By Simon Lewis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A top coach for U.S. women's pro basketball who once represented Russia at the Olympics has made a plea for Russian President Vladimir Putin to "do the right thing" and quickly release American star player Brittney Griner https://www.reuters.com/world/us/brittney-griner-appears-russian-court-after-us-makes-swap-offer-2022-08-02.
Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon, who as a player spent years in Russia and won Olympic bronze for her adopted country, said it was upsetting to see a fellow member of the tight-knit women’s basketball community locked up for nearly six months. Washington says Griner is wrongfully detained in Russia https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/us-basketball-star-griner-set-testify-russian-trial-2022-07-27.
“It’s something that obviously hits super close to home for me and so I just ask the Russian government to do the right thing. It’s never too late to do the right thing,” Hammon told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday in an appeal that was joined by other figures in global women's basketball. “We're asking for leniency. We're asking for grace. And we're asking to bring home BG.”
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and center for WNBA team Phoenix Mercury, is expected to return to a Russian court on Thursday for closing arguments in her trial https://www.reuters.com/world/us/brittney-griner-appears-russian-court-after-us-makes-swap-offer-2022-08-02. She faces up to 10 years in prison on drugs charges after she was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport on Feb. 17 with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.
Her arrest as she headed to join her Russian team in the American off-season came days before Russia launched its full-scale invasion https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/ukraine-russia-what-you-need-know-right-now-2022-07-03 of Ukraine, plunging relations between Moscow and Washington to their lowest point in decades and thrusting Griner into the center of a geopolitical tussle.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week the United States has made a "substantial offer" to Russia to release Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan, who the United States also considers to be wrongfully detained https://www.reuters.com/world/who-are-americans-held-captive-abroad-2022-07-28 in Russia. A source said that Washington was willing to exchange convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout https://www.reuters.com/world/who-is-viktor-bout-arms-dealer-linked-swap-americans-held-by-moscow-2022-08-01, known as the "Merchant of Death.”
Moscow has said no deal has yet been done. A swap is unlikely to take place before a verdict in Griner’s trial, but that could take place in the coming days.
'ONE OF THE GREATEST'
Hammon, a six-time WNBA all-star player, played during the off-season for several Russian teams, a common move for WNBA players seeking to supplement incomes that are lower than their male counterparts'. She became a naturalized citizen and won a bronze Olympic medal for Russia in 2008 and competed again in 2012, but said her Russian citizenship had since expired.
Hammon - reportedly the first WNBA coach to be paid more than $1 million – described Griner as “one of the greatest players to ever play,” and said it was possible the detention of a male athlete at the same level would have drawn a greater response.
“It's hard to imagine, though, that if this was, you know, LeBron James, that he'd still be sitting over there in jail,” said Hammon. “It’s hard not to let your mind go there.”
Hammon said she had always supported the campaign to free Griner, but was speaking out as Griner’s trial draws to a close and Russia has an opportunity to send her home.
Several others who played in Russia also called for Griner's release. Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart, Spanish shooting guard Marta Xargay and Griner's Phoenix Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi, who played in Russia for over 10 years, recorded video appeals that were shared with Reuters on Wednesday.
"We called Russia our second home for many years. I ask, for the sanctity of sport, to have mercy and understanding for our beloved Brittney Griner," said Taurasi.
Hammon said as an athlete she was not political, but appealed to Putin and Russian authorities to show "mercy" and let Griner return to her wife in the United States.
“If that was your daughter or your sister or your wife or whoever, you can imagine the agony that you'd been going through waiting,” she said. “Enough is enough.”
She also warned that Russian athletes would suffer repercussions from the detention of a top athlete traveling to compete.
“I think Mr. Putin is a pretty big sports fan - to jeopardize all these athletes, I mean would just be really unfortunate,” said Hammon.
Russian sports teams and athletes have been excluded from some international events over the invasion of Ukraine, and Olympic officials have said Russia could be banned from the 2024 games in Paris. Russia has not faced sporting sanctions for Griner's detention.
“If (Griner) were to have to serve a (prison) sentence, I think there would have to be bad implications internationally on the sports world,” Hammon said. “There's certain ways to put pressure on Russia. Hopefully it doesn't come to that.”
(Reporting by Simon Lewis;Editing by Mary Milliken and Nick Zieminski)