Brittney Griner’s release from detention in Russia ends a nine-month ordeal and allows her the chance to restart her stellar basketball career.
Griner had a standout college career for the Baylor Lady Bears, where she broke numerous records, including the most blocks in a season in NCAA history with 223, her college’s first ever triple-double and the NCAA single-game blocks record with 14.
Her NCAA career – which also included two first-team All-American picks and one second-team All-American pick – peaked in 2011/12 when she led the Lady Bears to the first ever undefeated, 40-win season in NCAA history, men or women, and the NCAA title. Griner also won both the Wade Trophy for best women’s player on the collegiate level and the AP Player of the Year for the season.
After leading Baylor to the Sweet 16 the following year, Griner was selected first by the Phoenix Mercury in the 2013 WNBA draft.
She was named an All-Star in her rookie season, but missed the game due to injury. In total, Griner is an seven-time WNBA All-Star – only seven players in WNBA history have made more All-Star appearances. She was named an honorary All-Star at this year’s game.
She has also won two WNBA scoring titles and been the league’s block leader eight times.
Griner won her lone WNBA championship – and the franchise’s third – in her second season with the Mercury in 2014, as she continued to make history. The following season, in the opening game of the 2015 WNBA playoffs, she set the single-game WNBA record for blocks with 11 against the Tulsa Shock and currently holds the all-time WNBA record for made dunks with 23, per ESPN.
The 6-foot-9-inch center has become known for her dunking ability, with only three other regular season dunks being recorded by the rest of the players in the WNBA’s 25-year history.
The 32-year-old has also won gold twice for Team USA at the Summer Olympics and won another two gold medals with the US at the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup.
She is unquestionably one of the US’ greatest ever players.
So why was she in Russia?
For many years, WNBA players have regularly gone overseas during the WNBA’s offseason to make the most of the higher salaries they can earn in international leagues.
Griner has been doing so since the 2013/14 season, playing for Chinese side Zhejiang Golden Bulls until 2014 when she signed for Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg, returning each year to play.
Under the WNBA’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), the average cash compensation for players is almost $130,000. For the top stars, the WNBA says they can earn “in excess of $500,000,” which is three times what they could earn under the previous CBA.
“Other top players will have an opportunity to earn between $200,000 and $300,000,” a WNBA statement on the new CBA read.
These salary increases were implemented partly to try and stop players traveling abroad, but these figures still pale in comparison to salaries in Russia.
Top WNBA stars competing in the Russian Women’s Basketball Premier League – where there are no salary caps like there are in the WNBA – can often expect to earn more than $1 million per year.
Last winter, Griner, reigning league MVP Jonquel Jones and Courtney Vandersloot of current WNBA champion Chicago Sky were among the players competing in leagues in Russia and Ukraine.
According to the New York Times, nearly half of the WNBA’s 144 players traveled to play abroad during the last offseason.
“Playing overseas has some positives, as the players are able to improve their style and can increase their individual technique,” Janeth Arcain, a retired WNBA player and current agent, told CNN in March.
“But negatively, there is a factor that you will be tired for the new WNBA season and this can cause injuries and, maybe, you’ll be out of the season.
“I don’t think the salaries of the WNBA are enough, so many players will play in other countries to be able to increase their income and be able to have and provide a better quality of life for her and her family members.”
In the past, star names such as Diana Taurasi, Becky Hammon and Sue Bird have also played in Russia. In 2015, Taurasi opted not to play in the WNBA for a year after her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, offered to pay her more than her season’s WNBA salary.