't sure when you said you cracked your back, whether that meant you broke a bone or displaced a disk?

GRINER: It was a disk, vertebrae, kind of smashed together a little bit. I went up - went up actually for a dunk and it got hit in the air and came down really bad. But definitely better now. I I have a little flare up here and there, but it's just all the years of play.

GROSS: Yeah. And you have no cartilage left in your knees from playing. You also had a bad ankle and leg injury from a game in 2017. And you're right that all this pain came back when you were put in cages way too small for you and you couldn't straighten out. This happened, you know, during long car rides and, you know, at times in detention - in the courtroom, you were really uncomfortable. Can you describe some of the most uncomfortable positions you were put in? And particularly for you who are 6-foot-9, you know, a confined, small space is really terrible. Yeah.

GRINER: It's not ideal. I'll tell you that. I mean, the beds that we had to sleep on - I mean, I basically had just metal rods going up my back, you know, every night, just trying to find somewhere comfortable to lay. But it's really no way you can lay when the mattress is just a little bit of fabric and some stuffing in it. Those metal rods go right through, basically.

But one of my - one of the toughest times honestly is probably the transportation, going back and forth from the detention center to court and then from court back to the detention center. You're inside this small - it's like a small van. And in that van, there's little metal cages around the outside? I do not fit. There was a couple of rods and a couple of different vehicles that they would switch up. And literally to close the door, I had to pick my legs up and they would shut the door, and then my knees would literally be on the metal door frame for about an hour, hour and a half, to get from the detention center down to the courthouse.

GROSS: And then did you have to live with residual pain for a long time after that?

GRINER: Definitely. I mean, my knees - that first year coming back from all that, not being able to move, not being able to stretch out, and then being forced, you know, my knees up against these metal doors, I definitely felt it. There was a lot of pain that would just come back.

GROSS: How are you emotionally now?

GRINER: I have my moments. You know, I definitely say it's like a roller coaster. I'm starting to string together a lot more better days now than before. It'll just be a thought that'll pop up in my head sometimes or a dream. And then that turns into just a restless night or just my mood being a little bit off. But it's definitely getting better now. It's something that I've learned to kind of deal with and cope with.

GROSS: You had been having a lot of nightmares. What would happen in your nightmares?

GRINER: So I have this one re occurring dream where something was wrong with paperwork or something was wrong, and I had to go back to the embassy in Russia, actually. And when I go back, they take me, and I'm stuck right back in the cell that I was in, and there's no talk of coming back. So it's just right back into the place where I spent most of the time.

GROSS: Earlier in your book, you write about how before basketball, there was no place for you because you're - six-nine or six-eight. I want to get it right.

GRINER: Six-nine.

GROSS: Six-nine. Yeah. So were you that tall in high school, too?

GRINER: I grew the extra inch once I got out of high school and into college. Went into ninth grade six-foot, graduated six-seven, grew two more when in college.

GROSS: It's a lot of growing (laughter).

GRINER: A lot of growing - a lot of growing, a lot of new clothes. I wasn't mad about that (laughter).

GROSS: And also, you didn't develop breasts. And people always thought, oh, you're really a boy, or later, oh, you're really a man. And you were asked to leave women's bathrooms because people assumed you were a man. You were...

GRINER: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: And you write, you were mistaken for what society fears most - a Black man, a big Black man. When you were younger, before you were a basketball star, did you constantly have to explain yourself?

GRINER: Always, always. I mean, I just made a habit very, very young on just making sure I'd use the bathroom before I leave the house and, you know, wait 'til I'm in my locker room where I know I'm safe. I would leave class and go to the locker room and use the bathroom. When I'm at my gym, it's in our locker room. You know, I've made this habit now that it's a little bit easier to do now, but I still don't like having to use public bathrooms because I've been chased after, literally had security come into the bathroom come into the bathroom to get me out of there. And I'm just like, y'all, like, I'm a female. I know you probably don't think I look like one, but I am. And I've literally pulled my pants down and flashed them like - and they're like, oh, my God. I'm so sorry.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GRINER: I'm so sorry. You know, like...

GROSS: What a ridiculous position...

GRINER: It's not like I can flash my chest (laughter).

GROSS: ...To have to be in. Yeah. Right. It's not like you could flash your chest. Right. And in basketball, your height was an asset, and you were special. What did you fall in love with about basketball?

GRINER: It was just a way for me to channel anxiety, anger, anything. It gave me a focus. Basketball helped me be able to relate to a wide range of people because, you know, you're not going to like everybody on your team. Like, it's just life. Like, you're not going to like everyone. And you have to learn how to work towards a common goal together. And I think that can be applied to life. I really like that and being challenged, you know? Like, there's always someone bigger and better coming along. There's always someone gunning for you. So you either evolve, or you get left behind. And I love being able to stay in the game as long as I have. And hopefully, I have a longer career.

GROSS: Well, you played in Russia for eight seasons, you know, largely 'cause you needed the money 'cause, especially back when you started, women's basketball - pro ball was paid very little. I think things have improved a little, but proportionate to the NBA, there's no comparison. And in Russia, some of the teams are run by oligarchs. So, like, there was money. But, of course, the last time you went, you were detained and arrested.

You didn't want to go. You wanted to stay home with your wife, and you kind of had a bad feeling. And you decided, OK, this was going to be your last season in Russia. You had just gotten over COVID. You were still coughing. Do you think you had a premonition?

GRINER: I definitely think the universe was telling me to stay at home, honestly. And it was something that I promised myself - that I would always listen to my intuition. No matter how big or small I think it is, I'm definitely going to listen to it 'cause there was just so many signs of, you know, don't go. But I just heard that voice in the back of my head.

You know, I grew up on the morals of, you finish what you start. And, you know, I never want to leave my teammates in a bad position. And we were right there. We were about to go win EuroLeague and Russian league, you know, like we always have. So I just wanted to finish it out and then let that be the end.

GROSS: Yeah. And you had packed in a hurry. You threw things in your luggage and didn't check to see if anything was in the pockets. And that's where the two mostly used-up cartridges of cannabis were. And, you know, you had the prescription because of your pain from basketball injuries. You were stopped at the Russian airport. And it sounds like that was not typical, but there was a whole lot of security people there. I'm wondering if that was because this was a week before the war in Ukraine started, before Russia started the war in Ukraine. Do you think that there were special security alerts because of that?

GRINER: I mean, definitely a great possibility 'cause, you know, they knew what they were about to do. They knew they were about to invade. And, yeah, I mean, I've made this trip multiple times in a season. You know, we come back two or three times within one season - been there eight years. So I've never seen so much security - both sides open, dogs. It was very random. And, you know, everybody that was getting pulled to the side looked either American or, you know, non-Russian. And, you know, all the Russians were basically just walking through the middle, not getting checked. So it was definitely something that I for sure noticed.

GROSS: Do you think you were targeted?

GRINER: It's hard to say yes or no to that. But, you know, my feeling - I think maybe not me per se, but an American - I think that was a big plus for them.

GROSS: What was the first thought that went through your mind about what this was going to mean for the rest of your life?

GRINER: Life-changing. I definitely just had a moment of just all the horrible thoughts of just never seeing my family, being dragged through the media, through the news outlets, you know, everyone putting in their opinion and all the naysayers, you know, having ammunition to just start spewing out all these things about me that - people who've never even seen me or they don't even know who I am.

GROSS: Yeah. OK. We need to take a short break here. So let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brittney Griner, and her new memoir is called "Coming Home." We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with WNBA star Brittney Griner. It's been less than 1 1/2 years since she was released from a Russian penal colony after spending nearly 300 days incarcerated. She's written a new memoir called "Coming Home."

You were able to get a good Russian lawyer and then another lawyer to help, too. And your lawyer was able to rent you an apartment nearby the courthouse so that when you were put under house arrest, you'd have a place nearby to stay.

GRINER: Well, my team.

GROSS: Your team.

GRINER: My team.

GROSS: Yeah. Oh, your team found that.

GRINER: Yes, my team.

GROSS: Yeah, OK, your basketball team. But you were given no bail, no house arrest. You were considered a flight risk. So that was, like, crushing. And then you found out you needed to stay in detention for a minimum of 30 days. And then after that time, you were moved to a correctional colony. And I want you to describe what the conditions were like there.

GRINER: So the - I mean, the detention center and the penal colony, IK-2, that I ended up in once I got my nine years - I mean, the conditions were horrible. I mean, trying to find clean water, trying to figure out how to buy water from commissary - that took - I mean, that probably took me about a month, two months to figure out how to even buy, you know, water - bottled water. And then the games began because I was buying so much water. Then I was told, oh, well, there's a limit on how much you can buy, how much you can store in the room 'cause I was buying so much water because our water that everyone uses comes from the bathroom sink. And that water that comes out that sink is just a milky - it looks like a milky water because there's just so much sediment and calcium and just rust because everything is rusted.

Trying to be able to have food because what they serve you is - I wouldn't even give it to a stray animal. Like, it's just disgusting. The bowls that they serve the food out of, you can see the paint chipping, the rust in it. The bed - how cold it is. One of the things that I noticed when I came back that I hate being cold because it was so cold there. They have these little radiators on the walls, but the whole room is metal and concrete. So it's just like being in a ice box.

GROSS: And you were there during Russian winter.

GRINER: Oh, yes, the blistering cold Russian winter. You know, once we were at IK-2, the penal colony, you have morning check every morning and every night, you have morning (ph) check. Well, they have everyone line up outside in the courtyard, and they come by, and they count us one by one. It's very old-school counting of us. And you're out there for about an hour, hour and a half, in literally blistering cold, blizzard, doesn't matter. Snow literally was building up on my shoulders and my head where people would have to, like, knock it off.

GROSS: Would you describe what bathing and toileting was like in the prison?

GRINER: Oof. So you have three toilets and one shower to serve 50-plus women. Then there's no hot water. You literally - I had a bucket and a ladle, so you would take a kettle, like a tea kettle, warm up water out the sink, pour it into the bowl, into the bucket. You take the bucket and the ladle into the shower, you squat down in the shower, and you just scoop and pour, and that's how you take a shower. And you have about maybe 5 minutes because you have about 10, 12 other women waiting in the bathroom area to get into that shower. Not everyone showers though. So some people - picture like a big farmhouse-like sink with multiple faucets on it. So people be over there washing chest, washing their armpits, kicking their feet in the sink. You're next to them, brushing your teeth.

You have people washing all kind of body parts. The toilets are side by side and in front of you. There was five toilets in there, but only three work. So you had a neighbor right beside you and someone right in front of you. And there's no walls. So it's very intimate. You get to know your roommates very well, very personally, which was insane to say the least.

GROSS: I thought it was both upsetting and hilarious that the toothpaste you were given expired in 2007?

GRINER: Yes. You have old toothpaste that they give you. So if your family can't help you, and you can't buy things, you just have to live with expired stuff. But we would use the expired toothpaste. We would put it on the mold on the walls because it would help kill the mold growing on the walls.

GROSS: Oh, gee (laughter).

GRINER: Yeah. Yeah. You get really resourceful.

GROSS: You were in a cell with two other women. One of them became a close friend. She spoke good English and translated everything for you, including TV programs because you were allowed to watch TV, but it was mostly Russian propaganda. And then the other roommate you figured out was a spy. I have a question about the Russian propaganda channel. I want you to describe the clip of Joe Biden, President Biden, at the podium where he kind of turns into Hitler.

GRINER: Yeah. So it was channel four. He was up talking, addressing the nation, and they started to distort his voice and literally there was two big American flags right beside him. Well, the Nazi flag comes down over the American flag. And I immediately jumped up and I was like, Alana (ph), please, what's going on? And she was just like, ah, the propaganda channel. You know, they're just talking crap about your president. And I was just blown away. I never in a million years thought I would see something like that. It was just crazy. Like, even the talk shows, like, she would tell me sometimes about, you know, different things that...

GROSS: She's your roommate who was - your cellmate, I should say, who was translating for you?

GRINER: Yes. My cellmate that was translating everything for me, and she would tell me about just the different shows, how Nazi Germany is controlling America, and we want to come and take Russian land from everyone. A nd I was just like, wow.

GROSS: We need to take another break here. So let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brittney Griner, and she's written a new memoir called "Coming Home" about her life and about her imprisonment in Russia. We'll talk more after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DARRELL GRANT'S "FILS DU SOLEIL (FOR TONY WILLIAMS)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with WNBA star Brittney Griner. She's written a new memoir called "Coming Home." She came home after the Biden administration negotiated her release from a Russian penal colony. She had been sentenced to nine years after a luggage search at the airport in Moscow revealed two nearly empty cartridges of cannabis, which she'd forgotten to remove before the trip. She had a medical prescription to ease the pain of basketball injuries, but that didn't matter. Before she was freed, she'd spent nearly 300 days in Russian prisons. Griner is an NCAA and WNBA champion, has won two Olympic gold medals and holds the WNBA record for the most dunks.

With your cellmates who could speak English when you were in Russian prisons, what would you talk about?

GRINER: We'd talk about all kind of stuff, honestly. Me and Alana - she like cars, so we would talk about cars a lot. I remember we had this long debate for - (laughter) feel like weeks - about what make and model the car was in Supernatural, the TV show Supernatural.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GRINER: We would literally talk about any and everything. We would play games where I would say a letter. We would have a category like - I don't know - states. I would say, you know, T, and she would say Texas. And then I would have to say, like, a different one, like Tennessee. And we would play games like that. We would just try to come up with something to stay busy.

GROSS: Were most of the women in the prisons where you were there because of drug charges?

GRINER: Yes. The No. 1 thing everyone in Russia is in for is drug charges and then murders.

GROSS: Were you careful around the murderers?

GRINER: I didn't really even think about it, honestly, when I was in there. I mean, there was a couple of women that I was close to and I knew that they had attacked their husbands. And, you know, that was a very common thing. They had - in Russia, they relaxed their laws around domestic violence. And a lot of women ended up in really bad situations and, you know, they acted to get out of them. But I wasn't - I never was fearful of them doing anything to me.

GROSS: You know, one of the things that surprised me that I was grateful for is that there were no interrogations in which you were tortured with, like, electric shocks or waterboarding or, you know, anything like that. Were you worried that you would be exposed to that?

GRINER: Yes. After hearing stories from Alana, my roommate who, you know, was translating for me - she would tell me stories about, you know, the men's prison and how they actively will torture people. They use this little metal thing that we would use to warm our water up with. They would use that to torture people with sometimes. So I knew it was there. I just tried to make sure I didn't give them a reason to do it. You know, I tried to make sure I followed the rules, you know, I didn't act up. I just kind of stayed in good graces or at least tried to.

GROSS: Yeah. Do you think being Black and gay was held against you? And did they know that you were a lesbian?

GRINER: Oh, no, they definitely knew. You know, I had pictures of my wife in my little thing of photos that I had. You know, I was asked about her when I had to do a psychiatric test to prove that I was sane during my committed alleged crime. And one of the questions was, so how long have you had sick thoughts? You know, when did you decide to be gay? And I told them, I didn't decide, you know, and I don't - I've never had sick thoughts. And they would look at me after it was translated - they would look at me like, really? I'm like, yeah, I don't know what you think. I could tell their perception on the LGBTQ community is that we're just sick.

GROSS: What was the law?

GRINER: So, I mean, there's no marriages of same sex. And they were putting in laws, you know, banning it, that's for sure. You know, you can definitely go to jail for, as they would call it, showing, you know, homosexual acts in front of kids, like holding hands, kissing, promoting, protests - 'cause there have been protests there in Russia before, and they definitely will take you off to jail.

GROSS: Because they thought since you were a lesbian that therefore you had sick thoughts...

GRINER: Yes.

GROSS: ...Were you afraid they were going to put you in the psychiatric ward?

GRINER: Well, I was threatened that I was going to be thrown into the psychiatric ward if I didn't answer a question. And the question was, am I guilty or am I innocent?

GROSS: Of what?

GRINER: Of my crime. And...

GROSS: Did they mention - was it the crime of being gay or the crime of the cartridges of cannabis?

GRINER: The crime of smuggling...

GROSS: Okay.

GRINER: ...Cartridges, cannabis cartridges in. And they wanted me to basically say what I'm going to plea, and I told them I'm not answering that. I was like, you're not a judge. I was like, that has nothing to do with if I'm sane or not sane. And I refused to answer the question. And then they told the translator to tell me if I don't answer it that they would throw me into the psychiatric ward. But I was lucky to have my lawyers there with me during that interrogation, and they stepped in at that moment.

GROSS: Were lawyers always helpful? Because it's always struck me that in Russia, they do what they want to do no matter how good your lawyers are.

GRINER: They were definitely helpful. And the fact that I had two I guess was shocking, because they were always trying to figure out why I had two lawyers and not just one. Normally, your lawyers aren't even in those interrogations where, you know, they're questioning your sanity, but I was lucky to have them with me. However, they brought me back without my lawyers knowing to re-ask me basically all the same questions again without the lawyers. And that was pretty common.

GROSS: Were you afraid that if you were defiant and refused to answer some of the questions that you'd either be put in the psych ward or be punished in some other way?

GRINER: A hundred percent. I had a talk with one of my lawyers about that scenario. And, you know, he instructed me, you know, try as hard as you can not to answer it, get around it. But, you know, at the end of the day, just know if they want to put you in a psychiatric ward or, you know, do something to you, they can. So just go ahead and answer it. You know, he wasn't telling me to do it, but he was like, you know, it's at your discretion, you know, how far you want to take it.

GROSS: So what did you do?

GRINER: I never answered the if I was guilty question, and I kind of called their bluff on that one. But some of the other questions, you know, I went ahead and answered.

GROSS: We need to take another break here. So let me introduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brittney Griner. She's written a new memoir called "Coming Home." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOLANGE'S "WEARY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Brittney Griner. She's written a new memoir called "Coming Home" that's about her life in basketball and her life in a Russian prison. She was imprisoned for nearly 300 days.

One of the things you had to deal with in prison, and this will sound obvious, was depression. But you dealt with depression before. You had suicidal thoughts and panic attacks when you were in your 20s. And you write that you were overwhelmed with the thought that this life was all there was. What do you mean by that? What did you mean by that?

GRINER: I was in a really bad place.

GROSS: In your 20s you're talking about?

GRINER: Probably a little bit earlier than my 20s too. A little bit growing up as well. Just being so isolated and so different - you know, I always wondered why I was so different. Why do everybody want to point out the fact that I'm different? Literally I had girls that would come up to me in school and touch my chest and laugh and giggle and say that, oh, look, she's really not a girl. She's a man. Like, listen to her voice. Look how big she is. So just dealing with that in isolation. And this is all before sports, before I became the cool athlete. I was the weirdo and the one that was just so different.

It was a different feeling when I was in prison, a little bit. You know, there was definitely times where I felt like I was like that zoo animal that everyone was coming to look at. 'Cause the guards would literally come open up my - the little peephole, look in, and then I would hear them laughing, going - you know, walking down the hallway. So I was like that spectacle again. And then when I first got took in to the county cell, and I was in isolation, the bad thoughts just started creeping in. You know, my life is over. You never know, you know, when you go to jail for a sent amount of time, who will be alive when I come out? Will my parents still be there? Will me and my wife make it nine years while I'm locked up? You know, all these bad thoughts started coming in, and it just felt like it would be better if I wasn't here, maybe.

GROSS: Did you think seriously about suicide?

GRINER: Yeah. I came up with a plan. But then I thought on it more and I was like, you know, they might not even release my body. And then now I didn't put my family through not even being able to get my body back. And I was like, I can't put them through that. I got to survive. And then my deeper instinct started kicking in. All those talks my dad used to tell me about how he made it through, you know, Vietnam and everything. And I was like, if my dad can make it through that, I can make it through this.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about faith. Your wife, Cherelle, who you call Relle (ph) - she's a person of faith. Her father was a preacher. Your parents are people of faith, but you'd pretty much abandoned it. But you returned to faith in prison. Was there a turning point for you?

GRINER: I would say my wife was my turning point, honestly. Right before I went back over and, you know, got incarcerated in Russia, I was - she's always been gracefully patient with me on the religion front, and she knew that I had so many people judging me, calling themselves Christians, but judging me to the fullest, as if they're, you know, our maker. And those people really turned me away from religion, you know, going to a church and you hear the whispers and you hear the, oh, you're going to hell, or why are you in here? You know, that turned me away from religion. It made me think like, this - like, I don't want to be a part of those people that are so judgmental. And she showed me a different way. When we were in college, she took me to her church in Arkansas. And it was such a warming experience. It opened my mind to seek it out a little bit more.

And then, being locked up - some people call it Jailhouse Jesus. Call it what you want, but you have to believe in something or you'll go mad. And I just deep-dived into my Bible and read more, and it just started to click for me more. I started to get that blind faith even more.

GROSS: What was it like to get on the plane back to the U.S.? Like, when you stepped on the plane, it sounds like everybody was at your service. There were, like, medical people there and people giving you food and candy of all sorts, like, whatever you wanted or needed.

GRINER: Yeah, my wife had shared that I liked Lemonheads, and I like Suduko (ph). So they had a lot of Lemonheads and a book of Suduko for me. There was definitely medical there to check me out, to do a quick check, make sure I was OK and see if I needed anything. There were counselors - there was a counselor there on the plane as well, and then our security detail in the back as well with us. And, you know, they thought I was just going to sit down and, you know, go to sleep, but there was no way I was about to go to sleep on that plane. I was just too anxious to get home. And I think I was even more anxious to just talk to somebody. You know, I had Alana, I had Ann (ph) at the penal colony and Kate, (ph) who I could talk to, but at the same time, you know, English isn't their first language. So I was just excited to have a normal conversation and not have to think about how to make it childlike. Because a lot of the talk was childlike, because, you know, you want to try to use shorter sentences, less words when I was in Russia. And when I was in Russia. And now I don't have to do that anymore. I could actually have full-length, long conversations. And I just kind of wanted to talk to everybody.

GROSS: Did you learn much Russian?

GRINER: I learned a little bit of jailhouse Russian.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GRINER: But it's a hard language to pick up on.

GROSS: It must have been remarkable to have people surrounding you - like, officials and medical people surrounding you who wished you well as opposed to wishing you ill.

GRINER: It was nice just knowing that I could - if I do want to close my eyes, I don't have to be on guard right now. You know, I felt I had a complete sense of safety, for the most part.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brittney Griner. She has a new memoir called "Coming Home." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADRIAN YOUNGE AND ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD'S "BETTER ENDEAVOR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Brittney Griner. She has a new memoir called "Coming Home."

Your memoir is called "Coming Home." And you came home to the U.S., you came home to your wife and to your family, you know, your parents, your siblings. But you couldn't literally go to your house home because it was considered too risky. What were the kinds of threats that you needed to avoid?

GRINER: Well our address had got - our old house address had got leaked. My wife had went home one day while I was still, you know, abroad, and as soon as she got out the car, a reporter had hopped out and was running up, trying to get her to answer questions. And we were getting a lot of hate mail as well.

GROSS: For what? Like, what were people hating you for?

GRINER: Just evil things, saying I was non-American, I shouldn't have came home - if I was any kind of American, I would go back and go back to jail and let them send Paul home. I was called the N-word a lot, my wife was as well for fighting for me to come home.

GROSS: Were you considered not American by these people because you're Black? Like, why were you not American?

GRINER: A lot of different reasons - Black, gay. I've protested against police brutality. I've not stood for the National Anthem in protest...

GROSS: Right, right.

GRINER: ...Which I think is just crazy because it's my right as an American to be able to protest as well. So, I mean, if anything, I'm more American because I'm using my right to protest. They think I just hate America, and that's far from the truth. I wanted to go into the military and be a law officer as well. I wanted to follow my dad's footsteps...

GROSS: He was both.

GRINER: ...Because that's what he did.

GROSS: Yeah. One of the counselors or therapists who you spoke to told you to expect that your wife, Relle, will have changed, that she was without you for over a year so she's learned to do things that maybe she wouldn't have done before. She's learned to become more independent. I mean, she became, like, a media spokesperson. She also, while working on behalf of your lease, finished law school, passed the bar. So, I mean, she had quite a tumultuous life. And you changed, too, as anybody would who was in prison for, you know, nearly 300 days. And I'm wondering if you each had to adjust to new versions of each other after you got back home.

GRINER: Definitely. We had to learn how to be together but then also have time to heal away from each other, too, a little bit. And, you know, some of the things that we loved doing before changed. Like, I used to love being in the house all day in the room. Like, a off day, we'll just stay in the room all day watching TV, watching shows. And that was triggering for me because in the detention center, all I could do was sit on my bed for the whole entire day, minus one hour outside. So I couldn't do it anymore like that.

My mood had changed at one point because - and I didn't know at the time - we keep the house cold. I hate being cold now. And my mood was just kind of getting - I was agitated. I was just off. And she was just like, you know, like, what is it? Like, you know, we had to talk one day, and she was like, what do you think it is? And I'm just like, I don't know. I'm cold, though. And we realized that me being cold put me back in that cell. So, you know, it was just like little things that we didn't even think would affect but was affecting us. And, you know, we made the right corrections.

GROSS: You'd become withdrawn, and you found it too painful to talk about what you'd experienced. Was that a disconnect, too, in the relationship until you were ready to connect again?

GRINER: Yeah, we would have talks, and I would tell her - I would be telling her about my conditions or something that I had to do. And I could see it was hurting her. You know, she never said it, you know, like, oh, don't tell me. She never said that. She wanted me to tell her more. But it's hard when you know you're hurting someone that you love. And, you know, I would pull back a little bit. I would still tell her but I just - we would do it in smaller burst. But having my counselor was huge for me because I was able to just get it all out.

GROSS: And, like, very soon, you start your second season in the WNBA since getting out of prison. And, you know, so it's your second season since your return with the Phoenix Mercury, so you played last season. Did you feel ready last season? 'Cause that was just a few months after getting out.

GRINER: I thought I was ready. And then I realized, you know - even after the season I realized, I was like, that was a lot. It was just hard. But if I would've waited longer to get back into it, I think it would have been even that much harder, honestly. Like, I knew I needed to start getting in shape if I was going to have a return back to the game. I knew I couldn't wait anymore. And, you know, I credit my team and believing in me, and they did everything that they could to help me get back on that court. And I was glad I did do it. But, you know, this season, I definitely feel 100% like my old self now.

GROSS: That's amazing. How was your game last season?

GRINER: It was OK. The season didn't go though as well as we wanted it to go, to say the least, but, you know, it was OK. I put up a little bit. I put up a few numbers.

GROSS: Did playing and also training before the season help break the depression because you had something to focus on that you liked and that was important to you?

GRINER: Oh, 100%. I was able to channel - you know, if I was having a bad day or, you know, a down day, I was able to channel that into, you know, moving weight in the weight room and going on the court and just focusing on that. I could distract myself. You know, basketball's always been my outlet, where I don't think about anything. It's just winning the game.

GROSS: So part of what you're doing now is work on behalf of Americans who are detained in foreign countries, who are imprisoned in foreign countries, working to get them out. I'm also wondering if you're interested in doing prison reform work in the U.S. Because as horrible as conditions were in Russia, I mean, conditions are not good in most American prisons.

GRINER: Yes, 100%. I was just talking with my agent about that the other day, actually, about how I can what I can do, how I can be of use, you know, what organization I could partner with because like you said, conditions are extremely bad overseas, but they're equally bad in certain prisons and even in our country here. And no matter what someone has been convicted of, they still have rights as a human, and they still have rights as a prisoner, you know, incarcerated. And you don't get stripped of those rights just because you're in prison. So I definitely would love to work with a group that's working in reform and reimmersion as well, because a lot of times we say, you know, you do the time, you're corrected. But then when you come back into society, we make it even harder for them to acclimate back in. So I definitely want to do something around that.

GROSS: Brittney Griner, thank you so much for talking with us.

GRINER: Aww, thank you for having me on. I appreciate it so much.

GROSS: And congratulations again on your freedom and your new life. And...

GRINER: Thank you.

GROSS: And your soon-to-come baby.

GRINER: Aww, thank you so much.

GROSS: OK. Be well.

Brittney Griner's new memoir is called "Coming Home." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about Black Twitter and how it became a phenomenon. Movements like #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite grew from this online community. Our guest will be Prentice Penny, director of a new Hulu documentary series about Black Twitter. He was also the showrunner for Isaa Rae's series "Insecure." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEGIE ADAIR'S "YOU'RE THE TOP")

GROSS: I'll end the show with some news we're really excited about. Our film critic Justin Chang won the Pulitzer Prize in criticism yesterday. It was for reviews he wrote for the LA Times last year. He left the LA Times earlier this year to become a film critic at the New Yorker. We're really proud that he's FRESH AIR's film critic. Congratulations, Justin. We are so happy for you.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi, and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

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