Brittney Griner, the US basketball star detained in Russia for months, will have a place at the Women’s National Basketball Association’s (WNBA) All-Star Game as an honorary starter.
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said on Wednesday that starters were chosen by a combination of fan, media and player voting.
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“During each season of Brittney’s career in which there has been an All-Star Game, she has been selected as an All-Star,” Engelbert said.
“It is not difficult to imagine that if BG [Griner] were here with us this season, she would once again be selected and would, no doubt, show off her incredible talents. So, it is only fitting that she be named as an honorary starter today and we continue to work on her safe return to the US.”
The development comes amid Griner’s continued detention since February 17, when authorities at an airport outside of Moscow said she had vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her bag.
The State Department in May designated Griner as wrongfully detained, moving her case under the supervision of its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, who is effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator.
A coalition of human rights groups on Wednesday called on President Joe Biden to “make a deal” to secure Griner’s release.
Forty advocacy groups including the National Organization for Women, Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD said they appreciated the Biden administration’s efforts, which included labeling the 31-year-old “wrongfully detained” and assigning diplomats to work for her release. But they said more needs to be done.
“The US Government has acknowledged that Brittney is essentially a political pawn in classifying her as wrongfully detained,” the groups said in a letter to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
“While these have been critically important measures, we now urge you to make a deal to get Brittney back home to America immediately and safely.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
One of the brightest stars in the top-flight US women’s professional basketball league, Griner is a WNBA champion, seven-time All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist.
Griner has for years played for a Russian professional team during the WNBA off-season to help supplement her income. She is a seven-time Russian League champion.
On Monday, a Kremlin spokesman said Griner was guilty of drug offences and not a hostage.
Griner tried to call her wife Cherelle Griner nearly a dozen times through the American embassy in Russia on their fourth anniversary on Saturday, but they never connected as the phone line at the embassy was not staffed.
“It was a logistical issue that was compounded in part by the fact that our embassy in Moscow is under significant restrictions in terms of its staffing,” State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said, adding the call has been rescheduled.
Russian state-run news agency Tass reported last week that Griner’s detention was extended until at least July 2. Another American, Paul Whelan, has been held in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges he and the US government say are false.
Meanwhile, Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson received the most votes from fans and were selected as co-captains for the WNBA event. They will be joined by Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles, who both have announced they will retire at the end of the season. Bird will set a record with her 13th All-Star appearance. Fowles, who is injured right now, was selected for her eighth game.
Stewart and Fowles will be paired up as co-captains, as will Wilson and Bird, and will choose their teams.
The league’s coaches will vote for the 12 reserves and the co-captains will draft their rosters on July 2. The game will take place on July 10 in Chicago with a 3-point competition and skills challenge the day before.