In 1st Sit-Down, Brittney Griner Talks Suicidal Ideations in Russian Detainment

“I didn’t think I could get through what I needed to get through," Griner told Robin Roberts on ABC's 20/20

In 1st Sit-Down, Brittney Griner Talks Suicidal Ideations in Russian Detainment

In her first sit-down post-detainment in Russia, professional basketball player and two-time gold medalist Brittney Griner became emotional while speaking to ABC’s Robin Roberts on 20/20 about the 10 months she spent behind bars in 2022.

“Oh my God, how did I make this mistake?” she said of her first thought when Russian authorities found two cannabis oil cartridges in her bag in the airport after arriving at a Moscow airport. “How was I this absent-minded?”

The interview, which aired on Wednesday, saw Roberts and the Phoenix Mercury star revisiting every step of the terrifying—and terribly unjust—ordeal as told in her upcoming memoir Coming Home (out May 7). Griner explained she’d chosen to play basketball in Russia solely because of the substantive pay disparity in the WNBA. The star center said she made $1 million in a single season in Russia as opposed to five times less in the WNBA. Rookie darling, Caitlin Clark, for instance, just signed a contract with the league for a base salary of $76,000.

On the morning of her flight to Russia, where Griner would play her final season abroad, Griner said she woke up later than she’d planned and haphazardly threw her belongings into bags in “panic mode.”

“I’m never late getting up,” Griner told Roberts. When she arrived at a Moscow airport and began going through customs, Russian airport security asked to search her things. Then, she “reached down” in her bag and “felt the cartridge.”

“In Arizona, cannabis is legal,” she writes in her book. “In Russia, it’s forbidden. I knew that. Honest to God, I just totally forgot that the pen was in my bag.” Of the realization, Griner told Roberts: “I could just visualize everything I worked so hard for crumbling and going away.”

She was detained on drug charges and initially sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison. By November 2022, after nearly nine months, Griner was transferred to a penal colony. During her imprisonment, Griner recalled enduring unfathomable conditions that included a blood-stained mattress, frigid temperatures in the winter, a lack of hot water, spiders that built nests in her dreadlocks, and a hole in the ground for a toilet. As she began to lose hope of returning home, she contemplated ending her life.

“I didn’t think I could get through what I needed to get through,” Griner told Roberts. The gut-wrenching details are also included in her book: “I wanted to take my life more than once,” Griner wrote. “I felt like leaving here so badly.”

“I was just like, what if they didn’t release my body to my family?” she told Roberts of why she continued on. “I can’t put them through that. I have to endure this.”

Eventually, Griner was released in a one-for-one prisoner swap for international arms dealer Viktor Bout in December 2022. In the interview, she recalled receiving a letter that she’d be going home. “It said, ‘Be ready to leave,’ and I saw that paper and I was so thrilled.”

It’s been over a year since Griner has been back in the States but she hasn’t forgotten one person that was left behind: Paul Whelan, a fellow prisoner and former U.S. Marine. Whelan was accused of espionage while attending a friend’s wedding and has been detained since 2018.

“When I walked on and I didn’t see him, I was like, ‘OK, maybe I’m early. Maybe he’s next,’” she said of boarding the U.S. plane. “And when they closed the door, I was like, ‘Are you seriously not gonna let this man come home right now?’”

Heartbreakingly, she said she has yet to make peace with the guilt she suffers from the harrowing experience.

“At the end of the day, it’s my fault, and I let everybody down,” Griner said through tears. “I don’t think I really got through it all the way.” It’s a profoundly poignant exchange. More than anything though, it’s a testament to Griner’s tenacity, vulnerability, and depth of care for everyone in her life.

Griner and her wife, Cherelle Griner—who tirelessly advocated for her return—are now expecting their first child in July. They deserve nothing but joy from here on out.

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