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During the recent offseason, two WNBA players were part of a group of twelve Americans who chose to compete in Russia. New York Liberty forward Kayla Thornton noted that this decision garnered attention, especially in light of Brittney Griner's arrest in 2022.

“I had a lot of people trying to question my decision and were like, ‘Are you sure?’” Thornton told The Associated Press. “Me and my family prayed about it and that’s where my heart went, and I went. My mom is a pastor. She believes God’s going to take care of you. She prayed every night and obviously nothing bad happened.”

Unfortunately, several other Americans have not been as lucky. Russia is currently holding a number of individuals in its jails, including corporate security executive Paul Whelan and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich. Both have been designated by the U.S. government as wrongfully detained, and efforts are underway to negotiate for their release.

According to two U.S. officials, an American soldier was recently arrested in Russia on suspicion of theft. Cynthia Smith, a spokesperson for the Army, verified that a soldier was apprehended on Thursday in Vladivostok, a significant military and commercial port in the Pacific, for alleged criminal misconduct.

During the WNBA offseason, players often compete in international leagues, with Russia historically being a popular choice due to its lucrative contracts. Notable players like Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, and Griner have favoured this destination. However, Russia's status as a preferred location has diminished following Griner's arrest and subsequent 10-month imprisonment, along with the ongoing conflict with Ukraine.

“What she went through, my heart goes out to her,” Thornton said of Griner’s plight. Despite the events involving Griner, Thornton, and Monique Billings, a forward for the Los Angeles Sparks, decided to join Dynamo Kursk in Russia. Billings, 28, is embarking on her seventh WNBA season. She was unavailable for comment regarding this matter.

Griner was arrested in February 2022 on drug-related charges at Moscow Airport. GETTY IMAGES
Griner was arrested in February 2022 on drug-related charges at Moscow Airport. GETTY IMAGES

The earnings of the WNBA duo in Russia remain undisclosed, but they were not alone. Numerous other former WNBA players, such as Megan Walker and Bria Holmes, also competed in the league. Griner, a center for the Phoenix Mercury entering her 12th year in the WNBA, expressed that she harbors no resentment towards any American who chooses to play in Russia. Her primary concern lies with their safety.

“I have an old teammate that’s playing on my old team,” Griner told the AP. “I’m not mad or angry. I’m worried about them because the threat is there. They can do whatever they want over there. I ask them to be careful. Let everyone know where they are at all times.”

Thornton mentioned that her interactions were primarily limited to moving between the gym and her residence, resulting in minimal interaction with individuals outside her team. She noted the warmth and friendliness of her teammates and expressed gratitude for the efforts of Dynamo Kursk officials in ensuring her safety.

“I keep to myself. It’s rare I go out. I hung out with some of the girls on the team, they were very welcoming and understood our situation,” said the 31-year-old Thornton, who is entering her 10th season in the WNBA. “Their families cooked dinner for us. That was a blessing.” 

Having also played in Egypt, South Korea, and Italy, Thornton mentioned that she did explore outside her routine on a few occasions. She recounted visiting the ballet and witnessing the Kremlin during her team's games in Moscow. Notably, she was far from the city when a terrorist attack claimed the lives of over 130 individuals in late March.