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Brittney Griner speaks to press ahead of WNBA season

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

WNBA star Brittney Griner says she relied on her basketball training for the resilience she needed to endure 10 months of detention in Russia. Today in Phoenix, Griner held her first press conference since she was released last December as part of a prisoner exchange. She spoke ahead of the upcoming WNBA season, where she'll be back playing with the Phoenix Mercury. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: As a longtime WNBA all-star and two-time Olympic gold medalist, Brittney Griner knows her way around a press conference. But she was still startled today as she sat down in front of a microphone.

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BRITTNEY GRINER: Ooh, a little different than basketball press conference - a lot of media in here today.

GOLDMAN: This was a first chance for reporters to ask Griner about the ordeal that started in February of last year. That's when Russian airport security arrested Griner on drug smuggling charges. It ended 10 months later, when she was released in exchange for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout. There was a lightness to Griner. She laughed and joked several times during the half-hour session. She also cried when asked about how she dealt with months of imprisonment.

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GRINER: Just digging deep, honestly. You know, I know this sounds so small, but, you know, dying in practice. You find a way to just grind it out. Just put your head down and just keep moving forward. You know, you can never stand still. And that was my thing. Just never be still.

GOLDMAN: Griner didn't provide details about her detention because of security concerns. She said she was aware of the support she got in the U.S. Her case certainly was publicized more than most detainees. And she said the support helped.

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GRINER: It made me a little bit more comfortable. It made me a little bit - have hope, which is a really hard thing to have 'cause, you know, when it doesn't work, it's so crushing.

GOLDMAN: Griner wore a black T-shirt with the words bring our families home on the front. She and the Mercury will be part of a campaign this season in support of other Americans detained overseas, including Paul Whelan, who negotiators tried to include in the swap that brought Griner home, and recently detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich. Griner was arrested on a trip to join her Russian team, where she was a star player for nearly a decade. Those days, she said, are over.

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GRINER: I'm never going overseas to play again unless I'm representing my country at the Olympics. You know, if I make that team, that would be the only time I would leave the U.S. soil.

GOLDMAN: She said she doesn't knock any players who go overseas. Many, like she did, do that to supplement the money they make in the WNBA. Griner told the reporters gathered in front of her they can help.

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GRINER: With as many people in here right now covering this, I hope you continue, like I said, to cover our league, bring exposure to us. I hope a lot of these companies start to invest in our craft because as you'll see this season, if you haven't watched before, we have a really good craft.

GOLDMAN: A new WNBA season begins next month with, for the first time since 2021, Brittney Griner.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.
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