Brittney Griner’s Olympic coach Dawn Staley called for compassion as the eight-time Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) All-Star was released from Russian detention on Thursday.
Staley, who led the United States to gold at the Tokyo Games and was assistant coach in 2016, was among those calling for Griner’s release after she was first detained in February.
Griner pleaded guilty to charges of possessing and smuggling illegal drugs but insisted she had made an “honest mistake” and on Thursday US President Joe Biden announced her release.
“It’s been hard,” Staley told Reuters. “I hope she felt lifted, lifted in prayer, lifted in friendship, lifted in our basketball community.”
US Republican lawmakers have been critical of the deal in exchange for Russian citizen Viktor Bout, a former arms dealer, as it leaves behind Paul Whelan, a former US Marine who is serving 16 years on espionage charges, which he denies.
Staley, a Basketball Hall of Famer who is head coach of the South Carolina women’s collegiate team, said the basketball community would continue to advocate for Americans wrongfully detained in Russia and elsewhere.
“We thought Brittney’s star power would probably bring, you know, her and someone else home. And that just didn’t happen,” she said. “But you got to take the deal that’s on the table to bring one of us home.”
Staley watched Griner grow from a first overall WNBA draft pick in 2013 to one of the dominant forces in the league and an American super star who collected two World Cup golds on top of her Olympic titles.
“She’s always been a great teammate,” said Staley. “Very professional, very cordial, incredibly funny. And she’s just been great to be around.”
She also called on critics to show empathy for Griner’s family and friends.
“Imagine your loved one being in that position,” she said. “You will want anything to be done to bring your loved ones home.”