Brittney Griner — from basketball world great to Russian prisoner
US Women National Basketball Association's (WNBA) basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, leaves the courtroom before the court's final decision in Khimki outside Moscow, on Thursday. (Photo: AFP)

WASHINGTON, United States (AFP) — Brittney Griner — a world basketball great, Olympic legend and LGBT trailblazer — now faces losing the greatest years of her career in a Russian penal colony.

The 31-year-old American was convicted Thursday by a Russian court on drugs charges and sentenced to nine years in prison, even as US officials declared she was being wrongfully detained and worked behind the scenes for her release.

Griner is among only 11 players to have won an Olympic gold medal, WNBA title, Women's Basketball World Cup crown and US college championship.

She helped drive the US women's national team to Olympic gold in 2016 at Rio and last year in Tokyo, giving the Americans seven consecutive Olympic crowns — matching the US men's team from 1936-1968 for the longest title run of any team in any Olympic sport.

In February 2013, Griner came out publicly as a lesbian in an interview with Sports Illustrated, becoming a sporting trailblazer.

"I'm just trying to help out," Griner told People magazine at the time. "I'm just trying to make it not as tough for the next generation."

Her endorsement deal with Nike was its first with an openly gay athlete.

Griner protested the killings of African Americans Breonna Taylor and George Floyd during a nationwide wave of protests against racial injustice and police brutality in the United States in 2020, and suggested not playing the US anthem before games.

A champion at every level of basketball, she has played for years in Russia in the WNBA off-season for Ekaterinburg, a common path for American stars seeking additional income, with WNBA salaries far below those of NBA superstars.

She won three Russian league crowns and four EuroLeague titles with the powerhouse club.

"Hopefully I'm not having to go internationally to go play," Griner said in 2019 when asked what she hoped life would look like in 2024.

"Hopefully I'm able to stay here and play here in the league at home, where there's my family, my friends. Hopefully we're able to be paid what we deserve. We put our bodies on the line a lot. So I think that's our number one thing."

But the future may look very different now, after she was detained at a Moscow airport in February having been found carrying vape cartridges with cannabis oil in her luggage.

The WNBA star said she had permission from a US doctor to use medicinal cannabis to relieve pain from her many injuries.

American women will seek a fourth consecutive Women's World Cup crown later this year in Australia. Griner had been expected to be a key player on that squad, as she was on the 2014 and 2018 line-ups.

The US women have not lost a game at the Olympics since 1992 and have not dropped a contest at the World Cup, the world championship tournament, since 2006.

The six-foot-nine (2.06-metre) centre was born in Houston and led Baylor University to the 2012 US college title.

She set a record with 223 blocked shots in her 2009-10 freshman season, and finished with a record 748 blocks for her college career.

She was the first overall pick in the 2013 WNBA Draft by the Phoenix Mercury and helped the team win the 2014 WNBA crown.

The eight-time WNBA All-Star centre won scoring titles in 2017 and 2019, led the league in blocked shots in eight of her nine campaigns and was twice named the WNBA Defensive Player of the Year.

"I think we take for granted sometimes how amazing she is," US and Phoenix teammate Diana Taurasi said of Griner in last year's WNBA Final, when the Mercury lost to Chicago. "We know who our bread and butter is. BG is just playing at a different level."

Griner averaged a WNBA-record 4.0 blocked shots a game in the 2015 season.

For her WNBA career, Griner has averaged 17.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.8 blocked shots and 1.8 assists a game over 254 contests, all for the Mercury.

Griner married fellow WNBA player Glory Johnson in 2015 but later pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct charges and underwent domestic violence counselling.

Both Griner and Johnson were suspended seven games by the WNBA and the couple divorced in 2016.

Griner married Cherelle Watson in 2019.

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