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'Best Christmas present ever': Brittney Griner's former Nimitz coach, Houston friends are thrilled she's free

"We missed her and we're so happy this moment is here," WNBA star Chiney Ogwumike said. She and Griner grew up in Houston and were childhood friends.

HOUSTON — WNBA start Brittney Griner is a hometown girl and Houston celebrated the news of her release from Russian captivity Thursday. Mayor Sylvester Turner ordered City Hall be lit up in red, white and blue Thursday night in honor of Griner. 

For more than nine months, Houston has been front and center, raising awareness and calling for Griner's release from Russia. Thursday morning it finally happened.

"It's the best Christmas present ever," Debbie Jackson, Griner's former basketball coach at Nimitz High School, said.

Jackson stayed in touch through the years after Griner joined the WNBA. She said the last nine months were a terrible ordeal. She was shocked at news that her friend was finally free.

"I was actually asleep and the phone rang and I picked it up," Jackson said. "I was just overjoyed, about ready to get up and out of bed and jump up and down. It was the best news ever, so exciting."

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee has been pushing the Biden administration for months to do whatever it took to get Griner home. 

"It showed her stamina, determination and love for this country," Jackson Lee said. "She was truly wrongfully detained. We had the ability to do this swap months ago. But I want to applaud the Biden Administration who said to us directly that he was not going to forget Brittney Griner."

For her friends and fellow WNBA stars, it's been a long road too. 

"We missed her and we're so happy this moment is here," said WNBA star Chiney Ogwumike. 

Ogwumike plays for the Los Angeles Sparks, but grew up in Houston with Griner. They've played basketball together since they were 10 years old.

"My heart is racing and am so happy and I feel so joyful because our sister is finally free," said Ogwumike. "This is a huge moment for everyone who has shown compassion for our WNBA sister for the last 294 days since Brittney Griner was wrongfully detained."

Those who know and love Griner can't wait to have her back on U.S. soil. 

"If I was with her now, she'd get the biggest hug ever, and an 'I love you and we're so happy you're back,'" Jackson said. 

Griner's friends and family publicly say they vow to continue fighting for the release of other Americans wrongfully detained, including Paul Whelan.

TEAM COVERAGE: Brittney Griner heading home to Texas

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