Brittney Griner

With Brittney Griner still in jail, WNBA players are skipping Russia

Brittney Griner arrives at her trial wearing a Phoenix basketball shirt
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SYDNEY (AP) — Brittney Griner’s highly publicized legal woes in Russia and the country’s invasion of Ukraine has the top WNBA players opting to take their talents elsewhere this offseason.

For the past few decades, Russia has been the preferred offseason destination for WNBA players to compete because of the high salaries that can exceed $1 million – nearly quadruple the base salary of top WNBA players — and the resources and amenities teams offered them.

That all has come to an abrupt end.

“Honestly my time in Russia has been wonderful, but especially with BG still wrongfully detained there, nobody’s going to go there until she’s home,” said Breanna Stewart, a Griner teammate on the Russian team that paid the duo millions. “I think that, you know, now, people want to go overseas and if the money is not much different, they want to be in a better place.”

Griner was arrested in February, then detained and later convicted on drug possession charges amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Griner was sentenced last month to nine years in prison.

Now, Stewart and other WNBA All-Stars, including Jonquel Jones and Courtney Vandersloot — who also have made millions of dollars playing in Russia — are going elsewhere this winter. All three played for Ekaterinburg, the same Russian team as Griner. That club won five EuroLeague titles in the past eight seasons and has been dominant for nearly two decades with former greats DeLisha Milton Jones and Diana Taurasi playing there.

Nearly a dozen WNBA players competed in Russia last winter and none of them are heading back this year.

After the World Cup tournament, Stewart is going to Turkey to play for Fenerbahçe. Top players can make a few hundred thousand dollars playing in Turkey, much less than their Russian salaries. Playing in Turkey also allows Stewart to be closer to her wife’s family in Spain.

“You want to have a better lifestyle, a better off-the-court experience, and just continue to appreciate other countries,” Stewart said.

Like Stewart, Vandersloot also isn’t headed back to Russia, choosing to play in Hungary where she obtained citizenship in 2016.

“I am Hungarian. I thought it would be special since I haven’t played there since I got the citizenship,” Vandersloot said.

The 33-year-old guard said a lot would have to change before she’d ever consider going back to Russia to play even though she has many fond memories of the Russian people.

“The thing about it is, we were treated so well by our club and made such strong relationships with those people, I would never close the door on that,” she said. “The whole situation with BG makes it really hard to think that it’s safe for anyone to go back there right now.”

Jones will be joining Stewart in Turkey, playing for Mersin. The 6-foot-6 Jones said she would consider going back to Russia if things change politically and Griner was back in the U.S.

The Griner situation also is weighing heavily on the minds of young WNBA players.

Rhyne Howard, the 2022 WNBA Rookie of the Year, is playing in Italy this winter — her first overseas experience. She said was careful when deciding where she wanted to play.

“Everyone’s going to be a bit cautious seeing as this situation is happening,” she said.

It’s not just the American players who are no longer going to Russia. Chicago Sky forward Emma Meesseman, who stars for the Belgium national team, had played in Russia with Stewart, Jones and Vandersloot. She also is headed to Turkey this offseason.

The WNBA has also been trying to make staying home in the offseason a better option for players. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said at the WNBA Finals that top players could make up to $700,000 this year between base salary, marketing agreements and award bonuses. While only a select few players could reach that amount, roughly a dozen have decided to take league marketing agreements this offseason.

Brittney Griner’s family to meet Biden at White House

US basketball player Brittney Griner stands in a defendants' cage before a court hearing during her trial on charges of drug smuggling, in Khimki, outside Moscow.
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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden plans to meet at the White House on Friday with family members of WNBA star Brittney Griner and Michigan corporate security executive Paul Whelan, both of whom remain jailed in Russia, the White House announced Friday.

“He wanted to let them know that they remain front of mind and that his team is working on this every day on making sure that Brittney and Paul return home safely,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at Thursday’s press briefing at the White House.

The separate meetings are to be the first in-person encounter between Biden and the families and are taking place amid sustained but so far unsuccessful efforts by the administration to secure the Americans’ release. The administration said in July that it had made a “substantial proposal” to get them home, but despite plans for the White House meetings, there is no sign that a breakthrough is imminent.

Griner has been held in Russia since February on drug-related charges. She was sentenced last month to nine years in prison after pleading guilty and has appealed the punishment. Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage-related charges that he and his family say are false. The U.S. government regards both as wrongfully detained, placing their cases with the office of its top hostage negotiator.

Friday’s meetings, which both families have long sought, are intended to underscore the administration’s commitment to bringing home Griner, Whelan and other Americans jailed abroad, as well as to “connect with them on a human level as they undergo an ordeal that the Russian government has imposed on them,” said one of the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as the meetings had not yet been publicly announced.

Negotiations have been complicated by the tense relations between Washington and Moscow over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the unusual step of announcing two months ago that the administration had made a substantial proposal to Russia. Since then, the administration has followed up in multiple ways to press its offer and get serious negotiations underway, one of the administration officials said Thursday.

The Russians, who have indicated that they are open to negotiations but have chided the Americans to conduct them in private, have come back with suggestions that are not within the administration’s ability to deliver, said the official, declining to elaborate. But the U.S. has been following up through the same channels that produced an April prisoner swap that brought Marine veteran Trevor Reed home from Russia, the official said.

The administration has not provided specifics about its proposal, but a person familiar with the matter previously confirmed it had offered to release Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms dealer now imprisoned in the U.S. It is also possible that, in the interests of symmetry, Russia might insist on having two of its citizens released from prison.

Biden spoke by phone in July with Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and with Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth, but both families have also requested in-person meetings. On Friday, Biden plans to speak at the White House with Cherelle Griner and with the player’s agent in one meeting and with Elizabeth Whelan in the other.

The meetings are being done separately so as to ensure that each family has private time with the president. But the fact that they are happening on the same day shows the extent to which the two cases have become intertwined since the only deal that is presumably palatable to the U.S. is one that gets both Americans – a famous WNBA player and a Michigan man who until recently was little known to the public – home together at the same time,

In the past several months, representatives of both families have expressed frustration over what they perceived as a lack of aggressive action and coordination from the administration.

Cherelle Griner, for instance, told The Associated Press in an interview in June that she was dismayed after the failure of a phone call from her wife that was supposed to have been patched through by the American Embassy in Moscow left the couple unable to connect on their fourth anniversary.

Whelan’s relatives have sought to keep attention on his case, anxious that it has been overshadowed in the public eye by the focus on the far more prominent Griner – a two-time Olympic gold medalist and seven-time WNBA all-star. They also conveyed disappointment when Whelan, despite having been held in Russia since December 2018, was not included in a prisoner swap last April that brought home another detained American, Marine veteran Trevor Reed.

Friday’s meeting was scheduled before news broke this week of an unconnected trip to Russia by Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who has been a veteran emissary in hostage and detainee cases. Administration officials reacted coolly to that trip, with State Department spokesman Ned Price saying Wednesday that dialogue with Russia outside the “established channel” risks hindering efforts to get Griner and Whelan home.

Administration officials say work on hostage and detainee cases persist regardless of whether a family receives a meeting with the president, though there is also no question that such an encounter can help establish a connection. Biden met in the Oval Office in March with Reed’s parents after the Texas couple stood with a large sign outside the White House calling for their son’s release.

Aliyah Boston snags spot on USA Basketball training camp roster

South Carolina's Aliyah Boston competes in the 2022 NCAA women's basketball tournament
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USA Basketball on Tuesday announced the 28 athletes that will participate in next month’s women’s national team training camp, which will determine the roster for the 2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup.

Headlining the list of invitees are five members of last summer’s gold-medal winning Olympic team: A’ja Wilson, Ariel Atkins, Chelsea Gray, Jewell Loyd, and Breanna Stewart. They’ll be joined by all four members of the 3×3 team that won the inaugural Olympic title: Stefanie Dolson, Allisha Gray, Kelsey Plum, and Jackie Young. A full roster is below.

2016 Olympic gold medalist Elena Delle Donne will be back in the mix after missing 2020 and most of 2021 due to injury, while two-time Olympic gold medalist Angel McCoughtry is also slated to attend after tearing her ACL in 2021 and having her contract bought out by the Minnesota Lynx one week into the 2022 WNBA season.

South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston is the only current college player on the roster, while three WNBA rookies (Shakira Austin, Rhyne Howard, NaLyssa Smith) will be in attendance.

“That’s gonna be super dope,” Gamecocks alum A’ja Wilson said of Boston making the training camp roster. “I think it’s going to be big for Aliyah to be in it… Hopefully I can play alongside her — and against her. I mean, it’s all going to be love and very competitive.”

The 2022 U.S. World Cup team will be very different than the one that won gold at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics as seven members of that roster (Brittney Griner, Sue Bird, Sylvia Fowles, Tina Charles, Diana Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith, and Napheesa Collier) will not be in attendance.

The 2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup will be held from September 22-October 1, 2022, in Sydney, Australia.

Name Position  Height  Current Team College
Ariel Atkins G 5-8 Washington Mystics Texas
Shakira Austin C/F 6-5 Washington Mystics Mississippi
Aliyah Boston F/C 6-5 South Carolina South Carolina
Kahleah Copper F/G 6-1 Chicago Sky Rutgers
Elena Delle Donne G/F 6-5 Washington Mystics Delaware
Diamond DeShields G 6-1 Phoenix Mercury Tennessee
Stefanie Dolson C 6-5 New York Liberty Connecticut
Allisha Gray G 6-0 Dallas Wings South Carolina
Chelsea Gray G 5-11 Las Vegas Aces Duke
Dearica Hamby F 6-3 Las Vegas Aces Wake Forest
Myisha Hines-Allen F 6-1 Washington Mystics Louisville
Natasha Howard F 6-2 New York Liberty Florida State
Rhyne Howard G 6-2 Atlanta Dream Kentucky
Sabrina Ionescu G 5-11 New York Liberty Oregon
Brionna Jones F 6-3 Connecticut Sun Maryland
Betnijah Laney G/F 6-0 New York Liberty Rutgers
Jewell Loyd G 5-10 Seattle Storm Notre Dame
Kayla McBride G 5-11 Minnesota Lynx Notre Dame
Angel McCoughtry G/F 6-1 Louisville
Arike Ogunbowale G 5-8 Dallas Wings Notre Dame
Kelsey Plum G 5-8 Las Vegas Aces Washington
Aerial Powers F 5-11 Minnesota Lynx Michigan State
NaLyssa Smith F 6-3 Indiana Fever Baylor
Breanna Stewart F/C 6-4 Seattle Storm Connecticut
Alyssa Thomas F 6-2 Connecticut Sun Maryland
Courtney Williams G 5-8 Connecticut Sun South Florida
A’ja Wilson F 6-5 Las Vegas Aces South Carolina
Jackie Young G 6-0 Las Vegas Aces Notre Dame