Brittney Griner, the American basketball star who has been detained for months in Russia, is given a place in the Women’s National Basketball Association’s (WNBA) All-Star Game as an honorary starter.
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said on Wednesday that the starters were chosen by a combination of votes from fans, media and players.
“During every season of Brittney’s career where there has been an All-Star Game, she has been selected as an All-Star,” Engelbert said.
“It’s not hard to imagine that if BG [Griner] was with us this season, she would be re-selected and would undoubtedly showcase her incredible talents. So it is only fitting that she is named as an honorary starter today and we continue to work towards her safe return to the US.”
The development comes amid Griner’s continued detention since Feb. 17, when authorities at an airport outside Moscow said she had vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her purse.
The State Department in May designated Griner wrongfully detained and moved her case under the supervision of the presidential special envoy for hostage-taking, who is effectively the government’s chief negotiator.
A coalition of human rights groups on Wednesday called on President Joe Biden to “make a deal” to secure Griner’s release.
Forty advocacy groups, including the National Organization for Women, Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD, said they appreciated the Biden administration’s efforts, including labeling the 31-year-old “wrongfully detained” and appointing diplomats to work for her release. But they said more had to be done.
“The United States government has acknowledged that Brittney is essentially a political pawn by classifying her as wrongly detained,” the groups said in a letter to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
“While these were extremely important measures, we now urge you to make a deal to get Brittney back home to America immediately and safely.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Griner, one of the brightest stars in the American women’s professional basketball league, is a WNBA champion, seven-time All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist.
Griner played for a Russian professional team for many years during the WNBA off-season to supplement her income. She is a seven-time champion of the Russian League.
On Monday, a Kremlin spokesman said Griner was guilty of drug offenses and not a hostage.
Griner tried to call her wife Cherelle Griner nearly a dozen times through the US embassy in Russia on their fourth birthday on Saturday, but they couldn’t connect because the phone line at the embassy was unmanned.
“It was a logistical problem that was partially exacerbated by the fact that our embassy in Moscow has significant staffing restrictions,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said, adding that the call has been rescheduled.
Russian state news agency Tass reported last week that Griner’s detention has been extended until at least July 2. Another American, Paul Whelan, has been held in Russia since December 2018 on charges of espionage that he and the US government believe is false.
Meanwhile, Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson received the most votes from fans and were selected as co-captains for the WNBA event. Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles will be joined, who have both announced that they will be retiring at the end of the season. Bird will set a record with her 13th All-Star appearance. Fowles, who is currently injured, was selected for her eighth game.
Stewart and Fowles will be paired as co-captains, as will Wilson and Bird, and will choose their teams.
The coaches of the league will vote for the 12 reserves and the co-captains will draw up their rosters on July 2. The game takes place on July 10 in Chicago with a three-point competition and a skills challenge the day before.