Brittney Griner Worried Her Wife Cherelle Would Leave Her: ‘How Can I Ask Her to Wait?’ (Exclusive)

In this week's issue of PEOPLE, the WNBA star reveals she thought Russian detention might end her marriage — but it made it even stronger

<p>Johnny Nunez/Getty; Knopf</p>

Johnny Nunez/Getty; Knopf

Of all the inhumane treatment and humiliations Brittney Griner experienced in a Russian prison, one of the lowest points in her incarceration came immediately after her sentencing for possession of cannabis oil.

Given nine years, and told by a fellow inmate to expect at least 10 to allow for paperwork filing and other unforeseen snags, Griner, 33, recalls imagining all the things — professional opportunities, personal milestones, loved ones — that would have slipped away following a decade locked up in a foreign country.

“I might never see my parents again, and especially Pops [Griner’s father Ray] with his health issues,” she writes in her new memoir, Coming Home. “My basketball career would be over. I’d be in my early forties and out of shape, would have to find a new way to provide for my wife. And Relle. She assured me she’d wait, but ten years was ridiculous.”

“Relle” — Griner’s wife Cherelle, a lawyer, whom she married in 2019 — worked tirelessly from the day Griner was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport to get her released, ultimately lobbying President Biden and helping set the wheels of a prisoner swap in motion. Despite Cherelle’s commitment and constant reassurance, Griner admits to experiencing crippling moments of doubt that their relationship would survive.

<p>Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty</p> Brittney Griner and Cherelle Griner attend The 2023 Met Gala Celebrating "Karl Lagerfeld: A Line Of Beauty" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 01, 2023 in New York City.

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty

Brittney Griner and Cherelle Griner attend The 2023 Met Gala Celebrating "Karl Lagerfeld: A Line Of Beauty" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 01, 2023 in New York City.

Related: Inside Brittney Griner's Life in Prison: The Friendships — and Bad Habit — That Helped Her Survive (Exclusive)

“I went through so many emotions being locked up, and just thinking about nine years,” Griner told PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “We planned on having kids, and doing all these amazing things together, and now I'm thinking, ‘Is that going to happen? How can I ask her to wait?’ ”

Griner, who calls the idea of losing her soulmate — not receiving a guilty verdict — the “real nightmare,” went as far as telling Cherelle she could move on with her life. “I gave her an out,” admits Griner. “But she was basically like, ‘What? Stop it. Don’t you ever say that.’ ”

“It was just emotion,” Griner continues. “I got scared for a minute. When you’re in that predicament, the first thing that comes to mind is not good. You see women get those [goodbye] letters [in prison] and break down in tears.”

Related: Brittney Griner Tears Up Remembering Her Suicidal Thoughts in Prison in Clip from First Interview (Exclusive)

Though Griner wasn’t allowed to put photos on the wall of her cell, she would stick Cherelle’s picture on the side of a metal dresser beside her bed. “I’d lay there and look at her, talk to her as if she was sitting there,” says Griner. “I’d reread her letters. [That love] got me through.”

Cherelle Griner on Brittney's birthday.
Cherelle Griner on Brittney's birthday.

Griner credits Cherelle’s private support and public advocacy, which was far outside of her comfort zone, with saving her life. “She is not a spotlight person, she is not [comfortable with] the media,” says Griner. “She tries to run from it. For her to do all she did, it showed me even more how much she really loves me.”

Since their tearful reunion on a tarmac in San Antonio on Dec. 9, 2022, the couple has been making up for lost time in Phoenix and getting their plans back on track. They recently announced in a joint Instagram post that Cherelle is pregnant with their first child, due in July.

Related: Brittney Griner to Caitlin Clark: WNBA Is 'Different' with Players Trying to 'Feed Their Families' (Exclusive)

<p>Cherelle Griner Instagram</p> Brittney and Cherelle Griner's Instagram pregnancy announcement.

Cherelle Griner Instagram

Brittney and Cherelle Griner's Instagram pregnancy announcement.

“Here comes no sleep,” jokes Griner of the decidedly happier adventure awaiting them. “Especially in the beginning.”

Griner’s memoir, Coming Home, with Michelle Burford, is available now.

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