Changing of the Guard

Aug. 04, 2008
Aug. 04, 2008

Table of Contents
Aug. 4, 2008

SI Bonus Section: Golf Plus
  • First played in the 16th century, revived in 1930, an infernal, no-holds-barred version of soccer known as calcio fiorentino keeps the good citizens of Florence, Italy, battling and reveling


Changing of the Guard

Snubbed by Team USA, WNBA All-Star Becky Hammon is putting her all-American reputation at risk for a shot at a medal in Beijing—playing for Russia, a country she once dreaded

BECKY HAMMON'S first sense of xenophobia came from watching Red Dawn. Just seven years old when the film debuted with a PG-13 rating in 1984, she was too young to see it in the theater—and arguably still too young to see it a year later when it came out on VHS. Nonetheless, she watched in horror as Russian-led communist forces parachuted into a rural American town that bore a striking resemblance to her native Rapid City, S.D., wreaked havoc on a familiar-looking downtown and herded the town's grown-ups into a drive-in theater for "reeducation camp."

This is an article from the Aug. 4, 2008 issue

HAMMON imagined herself and her siblings, Gina and Matt, loading cans of soup, hunting rifles and a few thousand rounds of ammo into the family pickup truck and escaping into the nearby woods, just as the orphaned teenage heroes in Dawn did. "I slept with my parents for two months," Hammon says, "because I thought the Russians were going to invade and take them away."

Two decades later Hammon is encountering a different sort of anti-Russian fervor and from a new perspective: She has evolved from agitated young spectator to provocative leading lady. On Aug. 9 in Beijing, Hammon, the San Antonio Silver Stars point guard and the runner-up in the WNBA's MVP vote in 2007, will realize her lifelong dream of competing in the Olympics—only she'll be suiting up for the very Russians she once dreaded. "I never imagined I'd be playing for them," she says.

She isn't the only U.S. basketball player who will be wearing the Russian red, white and blue this summer; former Bucknell star and European leagues veteran J.R. Holden is on the men's team. And, if anything happens to Hammon, the Detroit Shock's Deanna Nolan is the likely alternate.

But Hammon is taking the most heat. Anne Donovan, Team USA's coach and a titanic figure in the team's international clashes with Russia as a two-time gold-medal-winning center, stopped just short of calling Hammon a traitor. "If you play in this country, live in this country and you grow up in the heartland—and you put on a Russian uniform—you are not a patriotic person," she said in June.

Hammon says she would've happily put on a USA jersey but argues that she didn't have much of a shot to make the team. In March 2007, when USA Basketball released its initial list of 21 players from which 12 would be chosen for the U.S. Olympic team, her name wasn't on it. So she signed a contract with club team CSKA Moscow that would eventually be worth $2 million for four years. It included the option of playing for the Russian Olympic team if she could become a naturalized citizen. There was also a six-figure incentive for winning a gold medal.

But Hammon insists that she's no mercenary and would gladly prove it. "I wish I was given the opportunity to turn down two million dollars, to play for my country," she says, "because I would've done it in a second."

Hammon, 31, showed an aptitude for basketball at an early age, learning to dribble and shoot with either hand by the time she was in third grade says her father, Marty. "Not many little kids can do that," he says. But coaches and scouts have always underestimated Becky. At 5'6" she's considered a bit undersized, and many have questioned her athleticism and defensive ability.

Over the years she has taken great satisfaction in proving her detractors wrong. During her junior year at Stevens High in 1994, a Nebraska coach called to formally terminate her recruitment. So she went to Colorado State and as a freshman led the Rams to 26 wins and their first NCAA tournament appearance. Even sweeter, she hit a late three-pointer to help beat Nebraska in the first round.

As a senior she led the Rams to the Sweet 16 but still went undrafted by the WNBA in 1999. She caught on with the New York Liberty as a free agent—and stuck for eight years. In six of those seasons, the Liberty went to the playoffs. In April 2007 New York wanted to get younger and traded her to San Antonio; with Hammon at point guard the Silver Stars made it to the postseason for only the third time in their 11-year history.

On Sunday, as the WNBA began a monthlong break for the Olympics, San Antonio was in first place in the Western Conference, and Hammon was averaging 17.4 points and 4.7 assists. "You never truly understand her beauty as a basketball player," says Silver Stars coach Dan Hughes. "If I'm coaching a basketball team for the highest stakes, I want that player on my team."

Hammon has nurtured her Olympic dream for years. During her senior year in high school, she and her parents drove nine hours from Rapid City to Minneapolis for the women's Final Four, and at a Fan Fest function she got some court time with '96 Olympians Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley and Sheryl Swoopes. But a torn right ACL suffered in June 2003 kept her from getting a shot at the 2004 Olympics. It wasn't until 2006 that she was asked to participate in a three-game European tour with Team USA. She played sparingly and wasn't invited back.

She continued to put out feelers to USA Basketball but didn't get much encouragement. So when she got the surprise offer in the spring of 2007 to play for CSKA Moscow in the WNBA's off-season, she took it. She then got her Russian passport early this year. (Hammon has no ancestral ties to the country but was eligible because she had never appeared for another nation in a FIBA-sanctioned event.) From a financial standpoint, an international passport holds significant benefits for a U.S. player because several leagues limit the number of Americans per team. With dual citizenship, a player can skirt those limits, giving him or her added value in the marketplace.

After her near-MVP performance with San Antonio in '07, Hammon was invited to reenter the Team USA pool but declined the invitation as it would've been a breach of her CSKA contract and likely jeopardized her Russian citizenship application. Yet she would've risked it all, Hammon says, if she believed Team USA had a genuine interest. "It was going to be hard for her to make the team," Donovan concedes, "but not impossible. Spots were still up in the air to be grabbed and to be fought for, and she certainly could've been one of those players."

But to characterize the U.S. roster as fluid, Hammon says, "would be like saying an undrafted free agent has just as good an opportunity of making the L.A. Sparks as [overall No. 1 pick] Candace Parker did. I've just never been one of the girls, and that's O.K. It's not my journey."

AS SHE wrestled with whether to play for Russia, she was mindful of the repercussions it could have for her family back in the heartland. When relatives gave her their blessing, Hammon was on her way to Beijing.

There, she'll strengthen a position that has been historically weakest for the Russians. Her high-energy leadership and unselfish playmaking are ideally suited to the fast-paced, wide-open international game. This is a particular concern to USA Basketball this year, because the Russians were silver medalists at the last women's world championships, in 2006, having beaten the U.S. in the semifinals before losing to Australia in the final.

The uproar that would be created if Hammon helps defeat Team USA would no doubt make the pre-Olympic controversy pale in comparison. But Hammon is undaunted. "I'm proud to be an American," she says, "but I'm also proud that Russia would embrace and accept me. Medal or no, they've given me the opportunity to remind people what the original Olympic spirit is all about—unity."

"If you live in this country and grew up in the heartland—and you play for the Russians—YOU ARE NOT PATRIOTIC," said Donovan.




Check out a photo gallery of the top 10 story lines in the WNBA this season.


PHOTOPhotograph by FIBA Europe/CSKA MoscowSECOND JOB When not playing for the Silver Stars, Hammon is a EuroLeague All-Star (right) for CSKA Moscow.PHOTODARREN CARROLL[See caption above]PHOTOD. CLARKE EVANS/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESHIGH IMPACT First in the WNBA in assists per game and fourth in points, Hammon—as usual—led her team to the playoffs in '07.