- M.A. Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.
They think fondly of her laughter, her hugs, her sweet tooth, her impressive skills, her love of her teammates. As Brittney Griner turns 32 on Tuesday, it also marks the 243rd day since she was wrongfully detained in Russia, and she’ll spend her birthday far from home, her loved ones and her basketball family.
Griner, the longtime Phoenix Mercury and USA Basketball center, has been imprisoned in Russia since Feb. 17, arrested on charges she brought vape cartridges containing cannabis oil into the country. On Aug. 4, Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison, and efforts are ongoing in the attempt to arrange a diplomatic exchange of prisoners that would allow her to return to the United States.
“I think of her every day,” said New York Liberty coach Sandy Brondello, who guided the Mercury from 2014 to 2021. “Not just the great player she developed into. She has this amazing laugh, which I can’t wait to hear again.”
Brondello and others shared some of their favorite memories of Griner both on and off court.
“There is such a human side to BG that a lot of people on the outside don’t know,” former USA Basketball head coach Dawn Staley said. “I wish that a lot of people were able to see that and could express themselves with the honesty that Brittney does.”
Dawn Staley, South Carolina Gamecocks head coach
Staley, who has guided the Gamecocks to two NCAA titles, including the 2022 championship, led the U.S. national team to gold medals in the 2018 FIBA World Cup and the 2020 Summer Olympics. Griner played on both teams, and Staley recalled a time when the center got irritated in practice and allowed it to carry over to a game.
“Once she lets you in, you get the best of Brittney,” Staley said. “We were in Japan for the Olympics, and something ticked her off in practice. I went up to her and said, ‘You know, I actually like when you get mad and you get super focused and just execute what needs to get done.’
“Brittney was like, ‘Oh, you wouldn’t like it when I really get mad.’ She felt challenged, and when that happens she is going to do what she needs to but she will let you know she’s not happy. So this kind of lingered into the game the next day. I went up to her in the game and said, ‘BG, don’t let anything change your equilibrium. Just maintain, do what you know how to do.’
“Then after the game, in true BG form, she comes over to me and said, ‘Thanks for what you said, Coach. Sorry, I was acting like a little b—-.’ Because it takes a genuine person to just realize how they were acting and responding. I didn’t really think anything of it, but I appreciated that she processed it, and then she came back and took the responsibility. We laughed about it, because things happen and then you just keep it moving.
“BG is the ultimate professional, and she does her job. But she’s able to stop, evaluate something and then say, ‘Hey, I’m sorry.’ Sometimes, we don’t get that response enough in our sport and in our world.”
Brianna Turner, Mercury teammate
Turner, a forward, joined the Mercury in 2019 and was Griner’s teammate for three years before Griner missed this past season. Turner recalls a birthday dinner for Griner at Steak 44 in Phoenix last October that most of the team attended, shortly after the Mercury had lost to the Chicago Sky in the 2021 WNBA Finals.
Turner said the group sat for over two hours reminiscing on the season, everything from Turner scoring in New York on a layup after Griner tipped her a jump ball to Kia Nurse hitting a half-court buzzer-beater to beat the Sky earlier in the season.
“It was such a positive environment filled with laughs and love,” Turner said. “It was important, too, because many of us would soon be relocating overseas, so we knew it would be the last time to see each other before the 2022 WNBA training camp.”
After dinner, Griner and her wife, Cherelle Griner, invited the team over to their house.
“We played with their dogs, watched TV and reminisced more about our season. BG nonchalantly had her most recent Olympic gold medal laying out on her coffee table, and I made sure to take a selfie with it as if I had just won gold and was standing on a podium.
“But that’s just the type of person BG is: humble and welcoming to those around her. I hold on so hard to those memories of that evening. It’s wild to think that I last saw her in person a year ago; her birthday is obviously so different this time around. I was able to send her a letter, though, and hopefully she will receive it on birthday.
“So many people that don’t personally know BG have so many various opinions about her. But I can honestly say BG is probably the warmest person I know. Her energy is infectious, and she is the first person willing to help someone in need.”
Geno Auriemma, UConn Huskies coach
Before winning gold at the Tokyo Olympics, Griner helped the U.S. women do the same in the 2016 Rio Games, where Auriemma coached the squad.
The 11-time national champion recalled a moment he shared with Griner off the court.
“I think it was in 2013, we were doing a tour of Europe to get ready for the world championship.
“While we were in Italy, I asked if anyone wanted to ride to my house where I was born. Only two players said yes; Brittney was one. When we got there, my aunts, uncles and cousins were all waiting. Everyone got out of the van and said hi and smiled. It was all normal ’til BG got out. They all reacted in shock and joy; they had never seen anyone, man or woman, that tall in their lives.
“After the hugs and hellos, we went to my uncle’s house for lunch. Long story short, BG couldn’t get enough of the food and wine. My relatives were so excited at how excited she was to be sampling their cheeses and meats. When we get to the airport the next day, all BG wanted to know was where to buy and ship home all the treats she just enjoyed.
“Brittney is a legend in my hometown of Montella, Italy, and will be forever.”
Sandy Brondello, Liberty head coach
When Brondello took over the Mercury in 2014, Griner was entering her second season in the WNBA. She was the No. 1 draft pick in 2013 and had a good rookie year, but Brondello thought Griner had just started to scratch the surface of her talent.
Brondello’s husband and fellow coach, Olaf Lange, worked specifically with Griner on footwork and back-to-the-basket moves. “She didn’t always love it, but it really paid off,” said Brondello, whose Mercury won the league title in 2014. “She’s one of the best bigs on the block with her footwork and the counter moves she has developed over the years.
“Before practice, she would always come into the office where the assistant coaches and I were and say, ‘Good morning!’ and to look at the practice play to see what she was going and mentally prepare for it. She was always at practice early eating Jack in the Box. During film, she brought her candy in to watch the video. She was so coachable.
“She always came to work ready to do her best. I think all of her teammates would say she is one of the best teammates of all time, and I agree with that.”
Cheryl Reeve, Lynx and USA Basketball head coach
Reeve marveled at the battles between the 6-foot-9 Griner and 6-6 Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles in the paint. Reeve has coached Griner as an assistant coach for the U.S. women’s national team, and against her in the WNBA as head coach of the Minnesota Lynx.
From a purely competitive standpoint, how did Griner or Fowles ever get the edge?
“I think they probably asked each other that at times,” Reeve said, laughing. “Like, ‘How did I just do that vs. you?’ For Syl, it would be early positioning, and the defense before the catch. Letting great players catch the ball is a really bad idea, because then you’re in for it.
“With Brittney, there is also that turnaround jumper she has that nobody can get to.”
Reeve also pointed to another aspect of Griner’s game: Her ability to cover a lot of ground quickly. Reeve recalled a play that the Lynx ran for former point guard Lindsay Whalen, known as one of the best finishers at the rim in league history.
It was for Lindsay to set a screen, get a screen, go to the basket and get a layup,” Reeve said. “She was accustomed to doing this, she had done it to all kinds of opponents, we’d been running it for years. But we’re playing Phoenix one time and Lindsay gets the ball, turns the corner and thinks she’s got a layup.
“She doesn’t even see Brittney. All of a sudden, Brittney is just there and swats it away. Lindsay is bewildered, like, ‘Where the hell did she come from? How did she get that?’ But after that, Lindsay always had the mindset of, ‘Where’s Brittney?’ You had to keep in mind that with her length and her long stride, she could seem totally out of the play and then be right there.
“I always tell our team, ‘When we’re playing Brittney Griner, there’s a fine line between courage and stupidity with the shots that you take.'”
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