US Women's Basketball season kicks off with key star held in Russia

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Women's Basketball season kicks off in the United States on Friday without one of its brightest stars: Brittney Griner, who was arrested in Russia just before Moscow launched its war in Ukraine.

It has been some 80 days since the two-time Olympic gold medalist was arrested at the Moscow airport. But it has also taken the United States that long to go public with its push for her freedom.

The six-foot-nine (2.06-meter) player was halted on February 17 on charges of carrying in her luggage vape cartridges with cannabis oil, illegal in Russia.

The arrest, however, went largely unnoticed -- US authorities initially kept a low profile in the case, fearing that the player could be used as leverage in the war with Ukraine.

There were no vigils, there were no demonstrations.

Unlike Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, whose disappearance caused a commotion in the world of sports and was on the front page of newspapers, Griner's arrest was surround by silence. It was not even revealed to the general public until March 5.

But now, two weeks before the start of her trial, where Griner faces up to ten years in prison, the United States has changed its tack.

- 'Wrongfully detained' -

The State Department announced for the first time on Tuesday that Griner was "wrongfully detained."

As a result, the case will now be dealt with by the US administration's special envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens.

Carstens already helped secure the release of former US marine Trevor Reed, who was freed from detention in Russia last week in a Cold War-style prisoner swap with a detained Russian pilot.

The basketball player's wife, Cherelle Griner, who since March has mainly asked for respect for the couple's privacy, immediately spoke up.

"I love and miss you beyond words," Cherelle Griner posted Wednesday on her Instagram account, which includes a multitude of photos of the couple.

Griner had been in Russia to play club basketball before the US season resumed, a common practice for American players, who can earn much higher salaries in foreign leagues than on domestic teams.

Since her arrest, the player has been detained in a cell where she reads Dostoyevsky in a bed that is too small, according to Russian state news agency TASS.

The Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) has announced that it wants to pay tribute to Griner by displaying her initials and her number, 42, on the floors of the league's 12 teams during the 2022 season.

Griner's team, the Phoenix Mercury, which she helped lead to the championship final last year, faces the Las Vegas Aces at 7:00 pm local time Friday (0200 GMT Saturday)

The league promises that Griner will continue to collect her salary. The move has been welcomed by a number of female athletes, among them US soccer great Megan Rapinoe, who has become the face of the fight for equal pay between male and female athletes.

"If a Top-5 men's player in the world had been detained in Russia right now," former men's basketball player Rex Chapman wrote on Twitter, "... it would be getting more urgent coverage."

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