"Papa! What are you doing? Dinner last night was awesome We got home fine We got in the gym today; practice was good Massages? I think massages would be good. Some people would want massages Mmm hmmm. I think that would be good. Tomorrow? Good."
Can Lenin rest easily in his nearby Red Square tomb knowing Americans such as Diana Taurasi (left) and Sue Bird make hundreds of thousands to play hoops in the heart of Russia?
Across the table, Sue Bird laughed when asked whether former Seattle Storm owner Howard Schultz ever called her up to ask whether she needed a massage.
Is this the "new world order" the first President Bush described after the fall of communism? Bird, born and raised on Long Island, played under an Israeli passport this winter for a team in suburban Moscow where she earned almost four times her $93,000 annual salary with the WNBA. Taurasi, who grew up in California, played under an Italian passport and earned roughly 10 times as much as the $49,000 her WNBA Phoenix Mercury will pay her this season. From December to mid-May, the two former UConn teammates were back together, living in a rent-free, six-bedroom villa only slightly smaller than the Kremlin, so lavish it included an indoor swimming pool and a sauna. They had a part-time cook. They had an interpreter. They had personal drivers. They received three round-trip, business-class flights between the United States and Moscow during the season. They regularly flew business class or charter for road games. They played in a new arena with a photo mural of the team stretching across the entire back wall. von Kalmanovic phoned them several times a day, took them to dinner and shows, and flew them abroad on break.
This might be as close to the NBA lifestyle as they will ever get.
True, there was a slight problem with the plumbing in their house. Toilet paper couldn't be flushed, so it had to be placed in a wastebasket and taken away in the garbage. But what the hell. The woman who owns the house took care of that. And it still beats an August road trip to Houston with the WNBA.
Strangers in a strange land On a snowy late-winter evening in Vidnoe, a suburb just south of Moscow, Bird and Taurasi stood with their hair pulled back and their faces pointed up toward a Russian flag hanging from the rafters. Feeling the usual pregame jitters, they shifted their weight from one foot to the other while a Russian army chorus two rows deep, 60 men strong and resplendent in olive uniforms belted out a goosebump-forming rendition of the national anthem.
Bird, 26, and Taurasi, 24, are too young to appreciate the incongruity that the man responsible for the public funding of their team's sparkling new arena is Moscow region governor B.V. Gromov, a former general and the last Soviet soldier to leave Afghanistan in 1989. For that matter, they are too young to fully appreciate the irony of American basketball players traveling to Russia to earn a far better living than possible in the United States. They learned about the Soviet Union in history class, certainly, but they do not personally remember when Reagan first called the U.S.S.R. the "Evil Empire", nor the decades when the threat of nuclear war between the two countries was a constant source of tension and worry. Though they somewhat understand the complexities of those times because they saw "Rocky IV."
See Taurasi's Russian crib and Spartak's arena in this video.
"Russia," Winston Churchill famously observed, "is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the turbulent rise of capitalism here, that nebulous entity Churchill described now surrounds a Rubik's Cube. Or as Taurasi puts it, "Russia the longer you're here, the less sense it makes."
Consider this slice of life from one edition of the Moscow Times this past season:
• An above-the-fold story about a Russian colonel-turned-journalist who "officially" committed suicide after he wrote stories critical of the military. His method? Falling backward from the fifth floor of his apartment building while wearing a coat and carrying a grocery bag of oranges from a recent shopping trip.
• A below-the-fold story about a gulag museum in Moscow's high-end shopping district that gets a dozen visitors on a good day.
• A brief item on the resort town bidding for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
• A first-person account from a woman who works in a metro station instant-photo booth, earning $14 for a 12-hour workday.
Obviously there are many questions that go unanswered in Moscow beyond why Russians wear those magnificent fur hats yet don't cover their ears in bitter sub-zero weather. For one thing, how can a woman possibly get by on $14 a day in a city ranked the second-most expensive in the world?
More to the point: How can women basketball players earn so much money here? Even Taurasi acknowledges, "I don't know how it works, to be honest," and she's played two winters in Russia.
Well, begin with von Kalmanovic, the Spartak owner who is sort of the Mark Cuban of Russian basketball. Or he would be if Cuban dressed much, much better and if he once owned a European championship team with Arvydas Sabonis and once dated Liza Minnelli and if he married one of his players (on his women's team that is) and once spied for the Soviet Union and if a Google search linked his name with some shady innuendo. Among the tales alleged on the Web that von Kalmanovic might have been involved in Africa diamond trafficking and that he was arrested for spying in Israel. von Kalmanovic says he made his first fortune in construction in Africa, though he does admit to being arrested as a spy in Israel.
He insists, however, that contrary to rumors he was not with the KGB: "I was in the military intelligence service. I was in the army of the Soviet Union. Later this year will be 20 years from the day I was arrested [for spying in Israel], and then it will become no more secret. I cannot tell you the truth now, and I don't want to lie. So leave it. We'll meet one year from now and I will tell you, if you are still interested."
With a background that includes spying, Spartak owner Shabtai von Kalmanovic makes even Mark Cuban and George Steinbrenner seem dull.
Like most owners, von Kalmanovic says he loses money on his team. Unlike most owners, his claims are believable. Spartak averaged approximately 3,000 fans a game, but the specific attendance doesn't really matter because tickets are free (the plan is to get fans hooked, then start charging admission). He says the team also pays to have its games televised. With salaries, travel, publicity, overhead and a youth basketball school his wife manages, von Kalmanovic estimates this year's expenses would run $5 million to $6 million. And how much revenue does he take in? "There is no revenue. I take in nothing."
When basketball is your passion and you're part of the new Russian oligarchy, what is $6 million over the course of a season? One person said he saw von Kalmanovic go through $1 million in a single weekend trip to France.
"I have friends who go to casinos," von Kalmanovic said. "I know friends who risk on the stock exchange. I am Lithuanian for me, basketball is everything. It is a hobby, a pleasure, a casino, whatever you want."
"There are six or seven owners [like him] in Russia," Taurasi said. "They're hotheads who want the best women's basketball team, and that's their hobby, so they don't care how much they pay."
The beneficiaries of this competition for talent are the players. WNBA salaries are strictly slotted based on a narrow range of maximums and minimums determined by seasons of service and year of entry. In the former Soviet Union, Bird and Taurasi can offer their services through the free market system to earn the best basketball salaries offered in Europe.
"It's not even comparable," Bird said. "There's been a huge increase in the last two years."
There are also lucrative incentive bonuses $5,000 for beating a good team on the road plus the free house, the drivers, etc. Heck, all they're missing is a posse.
"What is the difference between Barbra Streisand, Madonna and Diana Taurasi?" von Kalmanovic asked between nibbles from a spread of black caviar and blini before a Spartak game. "Madonna, Taurasi it doesn't make any difference that one is attracting people by singing and the other is attracting people by scoring. Why should Madonna have cars, drivers, security and not our players?"
You won't hear many WNBA owners express this view.
Coaching in a madhouse Does Phil Jackson ever have to deal with this?
With Spartak fighting off a run by Moscow rival Dynamo in a game that started at 5 p.m., coach Natalia Hejkova wanted to get Taurasi and her scoring touch into the game. This was not as straightforward as it seemed.
Russian League rules specify that a team can suit up only five non-Russian players. Spartak had eight on its roster this season, so Hejkova sat three in the stands each game. Only two Americans can be on the roster. You also must have two Russians on the court at all times. So if Hejkova wanted to send in Taurasi, she couldn't go in for a Russian player unless the coach also inserted a Russian at another position even though she didn't want that particular Russian in the game.
In some leagues, you need a program to tell the players apart. In the Russian League, you need an immigration agent.
In the past year, Kasha Terry was paid to play ball in Indiana, Spain and Israel. Well, not so much Israel.
"It's terrible," Hejkova said. "Sometimes no one understands why I'm making the switches except me. Me and the people around me."
Making all this more complicated is that Spartak essentially played two seasons at once a Russian League schedule and an 18-team European League schedule. There are no rules regarding a minimum number of Russians in the Euro League.
Taurasi is such a Southern Californian that the two things she misses most while in Russia are In-N-Out burgers and driving a car, but because her father was born in Italy, she was able to obtain an Italian passport. Bird's father and grandparents are Jewish, which allowed her to gain an Israeli passport last fall. This means that as far as the Russian basketball league is concerned, the two players are not Americans but are as European as if they chain-smoked, listened to techno music and thought nothing of waiting two hours for the waiter to bring a restaurant bill. That allowed Spartak to sign two "official" Americans, center Tina Thompson of the Houston Comets and forward Tamika Whitmore of the Indiana Fever.
"We're so much more valuable than the average American because we don't count against the limit," Bird said. "I was already prepared to sign with Spartak, but the minute people found out I had an Israeli passport, my agent said teams started calling. 'Oh, she's European now?'"
Bird's grandparents emigrated from the former Soviet Union, so when she played for Dynamo in Moscow the previous two winters, that team's management asked whether she would be interested in applying for a Russian passport. That would have allowed her to negotiate an even better contract. She did not. For one thing, her grandparents were from Ukraine, so it was unclear whether she could get a Russian passport. More important, before she could do anything, the league passed a rule specifying that, to qualify as a Russian, the player had to be eligible for the Russian national team. That disqualified Bird, who as a member of the 2004 U.S. Olympic team is ineligible to play for anyone else in the Olympics.
Bird is grateful to have a coach like Spartak's Hejkova. For one thing, she's a good, understanding coach who speaks to the team in English (the common language on a team with players from seven countries). For another, well, she coached the team the entire season. Bird went through five coaches her first two seasons in Russia, including three the first year.
That first winter with Dynamo was enough to make a player consider defecting to the West. "In the WNBA, when a player joins the team, you welcome them to the team," Bird said. "My first day with Dynamo, I walked into the clubhouse and said, 'Hi, I'm Sue.' They looked up from tying their shoes, looked at me without an expression, and went back to tying their shoes. They didn't even smile."
Fortunately, Bird's old Seattle Storm teammate, Kamila Vodichkova, was on the team and took care of Bird, cooking her soup and helping with shopping. "I'd say, 'This is face cream, right?'" Bird recalled. "And she'd say, 'No, it's hemorrhoid ointment.'"
Taurasi joined her on the Dynamo roster two winters ago, reuniting the two friends from their UConn days. Still, because of difficulties with the coaches and a brutally cold winter, that 2005-06 season was so unpleasant it wore down even relentlessly upbeat Taurasi. She compares it to the episode of "Married With Children" when the Bundys travel to Lower Uncton, an English town living under a constant dark cloud. Lower Uncton became her code for anything that went wrong during the season.
"My goal was to make one Russian smile a day one Russian," she said. "That lasted a couple days and I gave up."
While Bird put the hurt on her former team, Dynamo, Spartak's league-mandated cheerleaders went through four costume changes.
Bird and Taurasi gained a fair amount of revenge against their former team the winter night Hejkova debated her lineup options. With the two substituting for each other at guard and Bird pouring in the points, Spartak built a commanding lead in the third quarter. The Dynamo coach called timeout and, while he and Hejkova considered their options, Spartak's league-mandated cheerleaders took the court in knee-high white dance boots and crisp white sport coats that did not completely cover their rears. It was the third of four costumes. While techno music boomed over the loudspeakers, they thrust their pelvises suggestively, swiveled their hips alluringly, spun their bodies acrobatically through the air and kicked their legs above their heads spectacularly in a routine to shame the Laker Girls.
And people think the Bolshoi Ballet is really something.
Spartak beat Dynamo easily with Bird scoring 18 points to earn game MVP honors, along with a $1,000 bonus $300 of which immediately went toward paying for a postgame dinner (sushi again) with teammates and visiting WNBA friends. The team had a week off before its next game, and von Kalmanovic had a surprise. He told Bird and Taurasi after the game that he was flying them to Israel the next morning for a two-day tour of the country.
Moscow days and nights Grand churches have been rebuilt. The state-operated GUM department store has been returned to the spectacular shopping mall it originally was during the days of the czars. Restaurants boast menus that rise in price spectacularly with each floor you ascend. But waiting remains a way of life in modern Russia.
Sure, the money is good, but the cultural exchange with teammates and opponents has a favorable rate, as well.
Muscovites used to stand in line hours for potatoes and other basic necessities; they now sit for hours in traffic jams of old Ladas, new VWs, Volvos, Mitsubishis, each vehicle democratically caked in a winter's coat of mud and road spray. You can drive from Vidnoe to the Kremlin in 40 minutes when the traffic is light, which it dependably is from 3 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. The journey often takes an hour. Sometimes it takes two hours. If you're unlucky, it can take three hours. The Spartak men's soccer team got trapped in such bad traffic before one game last summer that the coach finally ordered everyone off the bus and onto the subway. Spartak made the game on time, but its opponent did not.
So while Bird and Taurasi had drivers to take them wherever they wanted to go, their twice-a-day practice schedule and the hassle of travel discouraged them from going out very often. They woke up and went to morning practice, returned home for lunch and a short rest, then went back to the gym for afternoon practice. By the time they returned home in the early evening, the thought of an hourlong drive into the city followed by an hour's ride back didn't seem too appealing.
When Bird was able to connect to the Internet in their house, she almost felt as if she was back in her Seattle home. A Slingbox even allowed her to keep up with "Grey's Anatomy" and the latest travails of Meredith and McDreamy at Seattle Grace Hospital. Or at least it did until the Internet went out one day. That loss was followed up by another disaster when the cable TV went out as well, cutting off contact with CNN, BBC, MTV and (for some reason) the Hallmark Channel.
After attempting to get the cable back that night, Bird shrugged and turned to the reliable stand-by for passing time: DVDs.
After her previous stop in Poland, Spartak's Tamika Whitmore was happy to play for a good team, a generous owner and a sober coach.
Bootleg DVDs reach the Moscow streets so quickly Bird and Taurasi already had a copy of "Music and Lyrics" the same week the Hugh Grant-Drew Barrymore movie was released in the United States. They had so many recent releases stacked on their coffee table it seemed possible they had copies of movies that haven't even been filmed yet. Was that "Pirates of the Caribbean IV: Dead Man's Mascara" in the pile?
(Note to Disney executives: Both Bird and Taurasi are now fully apprised that counterfeit DVDs violate several federal and international copyright laws and they promise to never watch them again.)
Bird slipped "The Chappelle Show" in the DVD player and, as Charlie Murphy recounted the night Prince schooled him in basketball, she sat back on the couch with a book of Sudoku puzzles. Another typical night in Moscow.
Of course, conditions aren't always so luxe for the more than 100 WNBA players who play overseas each winter for teams other than Spartak. Before signing with Spartak, Tamika Whitmore of the Indiana Fever played for a Polish team that banned its coach from travel because he was constantly drunk. Her Indiana teammate Kasha Terry started working out with Spartak after playing this winter in Spain, where she endured 14-hour rides in buses so cramped the players slept in the aisle. Then she signed with a team in Haifa, Israel, where the team's money ran out and they stopped paying her. "I came home from a game in Tel Aviv, and the electricity was cut off in my apartment," she said. "There was a note on the door explaining why, but it was in Hebrew. I took it to the woman next door and asked her to translate. She said that the lights had been turned off because the team hadn't paid the bill in two months."
Kissed by Russia's Mark Cuban Bird and Taurasi stepped off the team bus after a morning shootaround and walked briskly to their hotel.
"Look," Spartak team director Steve Costalas said, pointing toward the lobby restaurant. "Shabtai is here."
The owner's presence was somewhat surprising, given that he had been in the hospital with pneumonia just a few days earlier. Now he was in Brno, a city of a 360,000 in southern Czech Republic, for a road game. Bird, Taurasi and the rest of Spartak's players were clearly happy to see him, referring to him as "Papa" for the way he looks after them. And he was equally happy to see his players, greeting several with wet kisses on the mouth and lingering hugs throughout a team lunch. If von Kalmanovic owned a team in the United States, he might last two days before getting hit with a sexual harassment suit. Not that he cares much. "There," he would call out later after kissing guard Ticha Penicheiro before a game. "Now you can write that I kiss my players."
Clearly, this was a different land, a different culture.
Natalia Hejkova, coaching under von Kalmanovic's watchful eye, had to keep track of nationalities of players such as Tina Thompson (center).
Experiencing different cultures is one of the rewards of playing in Europe. NBA players may earn vastly more money than their female counterparts, but that does not mean their lives are necessarily richer for the experience. They'll never wonder, as Bird did, "Where the @#%# am I?" while delayed two hours after landing at a Siberian airport because the plane's door was frozen shut.
For that matter, Dwyane Wade probably will never be able to say his team landed in Siberia.
Or that he took the Trans-Siberian Railway to a game, passing nothing but empty snowfields for hours on end. "I felt like I was in 'Dr. Zhivago,'" Costalas said.
Nor will NBA players experience the pleasure of passport control at the Moscow airport, where Taurasi was informed on a return flight that her Russian visa had expired. She says she wasn't worried at first, secure in the belief that von Kalmanovic would take care of the situation. Four or five hours later she wasn't so confident.
"When I got into this room where people had been waiting, like, five days to get deported, I got a little nervous," she said. "At one point, this guy comes out and points and says, 'You go to Rome at 9 o'clock.' Rome? I don't know anyone in Rome. I'm on an Italian passport, but send me to Los Angeles. Shabtai had to call the minister of passports or something, and he got it taken care of."
The Russian government loves paperwork. To visit the country, you must first receive a printed invitation. Then you must fill out a two-page visa application that requires listing your last three employers, your parents' names, all schools you attended, all charitable organizations to which you donate and every country you've visited in the past 10 years. That's not the end of it. Upon entering Russia, you fill out two registration forms, one the customs officials keep and one you must keep with your passport. You receive another registration form when checking into a hotel and yet another the next day at the hotel. You have to hand over your passport just to rent ice skates in Moscow's Gorky Park.
All this makes road trips a little more difficult than in the NBA, where the only foreign travel is to Canada. Or, if you make the All-Star team, Las Vegas.
After two years in Russia, Taurasi remains fluent in the universal language of basketball.
Spartak was in Brno for the second of a three-game European Cup series that would send the winner to the Final Four. Spartak had lost the first game by 18 points, much to von Kalmanovic's disgust. He pays his players extremely well and takes care of their needs, and he expects victories in return.
Dressed in a stylish black crushed corduroy suit, von Kalmanovic sat on the bench with the team in Brno, shouting encouragement and instruction to the players and screaming at the referees until he was red in the face and the players worried for his health. Taurasi finally, politely, told him to "shut the @# up," and he did when the team went on a spirited run to take the lead. Taurasi and Thompson had huge games, silencing the previously boisterous crowd of 1,500 that packed the cozy gym with an 81-63 victory.
The win forced a deciding third game four days later, which Spartak won as well to advance to the final four (which Spartak also won). The deciding win earned each player a $10,000 bonus. von Kalmanovic and the team toasted the victory with vodka and caviar and shot glasses thrown against the wall. "This is the Russian way: You win, you drink. You lose, you drink," Taurasi said. "A tie? Still drink. No matter what, it ends in drinking." von Kalmanovic also pulled out a wad of $100 bills and started peeling them off for all his players. "I guarantee you," an assistant said, "that's not the first wad of bills he's pulled out tonight."
"In my book," Taurasi said, "he goes down as a legend."
Longing for home Spartak wound up winning not only the Euro Final Four but also the Russian championship. Those games extended Spartak's season so late that Bird and Taurasi didn't return to America until the week before the WNBA season start, leaving them less than six days practice before tip off on Saturday. Taurasi barely made it back in time for her sister's wedding to be the maid of honor. What with playing in Russia and traveling for the WNBA season, Bird estimates she sleeps in her Seattle bed perhaps six weeks out of the year.
"Sometimes I have to stop myself and think, 'I'm being paid to play in Moscow.' Or, 'I'm in Prague, shopping,'" Bird said, reflecting on her three winters playing in Russia. "I get that from my friends all the time. 'Where are you now? Oh, Prague.' You don't realize until you stop to appreciate where we go, the countries we see. Especially this year. We've done a lot.
However you spell the name, Taurasi translates into victories.
"At the same time, I get jealous of my friends who get to live in the same city for a year. I'm sure they're jealous of where I get to go, but every once in a while it all catches up to you. To live in the same city for a whole year would be nice. To drive your car. Just to kind of get in that routine, that would be nice, too. There would be perks to that. I wouldn't trade places, but every once in a while you miss it."
This is the down side to that Russian money. There is no offseason. All that travel, the flowing of one season immediately into the next, exacts a toll.
"I don't know if it catches up now, but in the long run it shortens your career," Taurasi said. "It has to. Because it's a grind. It's a looonnnnggg, looonnnnnggg year. They say a month is long enough to rejuvenate, but I took a month off this year and you still don't recover fully from the season.
"This last year was tough because we had a long stretch with the WNBA season and the world championships after that. You wish you had more time off to be with your family, your friends. But this is money you don't know how long it's going to be here. If I could make this money at home, I wouldn't leave California. I would never leave the state."
Taurasi and Bird understand the economics of the WNBA there is no Kalmonovich willing to pay players $400,000 or more, let alone one for each of the league's 13 teams and they don't complain. Heck, a WNBA team (the Charlotte Sting) just folded. That said, they also think there will come a day perhaps in two years, maybe in 10 but someday, when the WNBA reaches some agreement with the European leagues. Otherwise, they say, players will eventually leave the WNBA and take the money in Europe while it's there.
"You work for the WNBA," Taurasi said. "Obviously, they want us to prioritize the WNBA as being No. 1 on our list, but the reality is other people are paying the bills. That's the way it is."
"You know you're going to make X amount of money in the WNBA," Bird said. "It's not going to vanish. Right now in Russia, it's because Shabtai wants to make the investment. What if he wakes up tomorrow and he doesn't want to do it anymore?"
Speaking of which
"I think we [owners] will sit down and next season we will coordinate the maximum salaries because it becomes too much," von Kalmanovic said. "We will decide a rational way of a draft because we must do it. Maybe not the same way in the U.S., but we need something. If it gets too expensive, it may collapse. That's why we must sit down for the future to work out our inside laws."
At least, that's what he said in February. In mid-April, he made a roster move that made Spartak not only good enough win the Russian championship but also probably good enough to win the Olympics: He signed Bird's Seattle Storm teammate Lauren Jackson to a six-figure deal to play a month of games for Spartak. Perhaps the world's best female player, Jackson had spent the winter with a team in Seoul, Korea, playing for a reported $400,000.
In other words, it seems as though the money will stay good in Russia for a while. So Bird and Taurasi will go back on the road for the four-month WNBA season, flying coach, sharing hotel rooms and taking home a fraction of their Russian pay. And then they will return to Russia for the long winter and the big paychecks.
That is, they will after they play the Olympic qualifying tournament in Chile and a nationwide tour against college teams and in between those two, a weeklong tournament with the U.S. national team tentatively scheduled in, of all places, Russia.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is back up at a slightly different address, jimcaple.net, with more installments of 24 College Ave. In addition to "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," Caple's new book with Steve Buckley, "The Best Boston Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Boston Fans," is on sale now.
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