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Houston's Toyota Center hosts rally for the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner

Brittney Griner has been detained in Russia for four months now.
Credit: AP
FILE - Phoenix Mercury's Brittney Griner (42) is congratulated on a play against the Seattle Storm in the first half of the second round of the WNBA basketball playoffs Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, in Everett, Wash. Brittney Griner has been able to receive emails and letters from WNBA players to an account Griner’s agent set up to allow them to communicate with her. The emails are printed out and delivered sporadically in bunches to Griner by her lawyers after being vetted by Russian officials. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

HOUSTON — Houston-area leaders gathered Monday night for a rally and prayer vigil in an effort to bring detained WNBA star Brittney Griner home.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee was joined by Mayor Sylvester Turner and others outside of the Toyota Center.

It's been nearly four months since Griner was detained in Russia.

The rally started at 6 p.m. outside of the arena and featured special guests and music. It lasted about 3 1/2 hours.

Debbie Jackson, Griner’s former basketball coach at Nimitz High School, was in attendance.

“It's just such an unbelieve situation for someone you know very well to be in. It’s not right. It’s sad,” she said.

Jackson said she’s been following Griner’s case closely.

“The fact that they are allowing letters and emails to get to Brittney from the WNBA ... that was encouraging to me," Jackson said.

She said she hopes word of the rally gets back to Griner to help lift her spirits.

“Everybody really needs to be prayful about the situation and just send uplifting thoughts if at all possible," she said.

In May, Griner appeared for a brief hearing handcuffed, her dreadlocks covered in a red hoodie and her face held low. The judge prolonged her detention until mid-June for her drug possession trial.

RELATED: State Dept pushing to see Griner; NBA Commissioner weighs in

Griner, 31, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was detained at the Moscow airport back in February after vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis were allegedly found in her luggage. If convicted, she could face a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

The Biden administration says the Houston native who played college ball at Baylor is being wrongfully detained. The WNBA and U.S. officials have worked toward her release without visible progress.

Griner can’t play with her WNBA colleagues. She can’t call them, either. But she can write them.

In one small bit of normalcy, Griner has been able to receive emails and letters from WNBA players during her detainment in Russia. Hundreds of emails have been sent by players to an account Griner’s agent set up to allow them to communicate with her.

RELATED: US officials: Griner now considered 'wrongfully detained' by Russia

It’s not easy: The emails are printed out and delivered sporadically in bunches to Griner by her lawyer after they are vetted by Russian officials. Griner doesn’t have access to the email account; she’ll either write a response on paper and her lawyers will take a photo of it or she’ll dictate a response if she doesn’t have any paper.

Los Angeles Sparks forward Amanda Zahui B. never thought she’d hear back from Griner when she sent an email to the Phoenix Mercury center a few months ago.

“When she responded to my second letter it blew me away,” Zahui B. said. “I was like she responded!! In my third letter, I was like ‘hey best friend, we are officially best friends now.’”

Like so many WNBA players, Zahui B. wanted Griner to know she was thinking about her as the two-time Olympic gold medalist remains, in the view of U.S. officials, wrongfully detained in Russia.

When Zahui B. got her first response from Griner it made her smile and she promised herself she would send more notes. And she has, sending them every few weeks. So have many other players.

“We just don’t want her to think she’s forgotten,” Liberty center Stefanie Dolson said.

It’s not just emails being sent to Griner; Diana Taurasi actually sent a handwritten letter to her Mercury and Olympic teammate.

RELATED: Dozens of families gather in Washington D.C. for campaign to rescue American hostages

Griner’s agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas said the letters have been a way for the 6-foot-9 center to stay connected to her WNBA family.

Some players just offer hopes and prayers for Griner’s release and say they are thinking about her. Others send Sudoku puzzles or more personal notes.

New York Liberty’s Sandy Brondello, who coached Griner in Phoenix for nine seasons, just found out about the chance to email her former player a few days ago.

“I’m going to tell her that I love her and that I’m thinking about her,” said an emotional Brondello. “That’s my girl, it’s terrible. She’s been there too long.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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