Emiliano Carchia: OFFICIAL: Russia and Belarus withdraw…

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How are you taking the Griner situation? Kristi Tollver: Heavy heart. That’s my buddy. We played together on that team in Russia for four years. So, I’m very familiar with the area. Scary, scary situation. I feel hopeful that she will be released soon as we all are. But I just hope that she’s OK, just mentally, physically, spiritually, whatever. She’s one of the greatest people I’ve ever been around. She’s a big kid. She has a great heart. It’s very unfortunate that she’s in that situation. Very scary situation. When she comes back, she’s going to be ready to be around the team and be ready to play. She’s going to need that. Whatever support she is going to need, we’re going to do it. That’s the homey right there.
For the first time since Brittney Griner’s arrest almost three months ago, Russia appears to have publicly signaled its asking price for her safe return, if multiple reports by Russian state media are to be believed. Russia is looking to exchange the WNBA star in a prisoner swap for notorious convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout, several state-owned Russian news outlets reported Friday, citing unnamed government sources.
While one Russian state media report quoted an unnamed source who described a potential Griner-for-Bout exchange as “likely,” experts in Russian diplomacy viewed that skeptically. William Pomeranz, a professor of Russian law and the acting director of the Kennan Institute, told Yahoo Sports that he interprets the reports as a signal that “Russia really wants to make that trade” but cautioned that they give no indication of the U.S.’s willingness. “This is Russia saying, ‘Wouldn’t this be a great idea?’” Pomeranz said. “This isn’t the U.S. saying they’re interested. We’ve had other opportunities to get rid of Viktor Bout in the past and we haven’t done it.”
The release of Trevor R. Reed, a former Marine, as part of a prisoner exchange with Russia on Wednesday brought fresh attention to the cases of other Americans who are still detained in Russia, including the W.N.B.A. star Brittney Griner and another former Marine, Paul Whelan. In a briefing to reporters on Wednesday, American officials said that the administration remained focused on the release of Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan. But some observers noticed that in a statement after Mr. Reed’s release, President Biden had mentioned Mr. Whelan but not Ms. Griner.
Cherelle T. Griner, Ms. Griner’s wife, posted on Instagram on Wednesday that her heart was “overflowing with joy” for the Reed family. She added, “I do know the pain of having your loved one detained in a foreign country.” Mr. Whelan was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison in Russia on espionage charges, which he has denied. On Wednesday, Elizabeth Whelan, the sister of Mr. Whelan, wrote on Twitter, “It’s amazing to see hostages come home, but oh so very hard on those left behind.”
He met with a local militia-type group to distribute weapons and organize makeshift training drills. He helped arrange for trailers filled with humanitarian aid to arrive from neighboring countries. He went on night watch, folding his body into his Volkswagen Touareg and driving around his village outside of Kyiv, “patrolling for looters and saboteurs.” This sure as hell wasn’t the way Volkov—a grandfather, a sports minister and a 2020 FIBA Hall of Fame inductee—envisioned spending his nights. But, as he puts it, “Yes, war is a desperate time.”
One of his first calls after the invasion began was to one of his oldest friends, a longtime former teammate now living in Lithuania. Says Volkov, “It was simple. I ask, ‘Šarūnas, can you help me?’”
Volkov explained the situation. This group of players, all born in 2006, needed to get the hell out of harm’s way. Could Marčiulionis take care of them? Marčiulionis agreed without hesitation. So those nine 15- and 16-year-old Ukrainian basketball players—roughly the same age Marčiulionis and Volkov were when they first met—piled into cars headed for Vilnius. Some were accompanied by their mothers; others hugged their parents goodbye, unsure when they’d next meet. They left Ukraine, drove through Poland and entered Lithuania. Marčiulionis was there to greet these new refugees.
Volkov’s voice catches as well when he reflects on his old friend. They came up through the Soviet system together, are now filled with disgust toward Vladimir Putin’s Russia and are carrying out a sort of resistance through sports. “He’s always been like my brother, and I’ve always been very close to him. We share the same philosophy, same values throughout all life. And still now.”
Maurice Creek had only been in Mykolaiv for six weeks. It was dumb luck that he was there at all. He was replacing another American player on the Ukrainian SuperLeague team. The 31-year-old Creek was living the life of a professional basketball player abroad, going from team to team, country to country, year after year. He was originally going to play this season in China, but that deal fell through. In January, he got a call from a former coach of his on a team in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital; Mykolaiv, which had been struggling all season, needed a player. Creek needed a gig. Now, he was stuck there. He didn’t know any Ukrainian. Before the war began, he Google Translated with fans who chatted him up on the street. Now, he got his news about what was happening primarily from his family back in Maryland and his American teammates via group chat in Mykolaiv.
“They were trying to find a way to get to CNN and find out where the bombs were coming from and stuff,” Mo Creek says now, from the safety of his parents’ home in Upper Marlboro, Md. “They were telling me, ‘Dude, they’re getting very close to (your) area.’ We was already getting news like, Kharkiv had just got bombed. Kyiv had already had the tanks over there; a tank just ran over a car with somebody driving it. They was like, Odessa Airport was just bombed; that’s where I was supposed to get my flight (out of the country) from. I was definitely getting the news. It was just a crazy thing to hear the information and know that we might have to go to one of these borders to even get out.”
Creek spent the next several days, when it was safe, shuttling back between his apartment – which, like most buildings in Mykolaiv, was pitch black most of the day – and, after the air-raid sirens went off, the bomb shelter. Creek contacted his family and basketball community when he could, with increasingly dire messages. “When he was hunkered down in that bomb shelter, he sent me a voicemail,” said Joseph, Creek’s coach at GW. “It sent chills down my spine, just to hear the worry in his voice about not being able to get out. He was on his way out, and he heard the sirens, and he had to shelter. I can’t believe he was in that situation.”
Even though Creek is back home, he remains worried for his Ukrainian teammates who couldn’t leave. “I try to text them on a group chat every day – are you guys good, what’s going on with you guys?” he said. “I got a couple of texts back from some guys actually saying they’re OK, they’re with their families. So, I’m at peace. But I definitely do pray for everybody that’s in Ukraine. I knew 80 percent of the league, playing against them. But I’m not talking about basketball; I’m talking about all of Ukraine. They didn’t want no parts of this. They’re just trying to do what they need to do for their families.
A glimpse of the backlash possible for those playing in Russia at this time: Polish national team captain Mateusz Ponitka decided to abort his plans to rejoin Zenit for the rest of the league season after absorbing some harsh public criticism from NBA veteran Marcin Gortat, his country’s most successful basketball export. Ponitka secured his release from Zenit after Gortat called him “an individualist” on Twitter.
Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner was reportedly arrested at an airport in Moscow more than three weeks ago after the WNBA player was allegedly found with hashish oil vape cartridges in her luggage. On Tuesday, Russian State TV revealed the first image of the detained Griner, in a video shared by CNN.
CNN: Russian state TV has released a photo of WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was arrested on drug charges in the country after Russian officials say cannabis oil was found in her luggage. CNN's @RosaFlores has the story.

Enes Kanter Freedom believes his open criticism of the NBA is the reason he is no longer on a roster, but he clearly is not going to let that silence him. Freedom blasted the NBA and the Boston Celtics on Twitter Sunday for picking and choosing which human rights movements to support. The 29-year-old called his former team “hypocrites” for wearing Ukraine pins. Freedom said he also supports Ukraine but noted that the Celtics “begged” him to not wear anti-China sneakers a few months ago. “Who chooses whose lives are more important?” Freedom wrote. “Is there not much profit from Russia?”
Enes FREEDOM: Hypocrites! I see @Celtics coaching staff wearing Ukrainian flag pins, which I support What about Syria,Afghanistan,Uyghurs, Hong Kong,Tibet,Taiwan Why is it okay to speak up about human rights violations there but not in other countries? Is there not much profit from Russia?

Enes FREEDOM: How is it fair when I wore shoes to bring awareness about Human Rights violations around the world, @Celtics begged me to remove them and threatened to ban me, #Celtics now wear Ukrainian flag pins. Who approved this @NBPA / @NBA ? Who chooses whose lives are more important?
Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas, who is from Lithuania, along Russia's western border, said a day after the invasion began last week that "war is not the solution." He spoke out again on Wednesday. "As we talked last time, it's a big mess," Valanciunas said. "We're just trying to bring more attention. The enemy is still out there. Innocent people are still dying. The whole world is talking about sanctions, support, prayers -- but something else has to be done because the war is still going on. "It's been a tough seven days now. Every time looking at your phone and seeing what's going on out there -- it's shocking."
The strongest basketball league has suspended its business activities in Russia. NBA spokesperson told Sports Business Journal: "We have suspended our business activities in Russia." That includes activities related to content distribution such as digital and broadcast, per a source.
How are your family and friends holding up in Latvia since Russia invaded Ukraine? Davis Bertans: Right now, everybody is pretty calm. If the Russians cross the line with our borders, it’s basically World War III. I don’t think anybody is going for it or looking for it, especially them. In that sense, it seems pretty safe right now. But you never know what (Putin) is thinking. It seems like he’s been pushed in a corner right now against the wall. I don’t think anybody has a clue on what he’s willing to do or capable of doing
Given that uncertainty, have any of your friends and family made any contingency plans? Davis Bertans: Right now, we have some simple plans in place if something goes down to how quickly we can get our family out of the capital city. We have a family countryside house close to the Lithuanian border. If something happens quickly, that’s probably the safer option if you have to stay in the country and can’t get out. But the other option is my brother is playing in Spain in Sevilla. So trying to get family there as quick as possible is the best step in that scenario.
Do you have any plans with helping out any organizations that are assisting Ukraine? Davis Bertans: Right now, as much as I can do is donate some money. That is what will help the most with whatever families are coming out of Ukraine as refugees and running away from the country. There are a lot of people going to Poland, Romania, Lithuania and Latvia. The financial help is going to be the biggest impact that I can make. I hope it can help people get roofs over their heads and feed their families. Some men have stayed back in Ukraine to fight for their country. But the women and children … we need to help them in any way possible.
How far back did it hit your radar that Russia could invade Ukraine? Davis Bertans: Knowing (Putin’s) past and what he has done, I’m definitely not surprised with what has happened. We’ve seen small pieces of this before. The whole world is rallying around Ukraine. He didn’t really understand. He doesn’t understand how much patriotism there is in (Ukraine) and how much they are willing to sacrifice to protect their country. I would say 99% of them are willing to die instead of becoming part of Russia.
I’m relieved that you and yours are okay through this, all things considered. Is there anything else you want to add that we didn’t already address? Davis Bertans: The one thing I’d want to add is you can’t blame all of the Russians on this. We have about 30% of people in Latvia that are Russian-speaking. Maybe some of them are, but I would say only a minority are pro-Kremlin (anything supportive of the Russian government). There are a lot of Russian people that didn’t want this invasion to happen. I’ve heard stories of Russian people being bullied over things they can’t control and things they don’t want to happen.
Storyline: Ukraine War
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