It was close to the maximum despite Griner’s emotional plea that it was an accident. The sentencing opens the door to a potential diplomatic deal to bring Griner home through a prisoner swap.
“Not only is she a great player but she actually helped change my life,” said, Damion McKinney, Griner’s friend and former coach.
McKinney is a former coach for DFW Elite, a traveling basketball team that he says has some of the best players in the region on its roster.
McKinney says he helped drive to Houston, Griner’s hometown, to watch her play basketball in high school and recruited her to the team.
“When I saw her, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I said this is the best player in the country,” he recalled.
McKinney says he recruited Griner again to play for Baylor University. In her first year, the team went to the Final Four.
“Her junior year, we went 40-0 and we won the national championship and she kind of finished the job that she set out to do,” McKinney said.
Together, he says they won seven Big 12 championships, and that he’s seen her during highs and lows.
He says he recognized Griner’s reaction when a Russian judge read the crushing verdict: Guilty of possessing and smuggling drugs.
“I know that expression, I’ve seen that expression in games so I saw the disappointment, I saw the anger,” McKinney said.
Griner was arrested in February after vape cartridges containing cannabis oil were found in her luggage at a Moscow airport.
She pleaded guilty and before being sentenced, she apologized.
“I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn’t end my life here,” Griner said, caged in a Russian courtroom.
But the judge ignored Griner’s pleas sentencing her to nine years, one year less than the maximum.
Now, attention turns to the potential for a prisoner swap between Washington and Moscow.
Friends and McKinney say Griner’s experience makes her uniquely prepared to deal with adversity and hope negotiations between the two countries intensify.
“I really believe that it’s going to happen and she will be freed,” said McKinney, who now owns Fly Swift, a youth basketball training program.
Griner’s Russian attorneys called today’s sentence “absolutely unreasonable” and accused the court of ignoring the evidence and Griner’s admission of guilt. They say they plan to file an appeal.
In a statement, President Joe Biden called Griner’s sentence “unacceptable” and said his administration is working to bring her and another American prisoner, Paul Whelan, home as soon as possible.