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'You don't feel like a human,' Brittney Griner describes her life in Russian confinement


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

William Brangham: She went from being the center of attention in women's professional basketball to the center of a global power struggle.

Two years after she was first detained in Russia, Brittney Griner is sharing new details about her time in prison and the fight to free her. It's all in her new book, "Coming Home," which is out tomorrow.

Amna Nawaz recently met up with Griner at the YMCA of Greater New York for a rare TV interview.

Amna Nawaz: No. Short. I'm off now.

Brittney Griner, WNBA Player: Yes, I got you.

Amna Nawaz: It's all you. It's all you.

Brittney Griner: See, I did my job. You shot. I got the rebound. I put up.

Amna Nawaz: Put-back. Put-back.


Amna Nawaz: For basketball superstar Brittney Griner, better known as B.G., the court has always been a safe space.

Brittney Griner: And even walking in, the smell of the -- of the floor and the hardwood, it was just -- it just felt natural. It felt home. It felt like the beginning of basketball for me.

Amna Nawaz: Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Griner was a breakout star at Baylor University, dunking her way to fame and a pro career with the Phoenix Mercury, six WNBA All-Star appearances, and two Olympic gold medals.

But for Griner, standing tall at 6'8'' meant standing out.

Brittney Griner AND CHILDREN: Basketball.

Amna Nawaz: You talk so openly so honestly in your book about what it took to get you comfortable in your own skin.

Brittney Griner: Mm-hmm.

Amna Nawaz: You wrote: "When you're born in a body like mine, a part of you dies every day with every mean comment and lingering stare. you're the biggest person in the room, but you're also the loneliest."

Brittney Griner: Mm-hmm.

Amna Nawaz: Did basketball help with that?

Brittney Griner: Basketball definitely helped. It gave me a purpose. It gave me an outlet too when I'm frustrated. It gave me somewhere to go and channel that energy in a positive way. And it gave me camaraderie as well, like, my teammates, my coaches, that sense of feeling wanted from the fans.

Like, all that helped me. Once I started playing basketball, it just -- it really changed my life.

Amna Nawaz: Basketball took her overseas, like many women players, for a second job during the WNBA off-season. Since 2014, Griner played for European powerhouse team UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia.

You really loved playing in Russia.

Brittney Griner: Mm-hmm.

Amna Nawaz: Tell me why.

Brittney Griner: I did. I mean, one, the -- the pay gap is -- it's pretty big from here to overseas. And just feeling value like that meant a lot to me, and then just how they treated us, our safety, the way we flew, the way -- where we stayed at. I mean, we stayed at the best, best hotels. We flew on private jets, and we really felt like professional athletes.

Amna Nawaz: How different was that to how you were treated here in the States?

Brittney Griner: Definitely different. You know, you might catch me on a United or Southwest or Delta flight, maybe middle row. It just depends. I was definitely overseas because that's where I was able to make a living for my family.

Woman: The State Department says it is aware of an American citizen in Moscow.

Amna Nawaz: Everything changed in 2022.

Woman: Russian customs officials claim they detected cannabis oil in her luggage.

Amna Nawaz: On February 17, as she returned to Russia to rejoin her team, Griner was detained at Sheremetyevo Airport outside of Moscow when vape cartridges with less than a gram of hashish oil, illegal in Russia, were found in her luggage. Griner has a prescription for medical marijuana in the U.S. but forgot to remove the cartridges while packing in a rush.

You almost didn't make that flight. You were running late. You lost your phone. You got held up, missed your connection.

Brittney Griner: Mm-hmm.

Amna Nawaz: Does any part of you look back on that day now and think, gosh, if only I'd done X, if only I'd done Y?

Brittney Griner: Every single part of it.

Amna Nawaz: There's this idea of guilt through your book.

Brittney Griner: Mm-hmm.

Amna Nawaz: You worry about what your mom and dad went through while you were away...

Brittney Griner: Mm-hmm.

Amna Nawaz: ... what Relle went through, what your teammates were going through. Has that guilt gone away?

Brittney Griner: I think it's always going to be there a little bit. And that's just my character. That's who I am at the end of the day.

Amna Nawaz: But why?

Brittney Griner: Hmm?

Amna Nawaz: Why?

Brittney Griner: I just -- it's on me. As much as everything was an accident and not intended, it's on me. It was my fault. There were so many signs. And I really wanted to stay back, honestly.

But my dad -- you finish what you start. And we were right in the -- basically about to win the year league and Russian league as well, like we have in the past for many years. So I wanted to finish that chapter completely.

Question: Hi, Brittney. How are you?

Amna Nawaz: Instead, a new surreal chapter in her life began, detention in a Russian prison., her face and story splashed across international headlines and robbed of the one safe space she'd always had.

When you weren't able to play it, what did that feel like?

Brittney Griner: That was hard. It was really hard not being able to play, not knowing what was to come,if I would ever pick up a basketball professionally again.

It was devastating to me to think about.

Cherelle Griner, Wife of Brittney Griner: B.G. took the time to write President Biden.

Amna Nawaz: Back home, her devastated wife, Cherelle, led the charge to free B.G., working with her teammates, her agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, and an army rallying behind the #WeAreBG.

You write that: "The campaign had to make me visible in a world where Black women are often ignored or demeaned. It had to make me relatable. Yes, I'm Black, gay, a female baller, but when people saw my face and heard my story, we needed them to say, hey, she's me."

Brittney Griner: Mm-hmm.

Amna Nawaz: Were you worried about being able to do that?

Brittney Griner: Definitely. In a world where you're judged by just appearance and -- or maybe what a certain group has done or someone has wronged them, so they condemn everyone that looks like them, I was definitely worried.

I was definitely worried about the public opinion and how people would react.

Amna Nawaz: Griner, meanwhile, could do nothing but wait and survive.

Brittney Griner: It makes you not want to fight. It makes you kind of give up hope. You're already -- like, I'm sitting in court and I'm trying to plead, but I'm already locked up.

I'm already in a cage. I feel like -- I talked about being -- feeling like a zoo animal, especially how the guards would come and just open the little peephole to see me. And then I hear the snickering going down the hallway.

I was a spectacle.

Amna Nawaz: Feeling of feeling like they're all watching you, like you're a spectacle, was that something you had ever felt before?

Brittney Griner: Definitely. Growing up, I definitely felt like a spectacle.

I remember, in junior high, the girls coming up to me and literally talking to somebody else, touch my chest and say: "Oh, see, she's not really a real girl. She has no chest. Like, listen to her voice."

So I have always been that spectacle of pointing and looking at. It was already a depressing and challenging time, and it just made it even worse.

Amna Nawaz: You were detained on February 17.

Brittney Griner: Mm-hmm.

Amna Nawaz: It was on February 24 that Russia invaded Ukraine. Do you believe that you were being held as a bargaining chip?

Brittney Griner: A hundred percent. I -- there's no doubt in my mind that, once they knew who I was and they had me, that I'm your value target. I am your value bargaining chip.

You don't feel like I was human anymore. Like, I didn't feel like my life was mine. It was in someone else's hands. It was in other people's hands. It's a feeling that I never want to feel ever again.

Amna Nawaz: Where do you go in your head in those moments? What do you tell yourself? What do you do?

Brittney Griner: I did a lot of gazing out of the windows, to the point where I could, like, make the bars disappear and I would just see land, because that's my sanctuary. I love being in nature.

Once I got to the penal colony to go outside, whoa, right outside the cell, walking to the workstation, just admiring the distance behind the walls, behind everything. Did a lot of looking up at the birds.

Amna Nawaz: What did you think when you saw those birds outside the cell?

Brittney Griner: It must be nice to be able to fly away.

William Brangham: A Russian court eventually sentenced Griner to nine years in prison.

In part two of our interview tomorrow, she shares the grueling conditions inside a notorious Russian labor camp, the moment she will never forget once she was freed, and what life ahead looks like for her and her wife, Cherelle.

That's part two of Amna's conversation with Brittney Griner tomorrow night on the "NewsHour."

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