When the WNBA All-Star Game tips off July 10, hearts and minds are going to be with Brittney Griner, the honorary starter who isn't in the building.
But no one's heart or mind has been more devoted to the two-time Olympic gold medalist, who's been locked up in Russia since Feb. 17 on drug smuggling charges, than her wife of three years, Cherelle Griner.
"BG is struggling, she's human," Cherelle told the Rev. Al Sharpton June 29 on his SiriusXM show Keepin' It Real. "She's there terrified, she's there alone."
Brittney was taken into custody at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport after a search of her carry-on bag allegedly turned up vape cartridges with hashish oil in them. On April 29, the U.S. State Department classified her as "wrongfully detained."
Numerous stars from the WNBA and NBA, including LeBron James, have spoken up on her behalf, demanding the U.S. government get her home. A new "Free Brittney" campaign has swept social media, with fans toting signs to games to keep her plight front and center for the cameras. A floor decal with her initials and jersey number, 42, has been installed on the sidelines of all 12 WNBA team venues.
"Things like that matter, like, it has her hopeful," Cherelle told Good Morning America host Robin Roberts on May 25. "It lets her know she's not forgotten. Those small moments, I know, give her some type of hope."
Cherelle said that she had spoken to U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and was "grateful," but even though she was assured that securing Brittney's release was a top priority, "I wanna see it, and I feel like to see it would be me seeing BG on U.S. soil."
In a letter, their only means of communication since her wife's arrest (aside from texts Brittney sent before her phone was confiscated, when she was first in custody), Cherelle said Brittney wrote her, "'Babe, I know you wanna go down right now, but like, don't just yet.'"
Easier said than done, of course, but Cherelle told Roberts, "I won't go down until she's back. Every single day matters for me to be sound, for me to be alert, for me to be attentive, to make sure that she comes back."
However, at a June 27 preliminary hearing, Brittney's detention was extended another six months. The 31-year-old has not made any public statements since news broke of her arrest on March 5—three weeks after it happened. According to the State Department, U.S. officials who finally got to see her on March 23 "found her to be in good condition."
Brittney appeared in court for the start of her trial July 2, wearing a T-shirt with Jimi Hendrix's face on it. The next session is scheduled for July 7.
The Houston native is facing a possible sentence of 10 years in prison for what Russian authorities charge was "large-scale transportation of drugs." According to reported figures, the acquittal rate for criminal defendants in Russian courts is lower than 1 percent.
Which, needless to say, is a terrifying prospect for Cherelle.
"Everything about this is just her biggest nightmare," she told Sharpton, "on top of the fact that BG is in a situation where this isn't even a trial...Nothing about this is justice."
They were supposed to talk for the first time on June 18, but Brittney's multiple attempts to reach someone at the American embassy in Moscow went unanswered.
At first, Cherelle worried that Russian authorities, who approved the call, had blocked it from happening. But a couple days later, Brittney's lawyers told her that no one had picked up at the embassy, that Brittney had been calling an unstaffed desk due to a scheduling mistake.
"I was distraught. I was hurt. I was done, fed up," Cherelle told the Associated Press June 20. "I'm pretty sure I texted BG's agent and was like, 'I don't want to talk to anybody. It's going to take me a minute to get my emotions together, and just tell everybody I'm unavailable right now.' Because it just knocked me out. I wasn't well, I'm still not well." (The State Department told the AP that the call would be rescheduled.)
Cherelle told Sharpton that she still hadn't spoken to Brittney. She said that the 6-foot-9 athlete—who had been playing in the Russian Premier League since 2014 to supplement her income during the WNBA's off-season—wrote in a letter that she was OK but "hardened" by her experience.
"'I'm not me right now,'" she continued, per Cherelle. "'When I come home, it's going to take me a minute to get back to myself, but I'm holding on. I won't break until I come home. I won't let them break me. I know they are trying to, but I'm going to do my best to just hold on until I can get home.'"
As for Cherelle, she too is doing just OK. "I wish I could say I was better," she said, "but until my wife is home there is a huge piece of me that is missing."
She told Joy Reid on MSNBC's The ReidOut June 22 that it was frustrating to have to rely on updates from "people that don't know Brittney at all."
"Her attorneys will tell me their version of how they feel she's doing," Cherelle explained, "but I know my wife, so being able to actually hear her voice would have been that one moment where I could actually know for myself how she's doing. Because she can tell me she's fine, but I would know if she's not fine."
And they had already been through so much together, including Brittney packing up for months at a time to go play for UMMC Ekaterinburg, where her $1 million-per-season salary was four times the amount she made playing for her longtime WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury.
Last Thanksgiving, the eight-time All-Star and 2014 WNBA champion shared how happy she was to be home with her "beautiful wife" in the U.S. for a change, writing on Instagram, "I wish I could spend every fukin second with her because she gives me a joy I can't find anywhere else."
Up until her arrest, Brittney regularly telegraphed her love and appreciation for Cherelle, crediting the 30-year-old with showing her "what it takes to Really have a Relationship that takes sacrifices, compassion, understanding, and communication."
Though they didn't make it stick until their second go-round as a couple, they first dated when they were undergraduates at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where Brittney played hoops for the Lady Bears. (She was named National Player of the Year in 2012, capping off a championship-winning season in which they became the first Baylor basketball team, men's or women's, to go 40-0, and she subsequently went No. 1 to the Mercury in the 2013 WNBA draft.)
"I will never forget the day I met you at Baylor in the sub area!" Brittney wrote on June 18, 2020, to mark their second anniversary. "You tapped me on my shoulder and told me I took your milkshake (still up for debate lol) and I was immediately blown away at your beauty! You had no idea but I knew you were the one for me baby. You stuck by my side at the lowest and at the highest!"
One of the lower points came when Brittney and then-fiancée Glory Johnson, who played for the Tulsa Shock at the time, were both arrested in April 2015 for assault stemming from an altercation at their home. (A judge dismissed the charges against Glory, while Brittney pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and agreed to attend domestic violence counseling.)
Yet she and Glory still got married on May 8, a move Brittney called a "huge mistake" barely a month later when she filed for an annulment. She didn't get one, but their divorce was finalized in June 2016.
Making matters more confusing, Glory had announced the day before their split went public that she was pregnant, writing that it was her dream to "start a family with someone I love."
She's now mom to 6-year-old twin girls and, despite their rocky history, the bearer of no hard feelings.
After news broke of Brittney's arrest, Glory relayed on Instagram that if all the people who'd been calling and texting wanted dirt on her ex, they shouldn't waste their time. "Our Divorce ACTUALLY brought Us closer than I could have EVER imagined!" wrote the 31-year-old, who now plays for Beşiktaş in the Turkish Super League. "Over the past several years, we still call each other to share our feelings, secrets, & even Life goals. People want to see her Fail, yet Don't care if she Succeeds...Yeah I'm not here for that either."
Glory concluded, "Understand we were already locked in a cell together & we walked out together. I don't need to be married to someone to be there for them. Please flood her family w/ Love & Prayers!"
Meanwhile, after her divorce, Brittney reconnected with her college sweetheart.
In August 2018, she posted a pic of the diamond she'd slipped on Cherelle's finger. "I will never forget the first time I said I love you and I will never forget when you said YES!" she wrote. "My best friend, my lover, my partner in life. I love you. I'm so lucky to have you in my life forever. You never gave up on me even when I gave up on myself. You have pull me from the ashes and held me up when I couldn't stand. You really are my backbone and my spirit that keeps me going."
On her June 18, 2020, anniversary post, Cherelle wrote, "Two years with your last name and a decade of friendship!! You are so much more than what meets the eye!"
Fast-forwarding to 2022, with Cherelle entering her final semester of law school at North Carolina Central University and the WNBA more popular than ever, they had nothing but high hopes for the year ahead.
"What a way to start off the new year than to wake up next to you baby," Brittney captioned a photo of Cherelle on Jan. 1. "It doesn't matter what happens in the world this year or any year; as long as I got you by my side I'm ready! Happy New Years everyone. Hope y'all's start was as beautiful as mine."
Brittney's last post is from Feb. 5, a shot with some of her Mercury teammates. Cherelle, who's now busy studying for the bar exam, honored their June 18 anniversary as usual, sharing a video of them from happier times with the simple caption, "#year4," plus a heart and fingers-crossed emoji.
"BG would wholeheartedly love to not go overseas," Cherelle said May 25 on Good Morning America. "She has only had one Thanksgiving in the States in nine years since she's been pro, and she misses all that stuff. Just because, you know, she can't make enough money in the WNBA, like, to sustain her life."
A life she hopes they'll once again be sharing in the same country, let alone the same house, as soon as possible.