Inside Brittney Griner's Russia arrest, detainment and release

Five new details about Brittney Griner's imprisonment (2:19)

ESPN senior writer T.J. Quinn details five key behind-the-scenes moments involving Brittney Griner's arrest, detainment and prisoner exchange. (2:19)

Early on the morning of Dec. 7, 2022, Viktor Bout heard the sounds of multiple footsteps bouncing off concrete walls, a sharp break from the clockwork prison routines. He knew something was happening.

Normally, the day inside the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, started an hour later, when a single guard came for the 5 a.m. count. But now three guards stood outside his cell with empty cardboard boxes. They knocked against the door grate.

"Pack up," one told him. "You know where you're going."

"I hope so," he said.

The guards told him they would be back in 20 minutes. It wouldn't take that long to box up the few family photos, four or five books, and the drawings he had made.

While he packed, some 5,200 miles away, American basketball player Brittney Griner already had been moved out of a Russian women's prison.

For months, the two had known their best chance at freedom would be an exchange for the other, if their countries could navigate the hostile geopolitical thicket to make such a deal.

But Bout knew he wasn't free until he walked away from the people who had complete control over his life and back into the hands of his own. Deals break down. Even as he dressed that morning in a prison-drab T-shirt, jeans and the New Balance sneakers he bought at the prison commissary, he never forgot that.

"It's a Zen moment when you need to be present right here and right now," Bout told ESPN. "That's maybe the skill that helped me get through all this s---. You learn to handle the horses in your head."

He packed, threw the rest of his gray and beige prison clothes into plastic bags to donate to other inmates, and waited. The guards returned and escorted him to the receive and dispatch office, where he waited a couple of hours for the U.S. marshals.

A supervisor arrived with a jacket and clothes that were more appropriate for his life outside prison, something Bout says he was grateful for, knowing she must have been awakened by a call in the middle of the night. He respected how the guards and marshals did their jobs, he says, describing them as "professional and kind." He says they wished each other well.

The next day -- Dec. 8, 2022 -- Bout and Griner met on an airport tarmac in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, each escorted by officials from the other's country. For Bout, once described by the U.S. Justice Department as one of the most prolific arms dealers in the world, the swap ended 14 years in custody. For Griner, it meant the WNBA star would return home after being held nearly 10 months in Russia on drug charges. Her case spurred political and social outpourings, and unprecedented global attention to the cause of wrongful detainees.

During those 10 months, Griner and Bout knew little about the machinations that would lead to their eventual meeting, other than scant details shared by diplomatic officials and their own lawyers. The public heard even less.

Griner had entered Russia on Feb. 17, 2022, with the country on the verge of war, and her failure to remove two vape cartridges from her backpack led to a standoff that left her at the mercy of Russian President Vladimir Putin's government. Since her arrest, ESPN has interviewed White House and State Department officials, people close to Griner and the experts in and out of government who advised them, sources in Russia, her teammates, the retired U.S. federal judge who sentenced Bout, and Bout himself about the complex, delicate, exhaustive and, at times, tense efforts to get Griner out. Sources disclosed key details of events leading up to Griner's arrest, the strategic conversations happening within her close network, and the diplomatic, legal and political maneuverings that reached into the White House and the Kremlin.

Griner, 33, who is working on a memoir, and her wife, Cherelle, declined to be interviewed.

Despite the months of agonizing delays, legal and diplomatic back-and-forth, with all the wheels turning, in the end, whatever happened to Bout and Griner would happen when Putin decided it would. Each was at the mercy of secret talks between their governments, and in a way, Bout identified with this American woman he had never met.

"The normal person has to pay a price because politics, and politicians on the both sides trying to play their own chess on this big chessboard which they call geopolitics," Bout says. "And I feel really sorry when this wheel, of, whatever you call it, destiny, goes through somebody else's lives, ruining it, because I have my own experience, you know?"

Early indications

In late 2021 and early 2022, as international tension rose over Russia's threats to invade Ukraine, an official in the U.S. State Department saw an alarming trend.

"There was a surge of arrests of Americans," said the official, who asked not to be identified. "At least six to nine Americans were arrested -- about a four-month period in the run-up to the war. Does it portend something more dire? Are they going to grab every American in Russia?"

Americans landing in Moscow were being searched frequently. Those stopped, the official said, typically were detained for a couple of days, then fined and deported. Officials say they had seen this pattern before when Russian authorities targeted citizens of countries engaged in diplomatic disputes with the Kremlin.

A list of Russian customs reports dating back to March 2021 identified only one American detained. A State Department official says they knew of other Americans who had been stopped, and noted that the reports did not include Griner.

When Griner arrived, the official said, Russian authorities seemed to be fishing for an American. They didn't appear to be targeting anyone, the official said.

"Most of the people who were arrested were doing things that probably would have skipped scrutiny if the Russians hadn't been looking for Americans to arrest," he said. "And I think she walked right into it."

Stopped and searched

In early February 2022, Brittney Griner, ailing from injuries and exhausted from a bout of COVID-19 that her entire UMMC Ekaterinburg team seemed to catch, flew home to Phoenix during the EuroLeague's annual break.

Friends and teammates say she was ambivalent about returning to Russia. She had felt her mental health strained since 2020 when the WNBA season was played in a quarantine bubble, and she had wondered whether her $1.2 million Russian base salary -- more than five times what she made in the WNBA -- was worth it.

At the last minute, Griner decided to go. Players were due back by Feb. 18. She boarded a flight on the 15th at Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport, with a backpack and two suitcases, headed for New York, where she would catch a flight to Moscow. But her flight to New York was late and she missed her connection at JFK, so she spent the night in a hotel and flew the next day.

On Feb. 17 at 11:55 a.m. Moscow time, Aeroflot Flight 103 landed at Sheremetyevo Airport. Griner went through immigration and customs, then headed through domestic security to catch her connecting flight to Ekaterinburg.

What happened next has been seen all over the world: Griner, her signature locks dangling over the back of her "Black Lives For Peace" hoodie, walking toward the baggage X-ray machine; Griner leaning her 6-foot-9 frame on a table while a Russian customs official seals something in an evidence bag; Griner signing papers at the direction of airport security -- papers she later said were in Russian and that she didn't understand.

Friends of Griner's, her attorneys in Russia and U.S. government officials described what unfolded that day: As Griner's backpack went through the X-ray, a screening agent saw cartridges and pulled the bag for inspection. An agent found two vape cartridges, one in the side pocket, one in the bag itself, removed them and sealed them in an evidence bag and sent them to a lab 40 minutes from the airport. Russian customs officials later said dogs had detected the cartridges, but Griner's lawyers say that was not true.

(That's one reason State Department officials said they believed Griner's story that she had packed the cartridges inadvertently: There was no obvious effort to hide them. Besides, she already had gone through TSA screening with that bag twice in the United States, once in Phoenix and once in New York.)

After the cartridges were packed, a security official took her to a small room and two female officers searched her. Griner began asking two questions that she would repeat for the next 12 hours: Was she under arrest? No. Could she leave? No.

Because she was being held on suspicion and technically not under arrest, they let her keep her phone. A little after 3 p.m. Moscow time, 5 a.m. in Phoenix, Griner called her wife, Cherelle.

Cherelle Griner texted Griner's agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, and Tracy Hughes, director of client services for Wasserman, an international marketing and talent managing agency:

"Hey good morning, Whichever one of you wakes up the soonest -- BG forgot two pens in her backpack and is currently detained by Russian customs agents upon her landing in Moscow. Can someone please reach out to her?"

Cherelle, then a third-year law student, pointed out that Brittney had the cartridges legally with a prescription in Arizona, but Cherelle knew that wouldn't help her in another country.

As Griner was being driven -- in an officer's personal car -- from the terminal to a holding area outside the airport, she texted Hughes:

"I forgot two in my backpack when I left phx"

"Two small .5 cartridges"

Griner, seated among guards who generally were polite, waited in a small room with gray walls, a cheap table with pressed wood and a large safe, waiting for the lab test results.

Hughes called Colas -- it was 4:50 a.m. for her on the West Coast -- who immediately became the engine behind efforts to get Griner home.

For the next few hours, Colas and Hughes communicated with Brittney and Cherelle while scrambling to find anyone with connections in Russia. A firm the size of Wasserman meant extensive connections around the world. Its chief legal officer, Michael Pickles, was fluent in Russian. And agency head Casey Wasserman himself was connected to officials in numerous countries. Within hours of Griner's arrest, Wasserman called a senior U.S. government official. Two immediate tasks took priority: Find someone in power who could step in and get Griner out before it became public, and get her a lawyer in Russia.

Colas texted Cherelle, explaining the limited number of people who knew about the arrest at that point -- Casey Wasserman, Phoenix Mercury officials and WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert: "But it won't leave that circle. Whether it comes from the Russian side, we can't control."

Brittney Griner complained mildly that two guards were mostly staring at her.

A Wasserman agent knew someone at one of Russia's top men's teams, PBC CSKA in Moscow. That person recommended a Moscow criminal defense attorney: Alexander Boykov. Colas reached out to him.

A little while later, Hughes checked in on Griner, who texted back that she was still waiting for the lab results.

"Dude telling me if it's CBD I'm free if it's THC I get interrogated and lawyer and basically bad. So I'm f---ed."


Alexander Boykov is a 6-4 bearded Moscow criminal defense attorney with round wire-rimmed glasses who sometimes wears his hair in a short ponytail, speaks fluent English and carries a photo of the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards in his wallet. He plays guitar in a band that does originals, along with Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker Band covers. He played basketball growing up, followed the NBA and WNBA and the Russian professional league, and, though he has never been to the United States, has a list of legendary music studios he would like to visit.

About 2½ hours after Griner had been detained, Boykov, 35 at the time, was in his Moscow apartment getting ready to walk his dogs when someone he knew from the CSKA men's basketball team called. An American basketball player had been detained at the airport, and they wanted him to get down there. He changed out of his shorts and into long pants and put on a turtleneck.

Colas sent him a pin with Griner's location, a customs office across the road from the airport. Boykov recognized it immediately.

He drove 40 minutes to the spot and told guards at the gate why he was there. They had her, they said, but he couldn't go in -- she wasn't officially under arrest yet and couldn't see a lawyer until she was. He parked and joined them in a guardhouse about the size of a two-car garage.

He called Griner's phone number and told her Colas had hired him as her lawyer.

"I said I'm aware of the situation, that it's better that she will not sign any documents," he says. "She was pretty calm. I think she thought that maybe it's, not like a misunderstanding, but not that big of a problem. As it turned out to be."

Boykov says that, with her prominence in the country, he thinks Griner expected to be released.

As they spoke, he asked her to hand her phone to the officers so he could speak to them in Russian.

"They were waiting for express forensics to come up with some sort of result," he says. "If they found nothing illegal in there, they would just try to ease the whole situation and apologize and so on."

Besides waiting for the forensics test, Griner would have to wait for someone to retrieve the suitcase she had checked to Ekaterinburg. Airport security missed the fact that Griner had checked a bag, which was now on her scheduled flight. The bag would have to be found, put on a flight back to Moscow, collected and inspected.

When it arrived, Boykov says, Griner was driven back to the airport terminal so she could observe the inspection under the same surveillance camera that had recorded her earlier.

Nothing was found in the checked bag. She was driven back to the customs office where Boykov was still waiting in the guardhouse.

"I waited eight hours at the checkpoint," Boykov says. "The guards were really nice. They gave me coffee."

Around 4 or 5 a.m., Boykov says, a guard came into the room where he had been waiting. The tests showed that the cartridges had THC.

"They finally said based on the forensic they have a reason to detain Brittney and to tell her that she's a suspect in a crime now," Boykov says.

Inside the building, an officer took Griner's wedding ring and other jewelry and her phone, but one guard let her use his phone to call Cherelle to say she was being arrested.

Guards escorted Boykov to the small room where Griner, wearing a T-shirt, exhausted and sitting in a chair, met him for the first time. He told the guards he needed to speak with his client and led her into a hallway where they spoke for about 20 minutes. Boykov estimates this was around 6 a.m., 16 or 17 hours after she had landed, following a nine-hour flight.

"She was definitely up the whole time," he says. "She was tired, definitely worried, but not like hysterical. She was concerned and tired."

'In the Kremlin's hands'

At the time of Griner's arrest, her detention was anything but wrongful. She knew it, and Russian authorities knew it. Russia had not yet publicized her case or used it for propaganda.

A U.S. law enacted 14 months earlier, the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, lays out criteria to determine whether someone is wrongfully detained. At that moment, Griner didn't meet any of them. That meant her case automatically fell to the State Department's consular affairs office, as would that of any American under arrest in another country.

But that created a problem for her agents, who were trying to get information: State Department officials were legally prevented from discussing her case with anyone other than her wife until Griner signed a waiver.

One of Colas' early calls was to Jim Tooley, the CEO of USA Basketball; Griner was a two-time Olympian. Tooley then called the man the NBA turns to for international issues, Travis Murphy, a former State Department foreign service officer and the CEO of Jetr Global Partners, a consulting firm. Murphy was in Cleveland for the NBA's All-Star week.

"We were very much in confirmation mode," Murphy says.

It was late in Moscow, so Murphy called the U.S. Embassy's after-hours "duty" phone, where he reached a Marine guard and asked to speak to the consular general. Murphy reached an official who said he knew Griner was in custody but couldn't say anything else. The embassy already was understaffed and preoccupied; Russia had just expelled the U.S. deputy chief of mission in Moscow, Bart Gorman.

"Brittney hadn't signed a privacy act waiver," Murphy says, "and without that they can't tell us anything."

It took about a week, but Boykov met with Griner and got the waiver signed. In addition to Cherelle, U.S. officials would be allowed to speak only to Colas and Murphy. Members of Congress and the media were excluded.

Griner's team quickly made a plan: See if someone can intervene to get her out before it ever became public. Call everyone and anyone who might know someone in Russia, someone who could pull a string with the Kremlin or the security services. Better yet, with Vladimir Putin himself.

The Wasserman agency already had a crucial connection in the United States: Rica Rodman, executive director of the Wasserman Foundation, had worked in the Clinton administration with Ron Klain, who in 2022 was President Joe Biden's chief of staff. Griner's agents had a direct line to the Oval Office and would use it regularly.

But as the calls started going out, the news coming back wasn't good. A Moscow connection reached out to the city's mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, but there was nothing he could do. This was in the Kremlin's hands.

Murphy called Andreas Zagklis, secretary general of FIBA, which oversees international basketball. Zagklis told ESPN he called Andrei Kirilenko, the former NBA forward who was president of Russia's national basketball federation, and Oleg Matytsin, Russian minister for sport, the equivalent of a Cabinet-level office in the Kremlin.

"The message to both individuals was clear: Here is an Olympic champion and world champion and one of the best players in our sport," Zagklis says. "It is in the interests of FIBA to understand what is happening in this case and if there is something we could do. Both gentlemen were immediately reactive and responded to my call, and both told me we will look immediately into it. And a few hours later, both told me there was a legal procedure going on, and that is the end of our intervention."

Someone in the Kremlin already had decreed that Griner's case would go through the legal system, and there was no one who could make a phone call to get Griner released.

Still, it wasn't certain Russia would treat her as a hostage. Russian officials had not publicized her case, and it was possible she could be prosecuted and jailed for a few months or fewer, which was typical for such cases.

State Department officials advised Griner's family there was still a chance to get her out through legal channels, but if word got out about the arrest, it could elevate her profile and make her too valuable for the Kremlin to not make her a hostage.

It was tough advice to swallow, Colas says. But she says she quickly realized that neither she nor anyone at Wasserman had ever been involved in a situation like this.

"Your first instinct about everything you know and have experienced about how change happens, that reaction is very clear: You want to just be loud. And a lot of smart people said, 'You need to be loud because you need to be sure that she's a priority,'" Colas says. But Wasserman and the Griner family were inclined to listen to the expertise of the State Department and other experts they spoke to in the early days. "It wasn't, 'Hey, shut up, we've got this.' It was, 'Please understand this is a strategy, and this is what you're risking by being loud.' We were hearing that from more than one expert."

The U.S. already had declared two Americans imprisoned in Russia as wrongfully detained: Trevor Reed, a former Marine sergeant convicted of assaulting two Russian police officers; and Paul Whelan, a former Marine who had been convicted of espionage.

Whelan's case was especially tricky. Russia had been asking for "symmetry" in any deals, a senior White House official says, and they weren't going to trade Whelan for someone who wasn't a spy.

"All I know is Paul Whelan isn't a spy," the official says. "We can't accede to a false characterization."

Tension among teammates

On Feb. 18, at the end of their three-week break, all of Griner's Ekaterinburg teammates reported for practice. It didn't take long to notice she wasn't there.

"It wouldn't have been the first time that someone came late," says Courtney Vandersloot, a WNBA All-Star who was Griner's teammate in Russia for four seasons. "We all talked about it like, 'OK, BG's not here. We'll see her tomorrow or the next day.'"

In her seven years with Ekat, Griner had become a fan favorite, drawing crowds wherever the team went.

"Everyone knows her, everyone takes pictures with her, everyone loves her," her teammate, Yevgenia Belyakova, says. "In other cities, in other places like Moscow, they would come just to see her. She has this wonderful thing that she never says no to a fan, especially kids. She loves Russian kids. She want to give shirts -- I say they're too big."

Players said they were aware of the rising tensions over Ukraine, but Vandersloot and people close to Griner say their history in the country and relationship to the oligarch owners made them comfortable returning to the team.

"We're all hearing it because we're reading American news and Western news in general, that Europeans are just as concerned, but whenever we brought it up to Russians, it was like, 'Oh, this is normal. They're always threatening this. You don't understand, we've been living like this for 10 years,'" Vandersloot says. "It's constantly, 'We're about to go to war.' They were always downplaying it."

As players prepared to resume their season on Feb. 23, team officials told them Griner had a visa problem. Several players texted Griner but got no response. After a few days, Belyakova says she turned to Griner's closest friend on the team, American Jonquel Jones.

"I said, 'JJ, what's really happening?' She's like, 'Jenya, I don't know. She doesn't respond to me either,'" Belyakova says.

Vandersloot says she and Allie Quigley, her wife and teammate, were convinced something was going on that the team wasn't telling them.

"Allie asked [Griner's] translator, 'Where is BG?' And she was really uncomfortable," Vandersloot says. "You just knew something was up and she was just kind of trying to play it off."

On Feb. 23, as the team gathered for its first game after the break, Maxim Ryabkov, the general manager, called players together. They sat in their long bright locker room with yellow walls and orange carpet with the team logo.

"He started the meeting with, like, 'We have some serious issues to discuss.' So we knew it was big and it probably had to do with BG," Vandersloot says. "His face -- he looked like he hadn't slept in a week.

"He said, 'We wanted you guys to all know that she's been arrested for drugs.' I feel like he even said, 'a big amount of drugs.' It was like a punch to the stomach. We all were like, we could throw up at any time as soon as we heard. I was like, no. No way. There has to be a mistake."

"We're like, we know BG is crazy, but she's not that crazy," Belyakova says.

Players say they were left with the impression that Griner had been arrested for a significant quantity of hard drugs. The room was silent except for a few sobs. But they had to take the floor. Coach Miguel Mendez called them into the huddle.

"He said, 'I don't know what to do. I don't know what to tell you. We have to do this for BG and win this stupid game,'" Belyakova says.

"I can't even explain the feeling I had in my stomach after that because I was so worried about BG being in jail," Vandersloot says. "I couldn't even grasp that -- how scared she must be, how lonely she must be. Those were the conversations we were having -- I can't believe that she's in there. Now we have to go freaking play a game? You think we care about this game? All we're worried about was our teammate, our friend. I remember not paying attention to the damn game at all."

In their minds, however, was what any player in Russia knows about playing for a team owned by billionaire oligarchs: The bosses can fix just about any problem.

"If I'm being really honest, I assumed that she would be out very soon, that they would know somebody that makes a phone call and she's home," Vandersloot says. "I thought she was a phone call away from being released."

Colas, who represented some of the other players on the Ekat team, told them the "big amount of drugs" was actually a small amount of cannabis. It was a bit of relief to the Americans.

After the game, Belyakova says, much of the team went to her apartment in Ekaterinburg -- the players lived in the same complex -- and commiserated around her kitchen table. The conversation turned into an argument, though, a culture clash between Americans who felt like they were being lectured at exactly the wrong time and Russians who felt like Americans weren't respecting how serious their drug laws were.

"We were fighting against each other. I'm Russian, and I tried to explain why she really broke rules in Russia, why it is so difficult to do this," Belyakova says. "I tried to explain to them how it works in Russia. It was me against everybody."

"It wasn't just her -- it was all the other Russians, even the translator," Vandersloot says. "It was almost like they were saying, 'These are the rules,' and we were like, 'We don't give a damn what the rules were.'"

News of Griner's arrest still wasn't public, and Ekat players were asked to not say anything.

The next day, Feb. 24, Russia invaded Ukraine.

Within a few days, one of the team owners, Igor Kudryashkin, addressed the players and explained what the team was trying to do for Griner: Lawyers were trying to get the judge to approve house arrest for her while she awaited trial, and the team had purchased an apartment in Moscow where she could stay. The request for house arrest later was denied.

But, he told them, because of the quantity of drugs Griner had with her, there was nothing the team owners could do.

"I remember them emphasizing this to us: 'There's nothing we can do because of the amount.' I was like, I don't know what the hell they're doing," Vandersloot says. "Then I heard how much [the amount was] on the news. I was like, 'Wow, this is what they were talking about? What a big amount is?' I kind of lost confidence in their ability to impact this."

Players had another issue. With the start of the war, they were advised to leave the country.

"[Kudryashkin] met with us and was telling us, 'Why are you leaving? Why would you want to leave? We're going to win a Euro championship!' I had to be the one to speak up," Vandersloot says. "Our government wanted us to get out."

Vandersloot says all the foreign players met and decided that if one wanted to leave, they all would go. One after another said they would leave.

But that also meant leaving Griner behind.

"Do you know how s---ty that feels? How hard it is that we're leaving, but we're leaving something so important to us behind?" Vandersloot says. "It was so early we thought we were going to get out and then she'd be right behind us. We knew BG would want us to get out and be safe; that was definitely a discussion. But how do we just take off and go?"

While in jail

After Griner's arrest, she was moved to a jail near the court in Khimki, outside of Moscow. At first she was in more of a holding cell, Boykov says, with drunks and women who had been arrested for street crime. Griner was soon moved to a jail cell with two roommates who spoke some English.

Boykov grabbed some English books from his own collection to give her: a biography of Marvel Comics founder Stan Lee, a memoir by American Southern rock legend Gregg Allman, and a memoir that would become Griner's favorite, one she reread several times in jail, by the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards.

"I don't have a lot of fiction books in English," Boykov says. "A lot of rockumentaries."

He was soon joined by another attorney, Maria Blagovolina, a heavy hitter with the white-collar firm Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin in Moscow.

"I'm not a basketball fan and especially women's basketball. I had no idea who she was," Blagovolina says. "I saw her, Googled her -- of course I realized she's not an average prisoner."

When Blagovolina was hired, Tom Firestone, a former resident legal adviser to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, told ESPN, "That's exactly who you need."

Boykov says they expected Griner would most likely get the sort of sentence that any Russian would who was caught with two vape cartridges -- possibly parole, or no more than six years.

"Or even a bit easier because of her persona, not just in international sports, but Russian sports, and because she's a woman," he says. "Even now the government is not making [an] example of women."

Griner's family and supporters in the United States were constantly worried about her treatment, well aware of Putin's attacks on LGBTQ+ rights. She seemed like a prime target for abuse. But her Russian lawyers and sources close to her say it never happened. Both say there was widespread recognition in the legal system that her prominence meant she needed to be protected.

"I think that she was treated really good all along the way by everyone, with some minor unpleasant exceptions," Boykov says. "Most of the people -- guards, police, even the judges -- although they didn't do her any good. But that's their job. They all had sympathy for Brittney, and they treated her as good as they could have."

Boykov says Griner never mentioned issues regarding her race.

Boykov says there was one "a--hole guard" who made cracks to Griner's roommates questioning her gender. "Other than that," he says, "I think 99% of the people were sympathetic towards her."

"I think she was treated well," Blagovolina says. "If she had been mistreated, it could have been much worse."

Boykov and Blagovolina, speaking to ESPN from Russia, delivered cards, letters and printed emails to Griner from the United States. They say they expected to have to cheer her up, but found in the weeks before her trial began that they rarely needed to.

"It was easy to get her laughing. Also, gossip about Kim Kardashian and Kanye West and some news about breaking news: 'Oh, no! They're divorced.' Stupid stuff. Not a legal strategy," Blagovolina says.

"Most of the time," Boykov says, "she was -- not happy -- but in a good mood, and during those months we shoot a lot of s--- and told jokes and told about some movies or music, about books. She had mood swings. Maybe some days would be because, I don't know, some news from home that her father got a cold or wasn't feeling well, or got a letter from her wife, or maybe it was someone's birthday that she could not attend. Those things could hit her pretty bad and she would be really upset."

As he prepared to visit her at the end of February, just a little more than a week after her arrest, Boykov says something occurred to him. He went to his computer and searched a name that had been on his mind.

"I printed out the Wikipedia page about Viktor Bout and brought it to her and told her who this person is," he says. "Me and Brittney, we spoke about that it's highly likely that whatever she gets at the trial, she will not have to spend the whole time here. She's an asset for a possible trade."

Hostage affairs

When Roger Carstens was named the U.S. special presidential envoy for hostage affairs in 2020, he gathered his staff and set off on a project to compile a list of top Russians with influence in the Kremlin and to get intelligence on what each person might want in the event of a prisoner exchange.

In any discussion with Russian officials over the past decade, he says, they asked for only two people: Konstantin Yaroshenko and Viktor Bout.

Carstens had an unusual background for his job. He wasn't a career diplomat; he was a soldier, a West Point graduate who served as a combat officer with U.S. Army Special Forces, retiring as a lieutenant colonel.

Griner's case was officially under the aegis of the State Department's consular affairs office, but Carstens and his staff knew to keep an eye on it. The Biden administration had been releasing intelligence about Russian preparations to invade Ukraine, hoping to head off a war.

"This one hit my desk and, based on what was going on at the time, if there was any case that popped in Russia, we were going to give it three times the amount of energy and time because of where we were with the Russians," Carstens says. "I mean, there was a good chance that if anyone got grabbed it was because the Russians were doing something screwy."

"It's hard to say if anybody is rightfully detained in Russia because it's kind of a messed-up place, if you hadn't noticed," another State Department official said. "But someone coming in and getting nabbed for drugs at the airport, if it's true, it happens all the time. And so our first thought was, well, you know, if she did have a small amount of marijuana on her, hopefully this will just be treated like a normal case in Russia."

For 2½ months, there was debate in the State Department about whether her case should remain in the hands of the Bureau of Consular Affairs or move to Carstens' Office for Hostage Affairs.

"It can get pretty territorial," one State Department source said.

Part of the debate, Carstens says, was an awareness that if Griner were declared wrongfully detained, it could make life worse for her in the short term. In the early days of her detention, he says, everyone hoped oligarchs would get her out. But declaring someone wrongfully detained also frees the government to provide support and services to families.

"Having said that, it's not a bad thing to wrap up a case as quickly as possible," Carstens says. "If there's a way, as a case is making its way through the building, we can get an oligarch to weigh in or hope that an oligarch will weigh in, or probably three or four other mad schemes that we may have considered, then we're all about that."

One of the first questions was whether she had been targeted. State Department and White House officials saw no evidence she had been.

"She walked into that customs place and they had cameras ready to go," one official says. "And it's not because of who she was -- other Americans said they had done similar things."

"I don't think this was a setup. I think this was a routine control," says Ilya Novikov, a prominent Russian defense attorney now living in Ukraine. "She was caught with drugs and then the decision was made to use her as a hostage. They grab opportunity when the opportunity is there."

From Bout's perspective, Griner's fame and connections in Russia actually might have protected her under normal circumstances.

"Look, Brittney Griner was a really very well-respected player in Russian women's basketball," he says. "And I don't believe that this was intentionally set up or something was prepared, or it was, you know, kind of a trap for her."

Bout says he didn't know the circumstances of her arrest, but he immediately identified with her.

"When you went through this kind of arrest and the worldwide publicity, you know, of course I feel bad, or sorry for any person who's going to be used as a pawn, or, you know, especially in this position, despite whether they committed something or not," he says. "Publicity is a multiplying factor which can really kill you if you are not strong enough to handle it."

Bout's background

When Viktor Bout was arrested in 2008, he already was famous internationally, in part because of Nicolas Cage. The Oscar-winning actor portrayed a character based on Bout named Yuri Orlov in the 2005 film "Lord of War," about an amoral Russian arms dealer selling weapons that ended up in the hands of African child soldiers. There was also a book about Bout published by two journalists in 2007 called "Merchant of Death."

Bout was born in Tajikistan in the Soviet Union, served in the Soviet army and was a lieutenant when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. He had a gift for languages and was sent to a language school in Russia with a reputation as a developing ground for intelligence officers. Asked how many languages he now speaks, he says: "In this job, it depends -- are we buying or are we selling?"

Bout, who spoke with ESPN from Russia during a series of conversations over the past several months, has confirmed elements of his background.

He says he has varying degrees of fluency in Portuguese, Spanish, French, English, Persian, Turkish, Arabic ("at least to read newspapers"), Serbian, Urdu and Hindi.

U.S. and other western officials have said that for a time, Bout was an agent with the GRU, the Soviet military intelligence agency, or the KGB, which Bout continues to deny.

"The only time I worked for the government was when I was in the army," he says. "I was never part of the GRU or the KGB. When I get out [of the army] I had my private company. I was an owner of that company. I had no supervision [by] anybody. I spent almost all that time outside of Russia. I never had curators."

Bout built and operated an air transport company that eventually had 30 planes and about 300 employees. In the post-Soviet era, he made a fortune handling legal transport between former Soviet republics and developing African countries. He lived for a time in the UAE and later in South Africa.

But then he began flying arms into Angola, Rwanda, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in violation of international arms embargoes. In some cases, he provided arms to both sides of conflicts. For a while, one of his companies even held a contract to fly supplies to American troops in the Iraq War -- until the U.S. government realized who owned it and terminated the deal.

In 2000, a British government official speaking to the House of Commons about the threat Bout posed to British troops abroad coined a nickname that stuck: "the merchant of death."

Bout is not a fan of the nickname or the Nicolas Cage movie, which he says he saw before he was arrested. He views the movie as an effort to dehumanize him.

"If these people came to me for the script, believe me, I would tell them way better, way more fascinating story than they did," he says. "First of all, it's like an insult to Africa because they depicting, you know, Africans like a very primitive people."

He's not particularly a fan of Cage's, either.

"He is a great actor, but, believe me, despite that he is great actor, I feel like he had a role in whatever I went through, you know?"

In 2004, after Bout was accused of trafficking weapons to Liberia, the U.S. government put him on its "specially designated nationals" list, freezing his assets in the United States and prohibiting any U.S. citizen from doing business with him. The Belgian and British governments issued warrants for his arrest.

He stopped traveling outside of Russia for the most part. By the late 2000s, he and colleagues have said, he essentially had retired from the air transport business.

In late 2007, DEA agents (Bout says he still doesn't understand how the DEA was able to come after him) hatched "Operation Relentless." Undercover agents posing as FARC rebels from Colombia approached him about buying Russian-made Igla surface-to-air missiles. They said they wanted to bring down American helicopters. FARC was a designated terrorist organization under U.S. law.

Bout has said, and he repeated in his conversations with ESPN, that he never intended to sell the weapons, that he was really trying to unload two rusting airplanes that he no longer had a use for.

"The DEA sent these two stooges as an informant to talk to me... I was lured in this meeting because I was trying hard to sell my two planes, and they came, 'Yes, we gonna buy your plane, please come,'" he says. "OK, I came there, then they said, 'Oh, we want to buy arms.'"

He says he told the agents he would sell them weapons because he wanted to close the deal for the airplanes.

"Ask any salesman or any businessman, if you ask him, 'What are you going to do if you have clients, you need to close your deal?' You're going to say whatever he wants, just let's close my deal first, and then later, we're going to see what we can do for you," he says. "So this was exactly my position there."

As for his previous years selling arms, he says the description of him as the world's largest arms dealer was always hyperbole. In a 2014 documentary called "The Notorious Mr. Bout," a former United Nations arms investigator, Brian Johnson-Thomas, said on camera, "Viktor Bout is not the merchant of death. He is a merchant of some death."

"Listen," Bout says, "if the weapons are officially sent from one point to another, the one government are releasing this cargo. I'm just transporter, the same way you can charge every taxi driver in New York because there would be somebody who would transport something which doesn't fit or laying good with the police. It's a shift of the blame. Instead of solving the problem, they're trying now to pick up somebody and said, 'Oh, you are responsible for this.'"

He met the DEA agents in Thailand on March 6, 2008, in a small conference room on the 27th floor of a Sofitel hotel, where, surveillance video shows, the agents asked him for a list of weapons they wanted to buy from him: rocket-propelled grenades, shoulder-fired missiles, AK-47s, rifles, grenades, mortars, C4 plastic explosives and ammunition.

After Bout and his clients said they had a deal, U.S. and Thai agents burst into the room and arrested him. Bout, with the support of the Russian government, fought U.S. extradition from a Thai jail for more than two years. At first, Thai officials fought extradition as well -- FARC was not considered a terrorist organization by Thailand. In November 2010, Bout was sent to the United States, where he faced charges of conspiracy to murder United States nationals, conspiracy to murder officers and employees of the United States, conspiracy to acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles, and conspiracy to provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization.

The Russian government protested, calling Bout a businessman who was wrongfully targeted by the United States. The U.S. government defined him as a terrorist and placed him in solitary confinement in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan.

Bout's case ended up in the court of U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin.

"I remember a clerk said, 'Oh, Judge, you drew a high-profile one today," Scheindlin says. "Some clerk was pretty excited and talked about the Nicolas Cage movie and the 'merchant of death' and this was going to be a big one."

Scheindlin, who retired from the bench in 2016, told ESPN the facts suggested to her an international arms dealer who might have been amoral, but was not a terrorist or a supporter of terrorism.

"I never thought he was an active threat to Americans' lives. As any good salesman, he agreed with his buyers, and so the buyers said, 'Now, you realize these arms could be used against Americans?' and he said, 'Oh, yes, I realize that,' and the agents said, 'And that's OK with you?' and he said, 'Oh, of course that's OK with me,'" she says. "But they kind of brought him out of retirement to get him for his past deeds for which the statute of limitations had expired. So they had to bring it current to get him because they really were getting him for his whole career as this international arms dealer, known by the movie as the 'merchant of death.'"

Scheindlin says Bout's "merchant of death" nickname gave him a profile he didn't deserve.

"That really hurt him, that moniker," she says. "That's what got him in solitary confinement, that's what got him charged as a terrorist, that's what got him 25 years -- the notion that he was somehow a larger-than-life figure second only to Osama bin Laden, which is just ridiculous."

On Nov. 2, 2011, a jury convicted Bout on all counts. Scheindlin ordered that he be removed from solitary confinement while he awaited sentencing. Five months later, on April 5, she sentenced him to the mandatory minimum 25 years.

As she issued her sentence, Scheindlin said, "Until the DEA went after Bout he had not committed a crime chargeable in an American court in all his years as an arms dealer. And, but for the approach made through this determined sting operation, there is no reason to believe that Bout would ever have committed the charged crime."

She says a more appropriate sentence would have been 10 years, which could have become 8½ with good behavior.

"This deal didn't come from him, it was a setup. It doesn't legally come to entrapment because he was ready, willing and able, but he was basically pretty well retired," she says. "I gave him the least that the statute permitted... My hands were tied on that."

Bout then went to the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, where he spent most of his time in a communications management unit, a level of security typically used for people accused of running criminal organizations. He describes the unit as being like a submarine within a prison.

"But you have very interesting guys to talk to, with their different political ideas; we had pretty good discussion and conversations," he says. "Pretty much in some sense a curse, but also a blessing compared to general population."

He says he worked on furthering his language skills, learning Persian from an Iranian inmate.

"I tried almost everything. I tried Pilates, yoga, high-intense, uh, what do you call it? Circuit training. I mean, I would sign for whatever course is available in the jail. You know, I learned how to draw and paint. And actually, just recently, here in Russia, they had two exhibition of my drawings and paintings I did in USP Marion, and that was a great success."

That exhibition was organized by Maria Butina, the Russian woman who became connected to Donald Trump campaign officials and was deported in 2019 after pleading guilty to acting as an unregistered foreign agent and serving 15 months of an 18-month sentence.

Bout knew his government wanted to bring him home. After American Paul Whelan's arrest in 2018, he says, there was optimism that they might be swapped in a trade. When that fell apart, Bout says, it was crushing. Then came Griner's arrest.

"The first thing I heard is exactly what CNN or other channels would push the story. And then, of course, your channel, ESPN, was very big, almost daily talking about Brittney Griner and possible exchange with me," Bout says. "I learned not to have much of expectation. Then, you don't have much of frustration. Otherwise, you know, you get your high there and then you crash and you don't know how to put yourself back together. So I just said, OK, let's leave it and see what will happen. Let's take one day at a time."

In the intimate setting of his prison unit, where he lived for years with the same 35-40 people, everyone knows everyone's business. And as his name and face popped up on television broadcasts, fellow inmates would fire questions at him.

"They're like, 'Oh, great! You're going home soon! You're going home soon!' I'm saying I'm just keeping fingers crossed and praying to God. This was May or June then -- there's a possibility. Then it dies, then it's picked up in August."

Several American officials told ESPN they saw Putin's support for Bout as a message to the oligarchs as he launched the war in Ukraine: Stay loyal to me and I'll stay loyal to you, just as I did with Viktor Bout.

Bout says that's nonsense.

"This is very simplistic. First of all, Putin does not need to send any messages. He just speaks to people. It's completely different communication," he says. "My guess is I was there the longest. They'd been determined to get me back because everybody believed that my case was completely unjust, completely made up, that's why they were so persistent in trying to get me.

"It's not the playbook of the Kremlin to send a message this way; it's a cultural difference. There [in the United States] you guys talk about 'sending a message to here' and 'send a message to there.' Here we say, why do you need to waste time sending a message? It's kind of Byzantine. Here it's more straightforward."

News of the arrest

On March 5, 2022, with no warning to Griner's family or American officials, the Russian news agency TASS reported that Griner had been arrested. It wasn't clear why, 16 days after she had been detained and nine days after the war had started, Russian authorities decided to go public.

Colas says she knew nothing about the announcement until she woke up to calls from Griner's attorneys in Russia and a New York Times reporter. The Times then ran a story, and within the hour Colas was deluged with dozens of requests from American media.

The Wasserman offices became a political war room, as well as the nexus between the government and the public, and it became clear they had an almost impossible task: Use the outcry to support Griner and keep pressure on Biden to get her home, but keep the outcry low and controlled enough that Griner didn't become more of an asset to Putin.

One of the key figures in forming political and media strategies was Karen Finney, a longtime Democratic party operative who was Hillary Clinton's deputy press secretary when she was first lady, and the spokesperson for Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. Finney had worked with Wasserman's Rica Rodman in Bill Clinton's administration.

"It was also the balance between, how do you use public pressure but also not make it harder for the president and his team to do a deal to get her out?" Finney says. "There's a really fine line, particularly when you're dealing with someone like Vladimir Putin. After a while it became clear part of the strategy was to embarrass the president. We were very aware that people in Moscow were also watching."

Colas received updates from the State Department and White House, and felt confident that they were engaged but couldn't share information publicly. It left Griner's team in the awkward position of asking supporters of the politically outspoken Black lesbian to have patience and faith in the federal government.

But, that said, she would spend the rest of the year reaching out to anyone she thought might get Putin to agree to a deal.

"We were going to do our own thing. But they never pushed back about that," Colas says. "We were very transparent that we were doing our job. We weren't just trusting the government. Yes, we were great partners, but were we resting on that? Absolutely not."

With Griner's arrest now public, a narrative resurfaced around the inequities of women's basketball. Star WNBA players had long supplemented their low six-figure salaries with seven-figure salaries in Russia and other countries. She shouldn't have had to go in the first place, many supporters argued, and if she had been a prominent male athlete -- LeBron James and Tom Brady were frequently mentioned -- the public and government would be more mobilized to get her home.

Then Russian media showed Griner being led in handcuffs to a hearing, a classic "perp walk." In Washington, D.C., officials saw it as an ominous sign.

Members of Congress, notably Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who represents Griner's hometown of Houston, organized rallies to garner support, with speakers chiding the administration to do more. Biden officials blanched at the notion they weren't motivated to bring Griner home.

Finney says Putin's government used Griner as a wedge issue in American politics. State Department and White House officials saw the bots flooding social media -- new accounts pumping racist and anti-gay language into social streams. The comments were designed to provoke outrage, and they worked.

The messaging about Griner wouldn't be easy to control. Some supporters expressed genuine concern and anger, while others seemed competitive about expressing the most outrage.

"We had to stop certain things before they happened -- some who wanted to use Brittney for their own causes," Finney says. "It was one of the toughest message disciplining challenges I've ever had. I say that as someone who's been in the business for 30 years."

Colas set up a series of all-star phone calls, for her own education and for disconcerted WNBA players: Fiona Hill, a former senior White House adviser and universally well-regarded as one of the world's foremost experts on Putin and Russia; Malcolm Nance, a counterintelligence expert and MSNBC commentator; Danielle Gilbert, a political science professor (now at Northwestern University) and expert on state-sponsored hostage taking; Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania with expertise on Russia.

On May 31, Terri Jackson, executive director of the Women's National Basketball Players Association, joined the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition meeting, a gathering of player representatives and officials, including NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

Jackson already felt frustrated by what she perceived to be a lack of engagement from USA Basketball and a lack of response from both leagues.

"They were being cautious," Jackson says. "There were times when, as upset as I was with USA Basketball, I was more upset with the league. Why aren't they telling her story every day?"

Dozens of recognizable faces popped up on the video call. "I was like, what the f---?" Jackson says. "How many people are on this?"

Jackson says she made her plea. She says she noticed two men who were locked in: then-76ers head coach Doc Rivers and former NBA All-Star Carmelo Anthony. When she finished her pitch, Jackson says, there was a quiet pause that left her uneasy.

"Carmelo was the first one to speak. He said, 'Are we listening to Terri? She's asking for help,'" Jackson says.

Rivers then spoke up. "He said, 'This is our time we need to stand up. We need to be doing more,'" she says. "He was great."

Anthony told Silver that he wanted to make a video calling for support. Silver, she says, "kind of fumbled an answer. Carmelo called him out a little bit. It's like, he can't say, 'No,' but how does he get to 'Yes'?"

Silver agreed for the league to sponsor a video, which Anthony later insisted be shown during a prime-time broadcast, she says. (Anthony declined to comment through a representative.)

During the playoffs, the Boston Celtics wore "We are BG" T-shirts during warmups. "They stepped up big. They wore the shirts and they talked about her," Jackson says. "Grant Williams [now with the Dallas Mavericks] drove it. Grant's a real one."

But a shipment of T-shirts sent to the Golden State Warriors went unworn, and few male players were vocal about Griner's detention.

Frustration grew within WNBA circles about the limited response from the men. Several observers remembered the 2019 All-Star tour of China, when Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey criticized the regime, and LeBron James later said Morey was "misinformed" and didn't consider the consequences of his statement. James was hammered in the media and accused of defending the Chinese government. He hadn't, but the lesson was learned: Don't risk speaking out about international issues.

(One male player who eventually did speak up was Kyrie Irving, who took the microphone at the Brooklyn Nets' home opener in October to ask for crowd support, but went further than Griner's camp wanted when he said, "POTUS, do your job.")

Finney says she and Colas discussed bringing disparate civil rights groups together with a unified message. They decided to write a letter of support that groups could sign, which would unite them and keep them on script.

"I said, let's build a broad coalition so [Biden] can't be pigeonholed by the right or anyone. She is an openly gay woman, she's an athlete, she's a woman, she's African American -- let's see if we can get support from all these groups and just add a little bit of pressure," Finney says. "I also know from having been in [the White House] what some of those tensions are. You don't want to give Putin something that can give him leverage. But let's raise some voices here."

"I want to be clear, though," Finney says, "it was not meant to be adversarial, but more, 'We're just making sure you know how important this is.' I'll be honest, I kind of back-channeled and told the White House what was coming. They knew the campaign was kind of ramping up."

Colas reached out to famed stylist Karla Welch, who reached out to her most famous client, Justin Bieber. Bieber posted on Instagram, "THIS HURTS. If anyone knows of anyway I can help, please let me know."

No one had to tell Colas that crafting the narrative within American media would be critical. Griner would be a hot point in a country where 40% of the people reflexively oppose 40% from the other side on any topic.

In June, at the invitation of ESPN's Angela Rye, Cherelle Griner joined a Sunday night Zoom meeting of a group of influential Black women, many of them in news media, called "Win With Black Women." She explained why her wife's family wanted to keep the public response muted, but persistent, and the group discussed how to shape public messaging.

That message was repeated in countless discussions on ESPN, CNN, MSNBC and the major broadcast networks.

Almost all messaging from Griner's camp also included references to Whelan. Griner's supporters wanted to use her fame to advocate for him and connect their cases. A deal for only one potentially would leave Biden exposed politically, especially with midterm elections approaching. Either he abandoned a white male former Marine or a Black lesbian. Half the country would be ready to pounce.

"That's why I was like, 'Oh, s---, [Putin is] thinking he could use this to embarrass the president,'" Finney says. "I remember saying to Lindsay, 'We're going to take that off the table. We're going to make it clear that this coalition is behind the president.

"You knew Putin wasn't going to make it easy."

Trevor Reed released

With the start of the war in Ukraine in February, Griner's family was terrified that any diplomatic channel to get her home had been severed. Carstens says that, although he couldn't discuss it at the time, he knew the channel was still open.

Over the next couple of months, evidence began to accumulate that Russia intended to use Griner as a bargaining chit.

One senior White House official says an early indicator was seeing Griner paraded before Russian media.

"The perp walk," a senior White House official says. "It suggests a desire to bargain."

"It was clear to us the Russians were going to use her as leverage," a State Department official says.

In April, officials got a more definitive sign. According to a State Department source, a Russian official first floated the idea of trading Griner, a detail that has not previously been reported. There seemed to be enough evidence to reclassify Griner as a wrongful detainee, but officials weren't ready to do so just yet.

On April 27, U.S. officials unexpectedly announced that Trevor Reed, the former Marine sergeant imprisoned in Russia since his arrest in 2019, was headed home in an exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian national serving a 20-year sentence in the United States for smuggling drugs. Yaroshenko was one of the two men Carstens says Russia had been asking for. Reed's release signaled to Griner's family that, despite the war, it might be possible to get her home.

When Biden and Putin met in Geneva in June 2021, Carstens says, Putin said all communications about prisoner swaps would go through the embassies. The lead-up to the war made it harder to make a deal then, but talks continued through the buildup and after the invasion.

"One of the things that I think led Putin to do this deal so close to after the war [started] for Reed, and why he was so interested in doing a deal for Griner, is because it makes him seem like a leader of a world power because he's making a deal with Biden," a State Department official says. "It's the two of them -- they're equals. They're trading citizens, they're protecting citizens around the world from each other."

Reed had grown increasingly ill. He had broken a rib, and his parents suspected he had untreated tuberculosis. (He did not.) He also was on his second hunger strike.

The Reeds pushed for months to meet with Biden, demonstrating when his motorcade went through their hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, on March 8. Biden spoke to them by phone three weeks later but did not set a date to meet.

On March 30, they protested outside the White House and were then granted a face-to-face meeting with Biden. A month later, their son was released. Administration officials say one had nothing to do with the other; the deal for Reed had long been in the works. But the lesson to other families, particularly to Griner's, was that a personal appeal to Biden could pressure him to make a deal.

"The initial pressure was pushing for a meeting, because, as I recall, what I remembered was Cherelle believed a meeting with the president was crucial to the effort," Finney says. "I remember saying to Lindsay, 'If there's a deal on the table and the president isn't meeting with Cherelle, we'll take the deal to get her home. Order of priorities.'"

Viktor Bout also took notice of the Reed-Yaroshenko deal.

"This was like a light in the end of the tunnel because since it happened once, then for me it was clear that this can happen a second time, too," he says. "I felt a great relief for Konstantin Yaroshenko, that he's finally returning home. I would not be jealous at all, I was just knowing that one of these days I would also be in his position, going home."

On May 3, the State Department announced that Griner was being wrongfully detained. Her case was moved from the consular affairs office to SPEHA, the office for hostage affairs.

"They were telling us something that we already knew, but we had also come to understand that there was a legal definition for this," Colas says. "We had been pushing for her to be moved under Roger's jurisdiction and SPEHA -- this is the division that's about action. I had called consular affairs, with respect, 'the hope and prayers division.'"

In another act of support for Griner's family, Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, announced that his organization, which had worked for years to get detained Americans home, would take up the cause.

In the early days, a State Department source says, officials reached out to any powerful Russian they could think of to offer deals.

"As you can imagine, they were not that interested in helping us. In some cases, we were giving things that we knew because they had written, say, a paper, or said, 'I care about this person in an American prison and I would like them to be free.' We say, 'Hey, listen, happy to do that deal -- Brittney Griner is on a minor drug charge in Russia and this guy is, you know, a cybercriminal, for instance, we could help facilitate that exchange for you if you go to Putin, we know you guys are close," the official said.

But no one would cooperate. In one case, the source said, U.S. officials tried to hand a Russian contact a copy of a paper that he had written himself, and the Russian refused to take it. "They said, 'We will not touch anything that you give us.'"

SPEHA officials kept getting the same message all summer that anyone who had tried to intervene in February had gotten: "Ultimately, it was Putin who said the [diplomatic] channel exists for a reason, keep giving us other messages in that channel," the source said.

Trade offer

On May 13, several Russian news agencies published reports quoting an anonymous Russian government source: "Russian entrepreneur Viktor Bout who was sentenced in the U.S. for arms sales may be traded for American basketball player Brittney Griner who is accused in Russia of drug trafficking, a source in the Public Monitoring Commission confirmed to TASS on Friday."

The story said talks were underway, but American officials reached at the time said there had not been any discussions about a trade. The story also suggested officials were open to the possibility that Russia might be willing to trade Bout for Griner. It did not mention Paul Whelan.

But the fact that the article was published at all, in state-operated media, told U.S. officials that Russia wanted the world to know it was open to a deal, and that it would be a one-for-one trade.

In June, the U.S. government made its first official offer: Bout for Griner and Whelan. U.S. officials thought this essentially would begin the negotiations. But Russian officials would not counter. Russian officials floated names but would not make an actual counterproposal.

In early July, as CNN reported later that month, Russian officials floated a name through a back channel: Vadim Krasikov, a Russian national who had been convicted of murder in Germany a year earlier. U.S. officials dismissed the idea. Krasikov was in Germany; he wasn't theirs to trade. And even if he had been in U.S. custody, officials said they couldn't trade a convicted murderer for Griner or Whelan or anyone else. They did not consider the request to be serious.

On July 27, Secretary of State Antony Blinken broke generations of protocol and announced publicly that the United States had made a "substantial proposal" to Russia and had yet to receive a response. Russian officials didn't appreciate his comments.

"If the Americans decide to resort to public diplomacy again and make loud statements that they are going to take such and such steps, that is their business and, I would even say, their problem," Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters. "Because the Americans often do not stand up to agreements on calm professional work not only on this, but also on many other topics."

Bout says he was getting updates from the Russian embassy during visits to a lawyers' room at USP Marion.

"They told me that the American side decided to go to the megaphone diplomacy," Bout says. "Instead of negotiating it quietly through the properly established channel, they intentionally leak it to the media, and pump it up to create an impression that the Russian side doesn't want to negotiate or do something. I don't know for what political reason this was done this way, because, look, all the sensitive negotiations usually are happening in the quiet environment where the two sides can negotiate all details, and make sure that the deal is closed before they disclose it to the public."

Letter to Biden

By July, Colas and Finney say Griner decided she wanted to write a letter to Biden, emphasizing her father's military service in Vietnam and her own history of having worn the USA jersey in two Olympics. In a holding cell at the courthouse, while waiting for her trial to resume, Griner sat on a bench and wrote the letter in pen with the paper resting on her knee.

Boykov and Blagovolina took the letter from her, scanned it and sent it to Colas. The plan had been to deliver the letter to the White House on July 4 and release it publicly. It wasn't just a plea to the president to bring her home but a message to other Americans to think of her as someone who loved her country and was worthy of a trade.

But the letter looked as if it had been written on someone's knee. Cherelle Griner expressed concern that her wife's penmanship, while understandable, could give critics fodder to go after Brittney. They decided to ask Brittney to rewrite the letter. She did. Again, Boykov scanned the letter and emailed it to Colas, who forwarded it directly to Ron Klain, Biden's chief of staff.

"On the 4th of July," it read, "our family normally honors the service of those who fought for our freedom, including my father who is a Vietnam War Veteran. It hurts thinking about how I usually celebrate this day because freedom means something completely different to me this year.

"I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don't forget about me and the other American Detainees. Please do all you can to bring us home. I voted for the first time in 2020 and I voted for you. I believe in you. I still have so much good to do with my freedom that you can help restore. I miss my wife! I miss my family! I miss my teammates! It kills me to know they are suffering so much right now. I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home."

The letter was delivered to Biden, and Wasserman later released excerpts, but not the image or full text of the letter.

The next day, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris called Cherelle Griner from the White House. She knew she had their attention.

Legal efforts

In the best cases, the Russian legal system is hopelessly stacked against the defendant. Fewer than 1% of Russian criminal cases end in acquittal. But in Griner's case, experts told her family that the trial was a formality. She would be convicted and probably given a harsh sentence, and it was all part of the dance required to bring her home.

"Their goal would be to serve the Kremlin propaganda machine to display her as being perverted and to portray her as representative of decadent western society," one senior State Department official told ESPN. "It's a well-known strain of Russian propaganda."

To Griner's attorneys, however, it was a trial. Geopolitics and hostage negotiations were someone else's business.

"We just tried to ignore all the political noise and fuss around this case and do whatever we had to do," Blagovolina says. "We cannot rely on political discussions that maybe one day this [trade] can happen. This isn't what you do with a legal strategy."

Boykov was asked why they put up such a vigorous defense when they knew the outcome, and when their defense could embarrass government officials.

"Because, first of all, me and Maria, we're not diplomats, we're lawyers, and that's what we have to do," he says, "and if there's some flaws in the case, we have to pursue them."

The strategy was to plead guilty but argue that she did not intend to break the law and that she had neither the intention nor the amount of cannabis necessary to be trafficking.

In their investigation, Blagovolina and Boykov found what they argued were violations of Griner's due process and failures in the forensic testing: She was not provided with an interpreter when she initially was detained; the lab technician who tested the cartridges had received only three weeks of training and his education consisted of a bachelor's degree in ecology and natural resources; the equipment used to test the vape oil had not been properly certified or calibrated.

It's possible that the bulk of Griner's hours in the courtroom was the least dramatic part of her time in Russia. The courtroom itself was a pale-yellow box with a desk for the judge and a cage for the defendant and room for up to about 15 observers. Forgetting that the verdict itself was a foregone conclusion, Russian legal proceedings are thoroughly bureaucratic affairs. The prosecution and defense cases are filed in advance of the trial, and when the parties appear in court, the judge simply reads the case into the record. Occasionally the judge will ask questions of the lawyers or the defendant, but for the most part Griner sat through hours of her case in the cage, stooping when she was required to stand.

When the trial began July 1, the Khimki courthouse, un-air-conditioned and stifling, was jammed with reporters and security, a startling sight to the Russian citizens there for ordinary legal matters.

"As the sessions of the trial progressed, those charged with providing security, they were increasingly heavily equipped and by the end were wearing face masks," a senior State Department official says. "It seemed unnecessary. I'm not sure why they took a more frightening-looking approach."

The official said American diplomats were startled at the thoroughness of Griner's defense, especially in going after the lab analysis of the vape cartridges.

Griner's lawyers also offered extensive testimony to attack the accusation that she intended to bring the cartridges with her, much less traffic the .702 grams of cannabis oil. The defense pointed out that she had been given a urinalysis when she was arrested and tested negative; Griner told the court that she knew she would be drug tested in Russia and that a drug suspension would hurt her team. A Russian doctor testified that her use of cannabis was beneficial for her anxiety, while conceding it wasn't legal in the country.

Griner also testified that she has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and was still in a COVID fog when preparing for her return to Russia, and thus had plenty of reason to be distracted while packing.

"There is a law and a strict procedure that the government has to follow, and if they want to prosecute a person like this who is known around the world, then they have to go by the book," Boykov says. "We thought, the weaker the prosecution case is, the higher our chances are to get the lesser sentence."

With every meeting Boykov and Blagovolina had with Griner, they knew there was a chance they were being surveilled by the security services.

"I assume there probably was," Boykov says. "I'm a bit more optimistic than Maria is; in our duo she is a bit more concerned about safety. I guess it's just my view on it. It's not spy case, there are no state secrets involved, it's just a drug case. But it's just, like, big."

The lawyers could speak openly with their client because she was admitting guilt, Boykov says. And if they identified weaknesses in the case, the Russian government already was aware of them.

"There was no visible interference, I would say," Blagovolina says.

"I think the only thing that we had to whisper about was something related to the public campaign strategy in the United States because it wasn't something that we wanted everyone to know about," Boykov says. "At the same time, if there was a way to listen to our conversations both with Brittney, with Maria and me, us and Lindsay, there was nothing that some imaginary FSB agent could hear that would make them angry, because, this public campaign, it was not only in favor of Brittney, it was in favor of Viktor Bout and Russia. I think we had that luxury in this case."

The most emotional moment for Griner came July 14, when teammate Yevgenia Belyakova and team GM Maxim Ryabkov came to speak as character witnesses. Blagovolina says that was one of three times she saw Griner break down.

"I think that was emotionally very difficult for her," Blagovolina says. "She was crying in her cell in the courtroom."

"They described her as the heart of the team, the leader of the team, how important she was, especially the young girls who adored her and came to the games," an American official said.

"To see her inside the cage, to sit here in this cage, which was small, and the courtroom was also small, we were literally like next to each other," Belyakova says. "I heard her breathing. I heard how she started to... I don't know why we both decided to cry but we did."

A month after appearing in court, Belyakova, who spoke to ESPN from Ekaterinburg, went to visit Griner in jail. At 6 feet tall, Belyakova stood out among the visitors, and she says the officers at the entrance asked who she was there to see. When she told them it was Griner, "They say, 'Oh! You're here to see our girl'" Belyakova says. "What do you mean, 'Our' girl? She's my girl!' They say, 'Oh, she's so good, she's so nice!'"

Belyakova says she was led to a visiting room -- "like in an American movie" -- where she was seated across a plastic divider from Griner, who wore a red T-shirt over a black hoodie, with white Jordans that had no laces. A guard sat between them to monitor the conversation. "Three minutes later [the guard] said, 'I'm so bored -- can I go?' And she left," Belyakova says.

They met for three hours, she says, with time to be sad, but more time for cracking each other up. She says they laughed so hard the plastic shook. Belyakova says before she went on the visit, she had asked her therapist what she should talk about. "Talk about hope," she was told, and keep Griner up to date with what's happening in the outside world.

Belyakova told Griner how much she was missed, and that the other American players had left since the war started. The team was down to five players at one point.

Griner told Belyakova to open a barbecue restaurant so she could finally get some decent barbecue in Russia. But in jail, Griner had discovered the joys of condensed milk, a Russian favorite, and chided Belyakova for not having told her about it. "I said, 'BG, you've been here for seven years. You always want McDonald's.'"

Griner had begged Belyakova to bring certain favorite candies, along with her favorite snack, Pringles. The American chips hadn't been available in Russia since the start of the war, but Belyakova found someone on Google who was getting them from another country. She can't remember how much she spent on them but says she didn't care.

Griner said when she got home she would burn her clothes in her backyard -- she was sick to death of them after wearing the same things for six months. Griner also had become hooked on a Russian TV drama, "Kitchen," which her cellmates interpreted for her. She wanted Belyakova to catch up so they could discuss the show.

"We didn't cry in that moment. We didn't want to be too sad. We were talking about how tough she is," Belyakova says. "I said, 'BG, come on, do you know anyone who can handle this like you?' She said, 'I get it.'

"I said, 'BG, I hope you're hoping.' She said, 'Jenya, I hope. Even if I'm stuck here for 10 years, I can make it.'"

The verdict, the sentence

On Aug. 4, Griner and her lawyers returned to court for the verdict and sentencing.

As the defense team waited, they prepared for the worst. If Griner had been treated like any Russian arrested with cannabis oil for the first time, she might have been sentenced to four months. Even with the trafficking charge, Boykov and Blagovolina say she shouldn't have gotten more than six years. By now it was clear Griner would not be treated like any other defendant, but it also didn't matter: Any sentence would be part of the theater of negotiations.

"We would try to get her ready. We'd been telling her from the very beginning that it would be the worst-case scenario, that it could be the whole 10 years," Blagovolina says. "But that's not the same as hearing it."

Judge Anna Sotnikova read her sentence: nine years.

"I think she was in shock," Blagovolina says. "I could hardly hold my tears back. She was like, 'Oh my god.'"

When the proceedings ended, Griner was led back upstairs to meet with her lawyers. Even then, Blagovolina says, Griner teared up but mostly held it together.

Griner's scant legal hopes now lay with her appeal, which would not be heard until October. There was next to zero chance the appeal would be successful, but as long as she was awaiting the hearing, she would remain in her Moscow-area jail, a far better alternative to the prison colony she would be sent to once her case was final.

There was reason for relief. All along Russian officials had insisted that Griner's case be allowed to run its course, and now, arguably, it had. State Department and White House officials expressed hope that Russia would finally be willing to engage seriously in trade negotiations.

The midterms

After the verdict, U.S. officials say, Russian officials simply stopped engaging.

"It started to seem obvious they were going to wait until after the midterms," says one White House source.

Several U.S. officials said they never heard direct intelligence to that effect, but the consensus among government experts was that Putin did not want to do anything that could help Biden in the Nov. 8 midterm elections.

"We were like, do you even know how American elections work?" one White House source says.

In August, former NBA All-Star Dennis Rodman told a reporter that he had gotten permission from Russia to go negotiate for Griner's release and would be traveling within the week. The White House quickly issued a statement: "It is public information that the administration has made a significant offer to the Russians and anything other than negotiating further through the established channel is likely to complicate and hinder release efforts."

"We kind of bullied him in the press to not go," a White House source says. They couldn't prevent him from going, but, "We needed to be firm publicly. He could get stuck there."

Three weeks later, an infinitely more credible actor, Bill Richardson, went to Moscow to visit officials and negotiate for Griner and Whelan's release. Administration officials at the time said privately that they respected Richardson's expertise and intentions but were not happy about the timing. Russia had made it clear that there was one negotiation channel, and a White House source says American officials were concerned that Russia might find a reason to detain Richardson.

Colas says that Richardson, who died in September, and his deputy, Mickey Bergman, were a crucial source of support, and that she was grateful for their efforts.

"Whether they were only a constant agitator and reminder to others that they were working on this, it was valuable even just for that," she says. "And we don't even know all the work they did."

On Sept. 16, 2022, Cherelle Griner finally got the meeting with Biden she had long sought. Colas, who went to the Oval Office with her, says they were concerned that the president's desire to bring Griner and Whelan home as part of the same trade would prevent him from making a one-for-one deal with either of them.

"Is the government holding this up to get both people? Because we want to advocate for both, but we want to know," Colas says. "We went in to try to ascertain, looking at this man's face, is this a priority for you? And we walked out feeling like it was."

They entered the Oval Office with a packet of biographical information on all Americans who were detained abroad, something Colas had gotten from the Bring Our Families Home Campaign.

Colas says Biden hugged them both. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, and Josh Geltzer, who served at the time as deputy assistant to the president and deputy homeland security adviser, joined them.

Throughout Griner's time in Russia, Geltzer was the lead White House official dealing with Griner's case and was part of biweekly calls with Colas. Geltzer, who has a law degree from Yale and a Ph.D. from King's College London, is now deputy White House counsel and legal adviser to the National Security Council.

Biden told Colas to FaceTime Colas' parents, and when she did, he took the phone to say hello. One source said Colas told Biden that Griner's father had been in poor health.

(The day after Cherelle Griner met with Biden, Brittney had her own sort of celebrity encounter. Colas, with the help of other Wasserman agents, had reached out to representatives for the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards and told them that his memoir had been Griner's favorite book in jail. On Sept. 17, Boykov took her a handwritten note from Richards saying, "We're all pulling for you. Hang in. All will work out. One love -- Keith Richards.")

Several sources say that during the meeting, Cherelle Griner asked Biden about his willingness to make a deal for only one of the two American prisoners. And if that meant a deal for Whelan that left her wife in Russia, she would understand.

"It was very much in line with an approach that was consistent throughout the detention, where Cherelle and all of us were mindful of BG's role in getting all wrongfully detained Americans home," Colas says. "She was applying her experience to another family's experience of wanting to get their loved one home."

Biden told Geltzer he wanted him to organize a gathering of administration officials and outside experts as soon as possible to brainstorm solutions. Email invitations went out to 23 people, including about 10 NSC officials, former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and former White House senior adviser Fiona Hill, the Putin expert who had addressed WNBA players earlier in the year.

"We were supposed to bring our creativity -- think outside the box," one invitee said on the condition of anonymity.

The meeting, which previously has not been reported, took place Sept. 27 in a conference room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House, with about eight people present and the others appearing virtually. It was scheduled for 45 minutes but lasted 90.

The participants were told that if any reporters asked them about the meeting they were free to say they had attended, but they were asked to not share any of the contents. No reporters ever asked. ESPN spoke to six of the participants, most of whom asked to be quoted anonymously.

Some participants suggested the United States do more to shame Putin publicly. Others -- notably Hill, according to several people -- said that was pointless, that Putin could not be shamed. What SPEHA knew at that point, as one State Department official put it, was that "the most implacable negotiators in the world" had been clear for years about what they wanted: Yaroshenko and Bout. Period. Anything else seemed like a distraction, but the president wanted outside opinions.

Jeremy Bash, a former NSC staff member and former chief of staff for CIA director Leon Panetta, said he thought efforts to keep Griner's case below the radar made no sense when Putin was the antagonist.

"My perspective was we had to be very loud and we had to be aggressive in keeping Brittney's case in the headlines," he told ESPN. "The conventional view was you want to deflate the price of the hostage so that the price was lower. I could not see any decision where Putin or anyone in his government was going to make a different decision if we didn't say her case was crucial to resolve."

"The concept of trying to analyze how an adversary values a hostage is missing the point. Vladimir Putin knows an American hostage is extraordinarily valuable. It's very hard in my opinion to change his value of a hostage."

The group discussed appealing to Putin some other way, asking high-profile Russians who were friendly with him or might be able to get his attention: NHL legend Viacheslav Fetisov; Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin; Russian saxophonist Igor Butman. They discussed having Elon Musk reach out.

Colas asked why the United States didn't play Putin's game and arrest Russians.

"Because we don't do that," a senior White House official at the meeting told ESPN.

"I don't see the United States going out and randomly arresting Russians just to have chits to trade," Bash says. "It would yield a race to the bottom. We don't want to go down that road."

For the State Department officials there, the meeting provided some frustrations. This was their expertise, but some of the participants had been out of government for years. Whatever experience some of them had with Russia did not apply to the Russia that was now bombing Ukrainian cities. They left the meeting with a sense that they were already doing what they could, and that only a trade involving Bout would get Griner home.

"Some of the things that were proposed in this were so disproportionate to the discrete issue. This is all we do," says one State Department official who was at the meeting. "When very senior people encounter this idea, they tend to think, 'Well, I have an idea of how Russian relations worked and let's just approach it that way,' and all of that is gone and they're stealing Ukrainian children, they're blowing up power plants, they're committing war crimes. They will not take anything other than exactly what it is they're asking for."

A writer's vision

One of Griner's favorite writers is fantasy novelist Leigh Bardugo, particularly her books set in the fictional city of Ketterdam. Colas looked up information about Bardugo's agent from the author's website and reached out, explaining how Griner was rereading the books in jail and how much a note from Bardugo would mean to her. On Oct. 17, Boykov and Blagovolina took Griner a typed three-page letter from Bardugo. It described a trip the two would take together in a barge down Ketterdam's canals, pointing out the sights and sounds they would pass together.

Griner's appeal

The Oct. 25 appeal hearing was exactly what the defense team expected. As Griner participated from jail via videoconference, the judge read the filings into the record, then read her verdict denying the appeal.

The completion of the appeal meant the Russian government was closer to making a deal, having maintained the theater that Griner was being afforded due process. But it also meant Griner likely would go to a labor camp, a remnant of Stalin's gulag system, probably somewhere far from Moscow. Under Russian procedures, Griner's lawyers wouldn't know where she was going until she arrived there and prison officials got around to telling them.

When Boykov and Blagovolina went to visit Griner after the appeal, she was clearly devastated by the result, Boykov says.

"I think I was kind of surprised because of her reaction, because probably she was more upset than the initial sentencing and I didn't get it, really," Boykov says. "Why would she have so many hopes for the Russian judicial system even after the initial trial?"

From then, they waited and hoped a trade would happen before Griner was uprooted from the Iksha jail in Moscow and sent to a prison colony.

"Every other week I would go to see the warden for a minute and ask about books and food and maybe about the possibility of Brittney being moved somewhere else. He was pretty positive she would not be moved," Boykov says. "He didn't know about details of possible trade, but during the trial and after that, everyone kept talking about it."

Like Bout, Griner was a celebrity in her jail. "Brittney would go for a walk in the courtyard and the other inmates would shout out the windows, 'Brittney! When are you going home? When's the trade?' Every guard would tell her, 'Don't worry, you will be traded soon,'" Boykov says.

"She obviously had her bad days," Blagovolina says. "You could see that she was very worrying about her future and what would happen next and where she would go. How we can find her? How we can visit her? And winter was coming and she was cold."

Danielle Gilbert, the expert on state-sponsored hostages who advised Colas throughout, says the tension over Griner's future and safety would have been a key part of Russia's strategy.

"On the one hand, the Russians knew that they had to keep her alive, relatively healthy and mostly free from interpersonal violence to continue with the farce that she was a normal prisoner being charged with a normal crime," Gilbert says. "And at the same time, it's to their advantage to increase the worry and the uncertainty on the behalf of U.S. negotiators and Griner's community so that they might experience extra and urgent pressure to make a deal as quickly as possible."

One afternoon in late October, Boykov and Blagovolina went to the jail and Griner told them that she'd been told to pack her things, that she could be moved at any time. She wouldn't be able to take books or personal items, but they made a list of things she would need: clothes, boots, snacks, a duffel bag.

On Nov. 4, a few days before the U.S. midterm elections, the two lawyers arrived at the Iksha jail and Griner was gone.

Under Russian practice, prisoners are moved from jails to prison camps with no notice. She had next to nothing with her.

Griner was on a train where each car was divided up into six cells -- "it's just like a prison cell with wheels," Boykov says -- and prisoners spent the nights at various jails along the way as the train dropped off and picked up passengers. "Sometimes it's 1,000 miles between the cities. Sometimes it takes a month to get from jail to the prison. We were very afraid that it would be this type of a situation with Brittney. Of course we thought that no one would jeopardize the whole trade and everything -- they will keep an eye on Brittney. But anything can happen."

Blagovolina called around to several women's prisons, and after five days finally spoke to someone at the IK-2 camp in Yavas, in the Mordovia region 300 miles east of Moscow. Yes, Griner was there.

"She told us about one of the jails she had to spend one or two nights in," Boykov says. "She told us it was really nasty, but she told us that she met some Black guy there and they had a small chat."

The news broke internationally that she was at IK-2, and at home her family read the stories about how IK-2 was probably the most notorious women's prison in Russia, famous for its harsh conditions and treatment.

"There was a relief to finding her. There's also a fear of the unknown, because at least as awful as the conditions were at [her Moscow jail], she knew how to operate and there was some familiarity with it," Colas says. "There was still a lot unknown. You hear these horrible stories about a penal colony and wondering what that will be."

But, she says, "There was something about that moment where you knew it was a necessary step to get her home. Even the conviction was that. It was a necessary thing to take a step forward."

There was nothing about Griner's three-week experience at IK-2 that would be considered pleasant or enjoyable. After five days on a prison train and in the decrepit jails along the way, she was now in a Soviet-era prison colony in Yavas, spending two weeks in quarantine and then living in a poorly heated barracks in a country where she knew little of the language. She quickly decided she was better off cutting her long locks than washing her hair and feeling it freeze in the coming Russian winter. The temperatures in Yavas when she arrived in mid-November were already down to the high 20s.

Griner's lawyers, State Department officials and those around her say their worst fears for her turned out to be unfounded. Her celebrity as a longtime basketball star in Russia and her new status as a geopolitical figure meant that her experience was slightly easier than it was for the average inmate -- far different from the abuses that American men like Trevor Reed received, or that Paul Whelan continues to endure.

"The positive side of the story, everyone knew she was a celebrity, that the president is talking about her, diplomats are talking -- I think at that moment, it was kind of our leverage," Blagovolina says.

The guards and brigadiers -- veteran prisoners with authority -- who ran different sections of the prison wanted Griner among their charges, wanting to attach themselves to her.

The crowd around her at IK-2 was far different from the women arrested for drunkenness or drug possession in her Moscow-area jail, Boykov says. "Some, killing your mother, killing your husband, killing your friend, drowning your newborn in the river, whatever you can think of," he says. "They go to work together to do the same work."

Griner asked for the most physical assignments possible, work that would keep her moving and give her something akin to exercise.

"She really liked it, if you can like this type of activity, because from the get-go she said, 'Please tell the warden I'm willing to do hard work. If it's outside, it's even better. I can pummel the snow, I can carry heavy stuff. Let me work,'" Boykov says.

Griner was assigned to the sewing shop, where women made uniforms for prisoners and staff. Griner's frame was too long for her to sit at a sewing table, and her hands were too large to handle a needle and thread. Instead, Griner slung bolts of the dark green cloth over her shoulder and carried them around to the women at the sewing benches. She was also assigned to a crew that took heavy metal rods outside to break up ice on the walkways, treating the detail as though it were a workout. At one point, sources said, guards asked her if she could knock icicles down from the eaves -- she was the only person tall enough to reach. But after doing so, she climbed onto a roof to get to others, sending the guards into a mild panic that their star inmate might injure herself.

"Everybody loved her all along the way," Boykov says. "That's one of the things I will remember forever from this whole story."

One older woman in the sewing shop told Griner that she would make her a special uniform; Griner would never find one that fit her. Rather than use the coarser material of prisoner clothing, the woman made Griner's out of the employees' fabric, added an inner lining for warmth and sewed in secret pockets that Griner could use to hide candy or other contraband snacks.

But not all of the attention was welcomed. Boykov says the brigadier who ran Griner's section took too strong a liking to the American.

"I think she had maybe the idea that Brittney would get a lot of things, like food from outside," he says. "Or, maybe because she knew Brittney was famous and had a different skin color, different country, she was really interested in her. Brittney was really bothered by it. She found ways to keep Brittney close -- she would either do something that would lead to Brittney having her work specifically next to her, or having the same schedule Brittney was having so they would often end up at the same spot together."

And, like Bout in his American prison, everywhere Griner went she was asked when she might be traded.

No more obstacles

On Nov. 8, the American midterm election came and went with a far better result for Biden and the Democrats than most had expected. As far as American officials could tell, there were no remaining obstacles to getting a deal done. Biden addressed it directly the next day, saying, "My hope is, now that the election is over, that Mr. Putin will be able to discuss with us and be willing to talk more seriously about prisoner exchange."

But there was still no response from the Kremlin.

A week later, Colas says, she had another idea. She had heard that Putin was friendly with legendary Russian-born MMA fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov. She asked a colleague for UFC president Dana White's number and texted him. On Nov. 16, the day after Trump announced he was running for president again in 2024, she and White spoke and Colas asked if he would be willing to connect her with Nurmagomedov.

"He said he spoke to Donald Trump that morning and that Trump is debating whether to get involved, fly to Russia and bring her home," Colas says.

It seemed unlikely. Trump had been critical of Griner, and a Black lesbian who years earlier had questioned whether the national anthem should be played before games wasn't exactly his constituency.

She says she spoke with Rica Rodman and they reached out to the White House's Josh Geltzer. "I said, 'What do we do with this? It's crazy, but what if he does?'" Colas says. "The White House freaked out."

A White House source says that the administration didn't "freak out" but that officials knew not to dismiss the possibility out of hand.

"I don't think we thought it was serious at the time that he might actually go. But there was a conversation that, well, if this is what does it, then, sure, we're fine with that," the source says. "But him traveling? I didn't think so. A potential conversation was something we took a little more seriously."

One State Department official says they were aware of Colas' conversation with White but didn't know what to make of it.

"It didn't affect anything that we did," the official said.

White did not respond to requests for comment.

Officials refused to provide specific details, citing confidentiality, but finally, around Thanksgiving, Russia made an offer: Bout for Griner. Whelan was not on the table. Carstens and other officials agreed this was the only deal they could get, and they took it to Biden for approval.

On Nov. 29, Colas had her weekly meeting with Geltzer, David Cotter from the NSC, Carstens and Rodman. After three weeks of silence following the election, something was happening. There were "reflections," Colas was told. "Signals of change."

For the next week, officials in both countries tried to move quickly and quietly. Both prisoners needed official pardons, transportation had to be arranged, a location had to be chosen that was suitable to both sides.

On Dec. 2, Biden signed an executive grant of clemency. The document says Bout may not return to the United States, and he may not commit crimes against the United States or profit from his crimes, or the clemency will be voided. If Bout writes a memoir or makes money from a book or film, he could be subject to arrest if he leaves Russia.

A day or so later, Griner received a call from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow telling her that a transfer was in motion. Not far from the prison, one of Griner's local attorneys -- Boykov and Blagovolina lived too far from the prison to visit her regularly, so they hired local counsel to check on her -- was parked in a car when another car with several occupants pulled up next to it. One told the lawyer to go back to the prison. Someone from the FSB, the national security service, would be there, and Griner needed to sign a statement.

On Mon. Dec. 5, Blagovolina and Boykov were preparing to make the 10-hour trip to visit Griner at IK-2. Griner had broken her glasses, and they were bringing her a new pair.

"We had her glasses, had our bags packed, and we got a call saying she wasn't there, don't go," she says. Then, over the next two days, "complete silence."

"It was kind of stressful. We were worried about her. And we didn't know if she was getting food."

Griner had been moved to a facility, the first step of her journey home.

Other calls started going out to anyone who would need to be part of the deal, including the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Prisons.

And that's when there was a glitch. Shortly after terms were reached, CBS News called the White House, asking about the trade. It was clear this wasn't a reporter trying to bluff the administration into giving up the story.

"Oh, they had it," one White House official says. "They had the whole thing."

There was a sense around the White House and State Department that they knew where the leak had come from: someone at the Department of Justice who was angry that Bout was going to be released, much less in a deal that did not include Whelan.

"We have a good idea who it was," a White House source says.

Officials suspected the person was trying to kill the trade. The administration cut a deal with CBS to keep the plans secret until the exchange had been made, and in return, CBS would be able to break the news exclusively.

For the next three days, administration officials worked on details to get Griner and Bout to an airport in the Middle East, where they would be exchanged.

On Sunday, Dec. 4, Blinken appeared on CBS's "Face the Nation" with host Margaret Brennan, knowing that CBS was sitting on the story. About six minutes into the interview, which started off about Iran and then moved to the war in Ukraine, Brennan began to ask about Griner.

"But if these talks are active and ongoing, as the White House said, that suggests you think there's some reason to believe [the Russians are] serious now. You said they weren't serious a few weeks ago."

"Uh," Blinken started, "as they say, Margaret, the proof will be in the pudding."

He continued his answer, and then, as Brennan followed up, Blinken's staff watched nervously.

Brennan said, "The offer, for our viewers, was to release convicted arms dealer -- known as the 'Merchant of Death' -- Viktor Bout. There are two Americans being held there -- you named them, Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. Brittney has been in custody for less than a year; Whelan, a former Marine, has been in captivity since 2018. Russia wants a one-for-one swap. How do you decide which American gets left behind?"

Blinken, who typically speaks in a deliberate, staccato voice, answered quickly and spoke rapidly: "So, I'm not going to get into the details of this, it would be counterproductive for me to get into the specifics of anything we're saying, the Russians are saying, uh, and that we're hearing." He said the United States would continue working to bring them both home.

Brennan followed: "To bring them both home, but Russia wants a one-for-one swap."

"Again," Blinken said, "I'm not going to get into the details..."

Brennan interrupted him, saying that's what Russian media had been reporting. They spoke over each other until Blinken said, "Well, Russian media reports a lot every day that I wouldn't necessarily take at face value."

"So that's not what the Russians have told you," she said.

"Again, I'm not going to get into the details of it, it would be counterproductive to do that. As we said at the time we brought Trevor Reed home, we weren't able to get Paul back then, we weren't able to get Brittney back then, we said we were determined to make sure that they do come home. So, one way or another, one day or another, we're going to see that through and we're going to have to find the most effective way."

Brennan moved on, and Blinken's aides exhaled.

"That's as close to throwing up on the job as I've ever come," a State Department official said.

On the G5

On Dec. 7, Viktor Bout was prepared to leave USP Marion in his new street clothes and with the tokens of his time there, when a prison official told him he couldn't take the box with the photos, books and drawings. The government would have to inspect the material before it would be released to him.

About 8 a.m., U.S. marshals escorted Bout through the prison gates and into a black SUV -- Bout says the marshals told him they rented it at the airport. Walking through the gate, he says he thought, "Oh, damn, look at this horizon."

"It's a completely different geometry of your mind," he says. "You spend so many years in a box of concrete and you see barbed wire on top. You don't see the horizon."

They flew to Dulles Airport in Virginia, Bout still not quite ready to accept that he was going home. "Something can always happen," he says.

At Dulles, he was taken to a jet and led to the back, where he took a seat by the window.

"All the way I was in handcuffs until we boarded the G5 to Abu Dhabi. Then they said, 'OK, we'll uncuff you. We don't think you'll do any stupid stuff.' I said, 'Of course. You're taking me home.'"

A tall, bearded American who hadn't slept and was clearly in charge approached and introduced himself -- Roger Carstens, the United States special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.

"I said, 'Hey, just in case no one's told you, I just want to give you a sense of what's going to be happening in the next 18 hours," Carstens says. "And then he went into probably about six or seven minutes of just pounding us for not giving him his personal items. Rightfully so. That pissed me off. Because we were trying to do everything we could to make sure that when you leave prison, if you have a picture of your wife that you've been looking at for 10 years, you know, you should be able to leave with the picture of your wife."

Bout spoke continuously, talking about his fitness regimen in prison and telling Carstens and the marshals that his secret was intermittent fasting, getting most of his calories between 10:30 a.m. and 11 a.m., along with exercise every day between 2 and 4 p.m. Carstens asked Bout how he was able to have such control over when he ate and worked out. He says Bout shrugged and said, "It's hard, but I've been around. We can make it work."

When one of the Americans said it was hard to find time for a healthy lifestyle, Bout said Americans have no work-life balance.

"He goes, 'You all work too hard. All you do is work, work, work. You forget about life,'" Carstens says. "He started to lecture me a bit. He goes, 'Roger, let me tell you something. I ran a very large organization, and the one thing I've found, that the key to success is human capital."

Bout confirmed the conversation.

"We're living in the world where we are like a squirrel in the wheel -- or hamster in the wheel -- running all day around and still finding out that we don't really move an inch," he says. "I was excited, I was on my way home and having some conversation was kind of distract me from my own heart, which was beating on a high rate and so on. So, yeah, we discussed all kind of different issues just to -- look, it was a lengthy flight."

On the tarmac

On Dec. 8, the plane carrying Bout and Carstens landed in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates -- the country where Bout had first built his fortune -- and taxied to a spot close to the plane that had flown Griner from Moscow. Griner's plane had arrived an hour earlier after refueling in Kazakhstan. State Department sources say that there had been an agreement among all three countries that no one would film the exchange but that Russia filmed it anyway.

A Russian official came over to Bout's plane to confirm that it was actually Viktor Bout. Griner was easier to identify, although, when he saw her, Bout was surprised at her appearance.

"First of all, she apparently changed her hairstyle. I was a little shock of seeing her without her signature braids," he says. "And, you know, she was way taller than me."

One American at the scene says Griner spotted Bout and said, "Is that him? I want to meet him," and then walked over to her counterpart. "She's like, 'Viktor, what's up?' and shook his hand. It was a real, like, 'Good game' moment,'" the official said.

Bout says he can't remember exactly what she said to him, but "What's up?" sounded about right. "I just wished her good luck and shook her hand."

When Russian authorities released the video footage publicly, they had edited out the handshake.

After the exchange, Carstens opened an envelope and handed Bout the clemency order signed by Biden. Bout says he never looked at it and it remains at his home, still folded and unread.

Bout walked toward the plane that had brought Griner, she walked to the plane that had brought him, and they went their separate ways.

After CBS broke the news of the trade, social media filled with opinions, with many criticizing the Biden administration for trading "the merchant of death" for a basketball player and not getting Whelan home, too.

Judge Scheindlin, who heard Bout's case and had sentenced him to prison, said Americans should view the deal "as a good thing."

"Meaning, we really wanted Brittney Griner back, she was an innocent person, she did nothing that deserved to be held in a Russian prison under miserable conditions, and she was obviously a political tool, if that's the right word -- pawn, that's the better word, a political pawn in a drama," she says. "But we didn't need to feed and house him any longer; he had been in jail 10 years. Good riddance. Good riddance to this guy, and we get back somebody who never deserved to be there."

The morning of the 8th, Vandersloot was asleep when her wife came in to wake her.

"Allie woke me up and said, 'She's coming home,' and we just looked at each other and cried," she says. "We had hoped and prayed for this for so long."

When Boykov and Blagovolina saw the reports that Griner was on her way home, there was one thing left to do.

"I definitely got drunk," Boykov says. "We got drunk together pretty soon. Everything: champagne, beer, Jägermeister, whiskey."

'A disintegrating experience'

At the men's IK-17 prison in Russia's Mordovia region, American Paul Whelan, approaching his fourth anniversary as a Russian prisoner, was escorted from the factory across the frozen ground to an administrator's office. Five guards stood around the room as he picked up the telephone to speak to Josh Geltzer. Whelan knew others surely were listening.

The conversation was brief. Geltzer told him that Griner would be coming home, but Whelan would not. Geltzer told him the U.S. had wanted Whelan to be part of a deal, but were convinced that it was either Griner-for-Bout or nothing at all.

Later, Carstens called Whelan. He says it was one of the hardest calls he ever had to make.

Whelan, answering questions from ESPN relayed through his mother, Rosemary Whelan, says he was happy for Griner, but, "I could not help feeling concerned that enough was being done to ensure my own release."

"I remember asking for clarification on the trade in progress and any details," he said. "We discussed the situation briefly but the call was really to relay the message that I was not being released and it was not an in-depth conversation. Due to so many people listening to the call, it would have been difficult to have that in-depth conversation."

The call with Geltzer ended and Whelan was escorted back to the factory where he resumed his work and tried not to sink deeper into despair.

Shortly after, Carstens called Paul's sister, Elizabeth, to tell her the same news. She called her parents and her brother, Paul's twin, David.

"I don't remember what she said. It was difficult to process," David Whelan says. "We'd already been through it once with Trevor Reed. We really didn't think Paul would be left behind a second time. And I don't mean there was a choice to not bring him home, but that he wasn't coming home a second time. I really believed that somehow they would find a way to do it. It was crushing."

When Reed was released in April, the family had no advance notice, no time to brace themselves or organize their thoughts before reacting publicly. David says he wrote a statement that night sharply critical of the administration. They hadn't done enough to bring him back. "At that time, I didn't feel like they had turned over every stone," he says. But by the morning he had rethought it and scrapped that statement in favor of one that was more gracious. He was grateful the administration had shared the news.

"They really took a huge risk, I think, because we could have immediately gone to the media and done a good deal of damage. So we really appreciated it," he says. "It gave us time to prepare our parents."

Just this week, U.S. negotiators said they recently made a new offer to Russia to trade for Whelan and Evan Gershkovich, but Russia rejected it.

The Whelans say they feel only gratitude toward Griner for keeping Paul's name in the news along with hers.

"I think she has done everything that she needs to do in relation to advocating for Paul. She did just a huge kindness to him when she got back with her Instagram message encouraging people to write to Paul. I don't think she should be expected to do anything," David Whelan says. "She's just an American who happened to be held hostage, and she has been burdened in a way that no other American detainee has been burdened."

Paul Whelan said he hasn't heard from Griner directly but received more than 600 pieces of mail as a result of her statements.

Asked what he wanted people to know, Paul Whelan said: "The past 4½ years of wrongful detention have been a disintegrating experience, to mind, body and soul. I have maintained a positive attitude knowing that I have the support of the Canadian, Irish, British and American governments and people. I am confident that they will see this situation resolved as expeditiously as possible."

ESPN writer Shwetha Surendran, researcher John Mastroberardino and Katya Korobtsova contributed to this report.