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Brittney Griner visited in Russian prison by U.S. Embassy officials

US' Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) basketball player Brittney Griner.
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WASHINGTON — Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow visited jailed WNBA star Brittney Griner on Thursday, just weeks after a Russian court rejected her appeal of her nine-year sentence for drug possession.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a tweet that the American representatives “saw firsthand her tenacity and perseverance despite her present circumstances.”

Price said the Biden administration is continuing to press for the immediate release of Griner and Paul Whelan, who was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison in Russia on espionage-related charges that he and his family say are bogus, and “fair treatment for every detained American.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Griner “is doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances” and that the administration was working “to resolve the current unacceptable and wrongful detentions” of Griner and Whelan.”

Griner was was convicted in August after police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Her arrest in February came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington, just days before Russia sent troops into Ukraine. At that time, Griner was returning to play for a Russian team during the WNBA’s offseason.

She admitted at her trial to having the canisters in her luggage but testified she packed them inadvertently in her haste to make her flight and had no criminal intent. Her lawyers have called the punishment excessive.

The United States regards Griner and Whelan as wrongful detainees and has been trying to negotiate with Russia for their release. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said over the summer that the U.S. had made a “substantial proposal” to Russia to try to get both home.

People familiar with the offer have said the U.S. wanted to swap Whelan and Griner for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

There have been no outward signs of progress since then in the negotiations.

Jean-Pierre told reporters traveling with the president to New Mexico that “despite a lack of good faith negotiation by the Russians, the U.S. government has continued to follow up on that offer and propose alternative potential ways forward with Russia through all available channels. This continues to be a top priority.”

Athletes Unlimited Basketball to feature more WNBA players for 2023 season

2022 WNBA Playoffs - Connecticut Sun v Dallas Wings
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Lexie Brown is back for a second year of the Athletes Unlimited basketball league after having a great experience in the inaugural season.

She is one of 15 players with significant WNBA experience already signed on to play in the league that will run from Feb. 22 to March 26 in Dallas.

“It brought my confidence back,” said Brown, who finished in the top four of the league last season. “That’s one of the biggest things for a professional athlete, in 2022, how big being in a good mental place is. It was an amazing experience and a learning experience.”

So far, 31 of the 44 roster spots have been filled. New players include Allisha Gray, who helped the U.S. win a gold medal in 3×3 in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and WNBA rookies NaLyssa Smith and Naz Hillmon.

Smith said she watched a lot of the inaugural season last year while she was in college at Baylor and saw how much fun the players were having.

Going straight from college to the WNBA and not having a break was a big reason why Smith wanted to play in this league instead of going overseas.

“I knew that I needed a break,” she said. “I didn’t want to sit for seven months, so AU gave me the opportunity to take a break and then play.”

Brown says that she understands people wanting to still play overseas because of the money that’s offered over there which could be a couple hundred thousand dollars for top players.

“Sometimes that money is hard to turn down. I understand that 1000%,” she said. “I keep telling as many players as possible, if you come home early you’ll have a blast. You’ll have so much fun.”

So far 21 of the players from last season have returned for the second edition. Defending champion Tianna Hawkins isn’t in that group as she is playing overseas this winter.

Athletes Unlimited started in 2020 and also has softball, volleyball and lacrosse leagues in which there are no team owners and players share directly in league profits. The basketball rules are similar to the WNBA and there will be over $1 million for the 44 players to earn with the winner receiving roughly $50,000.

The league redrafts its teams each week with the top four point scorers serving as captains. The league, which will have games on the CBS Sports Network this year, moved from Las Vegas to Dallas.

“I would say Dallas was attractive to us since we have a relationship with the Dallas Sports Commission,” said Ilene Hauser, who is the Director of Basketball. “AU volleyball has been playing there the last two years. Dallas is a hotbed for girls and women’s basketball. … We have a number of players that have ties to the state of Texas. A few of them to Dallas and that’s a huge draw for us.”

2023 Athletes Unlimited Basketball Roster (as of October 25, 2022)

  • Antoinette Bannister
  • Kristi Bellock
  • Lexie Brown
  • Kirby Burkholder
  • Jordin Canada
  • DiJonai Carrington
  • Essence Carson
  • Layshia Clarendon
  • Natasha Cloud
  • Taj Cole
  • Sydney Colson
  • Drew Edelman
  • Allisha Gray
  • Rebecca Harris
  • Air Hearn
  • Naz Hillmon
  • Meme Jackson
  • N’dea Jones
  • Whitney Knight
  • Jessica Kuster
  • Akela Maize
  • Danni McCray
  • Laurin Mincy
  • Kelsey Mitchell
  • Karisma Penn
  • Odyssey Sims
  • NaLyssa Smith
  • Destinee Walker
  • Evina Westbrook
  • Courtney Williams
  • Ty Young

Brittney Griner’s appeal rejected by Russian court, 9-year sentence upheld

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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MOSCOW — A Russian court on Tuesday upheld the nine-year prison sentence handed to American basketball star Brittney Griner for drug possession, rejecting her appeal.

Griner, an eight-time all-star center with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was convicted Aug. 4 after police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.

The Moscow region court ruled Tuesday to uphold the sentence. In the ruling the court stated, however, that the time Griner will have to serve in prison will be recalculated with her time in pre-trial detention taken into account. One day in pre-trial detention will be counted as 1.5 days in prison, so the basketball star will have to serve around eight years in prison.

Griner took part in the Moscow Regional Court hearing via video call from a penal colony outside Moscow where she is imprisoned.

Griner’s February arrest came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington, just days before Russia sent troops into Ukraine. At the time, Griner was returning to Russia, where she played during the U.S. league’s offseason.

Griner admitted she had the canisters in her luggage but testified that she inadvertently packed them in haste and had no criminal intent. Her defense team presented written statements saying she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain.

The nine-year sentence was close to the maximum of 10 years, and Griner’s lawyers argued after the conviction that the punishment was excessive. They said in similar cases defendants have received an average sentence of about five years, with about a third of them granted parole.

Before her conviction, the U.S. State Department declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” – a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.

Reflecting growing pressure on the Biden administration to do more to bring Griner home, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the unusual step of revealing publicly in July that Washington had made a “substantial proposal” to get Griner home, along with Paul Whelan, an American serving a 16-year sentence in Russia for espionage.

Blinken didn’t elaborate, but The Associated Press and other news organizations have reported that Washington has offered to exchange Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. and once earned the nickname the “merchant of death.”

The White House said it has not yet received a productive response from Russia to the offer.

Russian diplomats have refused to comment on the U.S. proposal and urged Washington to discuss the matter in confidential talks, avoiding public statements.

In September, U.S. President Joe Biden met with Cherelle Griner, the wife of Brittney Griner, as well as the player’s agent, Lindsay Colas. Biden also sat down separately with Elizabeth Whelan, Paul Whelan’s sister.

The White House said after the meetings that the president stressed to the families his “continued commitment to working through all available avenues to bring Brittney and Paul home safely.”

The U.S. and Russia carried out a prisoner swap in April. Moscow released U.S. Marines veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for the U.S. releasing a Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was convicted in a drug trafficking conspiracy.

Moscow also has pushed for the release of other Russians in U.S. custody.

One of them is Alexander Vinnik, who was accused of laundering billions of dollars through an illicit cryptocurrency exchange. Vinnik was arrested in Greece in 2017 and extradited to the U.S. in August.

Vinnik’s French lawyer, Frederic Belot, told Russian newspaper Izvestia last month that his client hoped to be part of a possible swap.

The newspaper speculated that another possible candidate was Roman Seleznev, the son of a Russian lawmaker. He was sentenced in 2017 to 27 years in prison on charges from a hacking and credit card fraud scheme.