They enjoy thinking about their laughter, their hugs, their sweet tooth, their impressive skills, their love for their teammates. As Brittney Griner turns 32 on Tuesday, it is also the 243rd day since she was unjustly detained in Russia, and she will spend her birthday far from home, loved ones and basketball family.
Griner, the longtime Phoenix Mercury and USA Basketball Center, has been detained in Russia since February 17 and was arrested on charges of bringing vape cartridges containing cannabis oil into the country. On August 4, Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison and efforts are ongoing to arrange a diplomatic prisoner exchange that would allow her to return to the United States.
“I think of her every day,” he said New York freedom Coach Sandy Brondello, who managed Mercury from 2014 to 2021. “Not just the great player she has become. She has this incredible laugh that I can’t wait to hear again.”
Brondello and others shared some of their fondest memories of Griner on and off the pitch.
“BG has such a human side that many outsiders don’t know,” said the former US basketball head coach Dawn Staley said. “I wish a lot of people could see that and express themselves with the honesty that Brittney does.”
Staley, who has led the Gamecocks to two NCAA titles including the 2022 championship, led the U.S. national team to gold medals at the 2018 FIBA World Championship and the 2020 Summer Olympics. Griner played on both teams, and Staley recalled a time , when the center got irritated in practice and allowed him to switch 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 bothered her in training. I went up to her and said, ‘You know, I actually like it when you get angry and you’re super focused and you just do what needs to be done. ‘
“Brittney was like, ‘Oh, you wouldn’t like it if I got really angry.’ She felt challenged and when that happens she will do what she has to do but she will let you know that she is not happy. So this kind stayed in game the next day. I went to her in game and said, “BG, don’t let anything disturb your balance. Just keep doing what you can.”
“Then she comes to me after the game in real BG form and says, ‘Thanks for what you said, Coach. Because it takes a real person to see how they act and react. I didn’t really think anything of it, but I appreciated that she processed it and then she came back and took responsibility. We laughed about it because things happen and then you just keep it moving.
“BG is the ultimate pro and she does her job. But she’s able to stop, evaluate, and then say, ‘Hey, I’m sorry.’ Sometimes we just don’t get enough of that resonance in our sport and in our world.”
Turner, a forward, joined Mercury in 2019 and was Griner’s teammate for three years before Griner dropped out last season. Turner recalls a birthday dinner for Griner at Steak 44 in Phoenix last October, attended by most of the team, shortly after Mercury lost to them Chicago sky in the 2021 WNBA Finals.
Turner said the group sat for over two hours reminiscing about the season, everything from Turner scoring on a layup in New York after Griner gave her a jump ball Kia nurse Hitting a half-court buzzer beater to beat the Sky early in the season.
“It was such a positive environment, full of laughter and love,” Turner said. “It was also important because many of us would be moving abroad soon, so we knew it would be the last time we see each other before WNBA training camp in 2022.”
After dinner, Griner and her wife, Cherelle Griner, invited the team to their home.
“We played with their dogs, watched TV and reminisced about our season. BG nonchalantly had her most recent Olympic gold medal on her coffee table, and I made sure to take a selfie with it like I’d just won gold and stood on a podium.
“But that’s exactly the kind of person BG is: humble and welcoming to those around him. I’m holding so tight to these memories of that evening. It’s crazy to think that it’s been a year since I last saw her in person; her birthday is obvious It’s so different this time but I was able to send her a letter and hopefully she gets it on her birthday.
“So many people who don’t know BG personally have so many different opinions about her. But I can honestly say that BG is probably the warmest person I know. Her energy is contagious and she is the first person willing to help someone in need.”
Before Griner won gold at the Tokyo Olympics, she helped the US Women at the Rio 2016 Games, where Auriemma coached the team.
The 11-time national champion recalled a moment he shared with Griner off the court.
“I think it was 2013, we did a tour of Europe to prepare for the World Cup.
“While we were in Italy, I asked if anyone wanted to drive to the house where I was born. Only two players said yes; Brittney was one. When we got there all my aunts, uncles and cousins were waiting. Everyone got out of the van and said hello and smiled. It was all normal until BG got out. They all reacted in shock and delight, they had never seen anyone, male or female, that tall in their lives.
“After the hugs and greetings, 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 as excited as she was to try their cheese and meat. When we got to the airport the next day, BG just wanted to know where she could buy and ship home all the goodies she’d just enjoyed.
“Brittney is and always will be a legend in my hometown of Montella, Italy.”
All I can say is we miss you, we are here for you and we celebrate the day you blessed everyone in this world. We could never forget you or neglect you and fight everyday for you to be home to love and appreciate everything you mean to us.
Happy birthday 🤍 pic.twitter.com/bMyII8LMmI
— Nneka Ogwumike (@nnekaogwumike) October 18, 2022
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 #1 draft pick in 2013 and had a good rookie year, but Brondello thought Griner was just beginning 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 championship in 2014.
“Before practice, she would always come into the office where the assistant coaches and I were and say, ‘Good morning!’ and watch the practice game to see what she was up to and mentally prepare for it. She was always early in training and ate Jack in the Box. During the film, she brought her candy 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’s one of the best teammates ever and I agree.”
Happy Birthday @brittneygriner ! Your absence is felt every day when you are not here, but today we gather to celebrate you. We love you BG and we won’t stop until you get home! pic.twitter.com/imJo8xWRvv
— Breanna Stewart (@breannastewart) October 18, 2022
Cheryl Reeve, Lynx and USA Basketball head coach
Reeve marveled at the struggles between the 6-foot-9 Griner and 6-6 Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles in paint. Reeve has coached Griner as an assistant coach for the US 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 gain an advantage?
“I think they probably wondered that at times,” Reeve said, laughing. “Like ‘How did I just do that to you?’ For Syl it would be early positioning and defending before the catch. Letting strong players catch the ball is a really bad idea because that’s your turn.
“Brittney also has this turnaround sweater that she has that no one can touch.”
Reeve also pointed out another aspect of Griner’s game: her ability to cover a lot of ground quickly. Reeve recalled a game the Lynx ran for former point guard Lindsay Whalen, known for being one of the best edge finishers in league history.
It was for Lindsay to put up a screen, get a screen, go to the basket and get a layup,” Reeve said. “She was used to it, she’d done it to all sorts of opponents, we’d directed it for years. But we play Phoenix one time and Lindsay gets the ball and turns the corner and thinks she has a layup.
“She doesn’t even see Brittney. Suddenly Brittney is just there and slaps it away. Lindsay is confused and says, ‘Where the hell is she from? How did she get that?’ But after that, Lindsay was always like, ‘Where’s Brittney?’ You had to consider that with her length and long stride, she could appear completely out of the game and then be right there.
“I always tell our team, ‘When we play Brittney Griner, there’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity in the shots that you take.'”