BEIJING -- Russian troops invade the Republic of Georgia, a sovereign country aligned with the West. The U.S. President condemns the attack as "unacceptable." A Presidential candidate says, "I speak for all Americans when I say that we are all Georgians now." And then there's Becky Hammon, the pride of Rapid City, S.D., marching in Russian garb behind the Russian flag the very day of the invasion, ready to take the court for a team that could meet the U.S. women in the gold-medal game.
Pour that in your five-ring pot, stir, and the result shouldn't be surprising: fevered postings on the Internet and, in some quarters, deployment of the "t" word. U.S. coach Anne Donovan won't go that far, but she has called Hammon's decision "not patriotic." Hammon became a Russian citizen earlier in 2008.
Below the surface lies a revealing tale of the path that women's basketball in the U.S. has traveled in the space of a generation. When Donovan grew up, a young woman could aspire to nothing greater than a spot on the national team. At 6-foot-8, Donovan represented America's best hope against Ilijana Semenova, the 7-foot-1 center for the Soviet Union, which had dominated women's hoops for a half-century. Unable to go to the Moscow Olympics in 1980 because of the U.S. boycott, Donovan stewed anew after the Soviets returned the favor four years later. "We blew everyone out [in Los Angeles in 1984]," she recalls. "And the first question at the press conference is, 'What would have happened if the Soviets had been here?'"
It was Donovan who barked at teammate Cheryl Miller that day to make sure Old Glory didn't touch the ground as Miller wrapped herself in the flag for a victory lap. And Donovan took note of the team's KGB minders during two visits to Moscow in 1986, when the U.S. won both the Goodwill Games and the World Championships. As a motivational exercise during training camp, she had sketched an image of herself blocking Semenova's shot, then actually pulled the feat off. "After forever," Donovan says, "we finally beat the Soviets, twice, in their country."
There was no business of women's basketball during the Cold War -- and Hammon made a business decision when she passed up a long-shot chance to make Donovan's Olympic team for a Russian passport. Club teams in Russia offer the best Americans a chance to supplement their WNBA salaries of $50,000 to $100,000 with five or six times that, and in Beijing the Russian women stand to collect government bonuses for bringing home silver ($150,000 per player) or gold ($250,000). As an official with FIBA, basketball's international governing body, dryly noted last week, "That kind of reasoning is not exactly unknown in American culture."
Hammon says she has received nothing but support from U.S. players at the Games, including good-natured teasing during the Opening Ceremony for the Russian team costume with its swirling firebird. Indeed, Donovan suspects that any of the current American women, faced with the same set of circumstances, might easily have made the same decision, and invoked the spirit of the Beijing Olympic motto, "One World, One Dream," to justify it. "I don't begrudge Becky," Donovan says. "Players today have great opportunities financially, and I totally understand that piece of it."
But many others don't understand. "People keep saying how much I'm getting hammered, but honestly, I'm not on the Internet," she said last week of what she called her "somewhat controversial decision." She has heard her Russian teammates talk of the Georgian conflict and says, "I only know their side of the story."
"My mom came from the better-dead-than-Red generation," she says. "But how long do you hang on to those things? In the war on terror, Russia is our ally. This is basketball, not World War III. The real heroes are in Afghanistan and Iraq."
And soon, in fact, the Caucasus. News that U.S. troops will go to Georgia -- on a humanitarian mission, according to Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- suddenly cast Hammon's decision in a neo-Cold War light.
"This is really happening," Donovan said last week. "I wonder what she's thinking." She paused. "I get why she did it. I'd never do it."