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Phoenix Mercury president on seeing Brittney Griner after Russia release, return to US

Griner was arrested and detained at a Russian airport in February 2022 for having cannabis oil in her luggage.
Brittney Griner
Posted at 5:53 PM, Jan 17, 2023

A new photo has emerged from the day WNBA player Brittney Griner flew back home to Arizona from Texas after her release from incarceration in Russia.

The Phoenix Mercury player was smiling and surrounded by team members and others in the photograph.

Mercury President Vince Kozar spoke to Scripps station KNXV in Phoenix about what that moment was like. KNXV Reporter Nick Ciletti was on the plane as it returned to Arizona.

Ciletti: "Take me back to the moment where you actually saw her in person for the first time."

Kozar: "We got off and surprised her and it was just a really special moment I'll remember for the rest of my life."

It was a heartfelt reunion nearly a year in the making.

Kozar was there along with teammate Diana Taurasi, Griner's wife Cherelle and Mercury General Manager Jim Pitman.

Ciletti: "What was her reaction when she saw you guys for the first time?"

Kozar: "She was elated and that's what I go back to. People have asked, was it emotional? Were there tears? And there just weren't because she was so excited and we were so excited for just that moment, we had gotten past any of the fear or sadness or anything else that came along with it."

Until that moment and a quick FaceTime call the night before, the only glimpses of Griner that Kozar saw were what the rest of the world got. The two-time Olympic athlete and fierce competitor on the basketball court locked up, in handcuffs and fighting for her freedom thousands of miles away in Russia.

Brittney Griner
WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom for a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Thursday, July 7, 2022. Jailed American basketball star Brittney Griner returns to a Russian court on Thursday amid a growing chorus of calls for Washington to do more to secure her release nearly five months after being arrested on drug charges. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Griner was arrested and detained at a Russian airport back in February 2022 for having cannabis oil inside her luggage, even though she has a medical license for it in Arizona. She went to trial, was convicted, then sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison camp. KNXV reported that Griner cut off her long hair to keep it from freezing in the brutal Russian cold.

She spoke about all of it on the plane right back to Arizona.

VIDEO: Brittney Griner lands in San Antonio after being released from Russian custody

"We talked about basketball. How much she missed it. What she wanted to do. What our team went through last year without her. It ran the gamut. And as strange as it sounds, it's almost like picking up where you left off," Kozar said.

"She is the same [Brittney Griner], obviously, no one can be exactly the same after going through what she's been through, but she's just a really really special and resilient person."

But now, Kozar says the real work begins. He says she is ready to get back on the court. On her own, she's been practicing, working out, and getting reacquainted with her old friend, basketball, but also not forgetting about her new mission off the court.

"It's a good reminder that there is a list of folks that are detained overseas who can't see their families. [Brittney] is a name on that list but we've crossed her off. We are on to the next person on that list. I know that's her work, I know that's Cherell's work we as an organization are committed to being part of that legacy work," Kozar said.

Mercury Griner WNBA Basketball
This photo provided by the U.S. Army shows WNBA star Brittney Griner arriving at Kelly Field in San Antonio following her release in a prisoner swap with Russia, Friday, Dec. 9, 2022.

TIMELINE: Brittney Griner's time in Russian custody, prisoner exchange

As far as her return to the WNBA, Griner said in an Instagram post last month that she intends to play again and be a member of the Phoenix Mercury. Currently, she is a free agent and contracts will go out in a few weeks.

This story was originally published by Scripps station KNXVin Phoenix, Arizona with adjustments and additions made by Scripps News.