(Todd A. Smith)
First things first.
I do not profess to have any expertise or real knowledge about foreign affairs and foreign diplomacy.
With that said, Americans need to continue to chant and tweet to “free Paul Whelan” like it did for WNBA superstar Brittney Griner for the better part of 2022.
ESPN reported, “Brittney Griner returned to the United States early Friday after being freed in a high-profile prisoner exchange following 10 months in detention in Russia…
“She was exchanged for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout on Thursday.
“The exchange, made at a time of heightened tensions over the invasion of Ukraine, achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden but carried a heavy price and left behind Paul Whelan, an American jailed for nearly four years in Russia.”
I can understand why many Americans are upset that President Biden traded a notorious arms dealer in exchange for the release of a celebrity and not a marine.
America is too celebrity-obsessed (always has been for that matter) and that should change.
No one’s life or freedom is worth more than anyone else’s.
But to Houstonians, especially those from the northside of the H-Town, releasing Griner was not about glory and stardom on the hardwood.
Releasing Griner was personal to many of us because we personally watched Griner grow from a freshman sensation at Nimitz High School to a worldwide celebrity dunking on other ladies as if intent to “posterize” them like NBA legends Vince Carter and Dominque Wilkins had done to mere mortals years earlier.
For me, Griner’s story was more personal because I did not just watch her high school highlights dunking on the competition.
I physically went out to see her play in person as often as possible.
Furthermore, Griner’s exploits made me extremely proud because she was an esteemed graduate of an Aldine Independent School District (ISD) campus like yours truly.
I never thought I would see the day that I would cheer for someone playing for my high school’s rival.
But there I was watching in amazement as Griner’s Nimitz High School Lady Cougars beat up on my beloved Eisenhower High School Lady Eagles.
I can remember the looks of desperation as she blocked the shots of frustrated Lady Eagles.
I can remember her putting on a dunk show in pregame warm-ups.
I can remember her participating in playoff games at the M.O. Campbell Center, a basketball facility for Aldine Independent School District.
In fact, I witnessed many of Griner’s exploits at my old stomping grounds.
I watched her humble my Lady Eagles on the very court at Eisenhower that I played three years of varsity basketball on.
Furthermore, I watched her playoff success at the Campbell Center, the place where my high school graduation was held.
Moreover, my senior year was the first year that Aldine’s schools played basketball games at the Campbell Center.
Did I mention that my father was on the school board at Aldine ISD when Griner was putting in work?
I even remember when Aldine refused to let her miss school to participate in the McDonald’s All-American game.
Even back then, I realized that even though Griner brought fame and recognition to the district, she still had her haters.
When she took her talents to Baylor University and even won a national championship for the Bears, she faced hatred.
Regardless, she stood tall and never stopped being herself.
That strength and that local connection is why I, and many others, expressed joy when we woke up Thursday morning to the news that Griner was on her way back to the greatest country on the planet, the United States of America.
She had endured hell.
However, that hell did not break her.
That strength and courage is what we admire.
Many people would have folded under the pressure.
But those that watched Griner knew she would not be the one to give Russia and its brutal dictator Vladimir Putin the pleasure.
No, Griner is not perfect.
She made a mistake bringing cannabis oil into a foreign country.
But who among us has not made a mistake?
Therefore, her release should be celebrated by all.
Nevertheless, we should use the same energy we used to keep Griner’s predicament front center to keep Whelan front and center as well.
Just like Griner is just a girl made good from Houston, Whelan is a guy who became known for serving his country as a Marine.
He, like Griner, made mistakes too, which led to a dishonorable discharge.
But Whelan has a family that misses him like Griner’s family missed her.
The marine has friends and classmates who watched him grow from a young man to a marine like Houstonians watched Griner grow from a project on the court to a worldwide phenomenon.
Therefore, the frustration that many feel that Whelan is still detained is warranted.
However, that frustration should not take away from the jubilation of Griner getting released.
And while the buck always stops with the current president, people making this a liberal versus conservative issue to criticize the current president are sadly misguided.
Whelan was detained in Russia in 2018, two years into former President Donald Trump’s administration.
As a result, criticism from Trump and other Republicans is extremely hypocritical because Trump could not get Whelan released either.
Therefore, let’s just celebrate this small victory while keeping our eyes on another victory, which would be to bring Whelan back home too.
If Griner can get a release, eventually Whelan can too.
And when that day comes, Whelan’s homecoming will be equally as jubilant as Griner’s, if not more jubilant.