Hammon's Olympic dream puts her in Russian uniform
Growing up in Rapid City, S.D., Becky Hammon was once so petrified after watching the movie "Red Dawn" -- the 1984 film about an invasion of the United States by the Soviet Union and Cuba -- that she had to sleep in her parents' bedroom. She was worried the Russians were going to come to the heartland and take her parents away. The message that Hollywood engrained in the impressionable youngster was a simple one: Americans good, Russians bad.
Now, more than two decades later, Hammon, one of the most popular players in the WNBA and the MVP runner-up last season, has made the controversial decision to play basketball for Russia in the 2008 Olympic Games later this summer.
She finalized her decision earlier this week after becoming a naturalized Russian citizen late last year.
"The jersey that I wear has never made me who I was. It has nothing to do with what's written on my heart," Hammon told ESPN.com Tuesday. "Will I be playing for Russia? Yes. But I'm absolutely 100 percent still an American. I love our country. I love what we stand for. This is an opportunity to fulfill my dream of playing in the Olympics."
The 31-year-old Hammon, who averaged 18.8 points and 5.0 assists for the San Antonio Silver Stars last season, said she has long been overlooked by USA Basketball for a spot on its Senior National Team. Last summer, when USA Basketball released its list of the pool players from which the U.S. Olympic team would be chosen, Hammon's name was absent. She later signed a lucrative contract with club team CSKA Moscow that included the possibility of playing for the Russian Olympic team.
Later, Hammon received an invitation to try out for the U.S. team, but she said contractual obligations with CSKA left her unable to attend. Before she made her final decision, she said she and her agent, Mike Cound, reached out to USA Basketball for clarification on where she stood. They came away with the impression that she wasn't in serious contention to make the team. So Hammon took her Olympic dream elsewhere.
USA Basketball declined a request for comment on Tuesday.
"I realize that people are going to think what they want to think," said Hammon, who has worked for ESPN as a basketball analyst. "But there's nothing I wanted more in my basketball career than to represent the United States. I grew up dreaming to play in the Olympics for my home country.
"I'm sure they have their reasons. It's a very difficult job and I don't blame them for their decision. This is just a great opportunity for me to play in the Olympics and hopefully break some stereotypes, both here and over there."
Hammon has no ancestral ties to Russia, but under Russian league rules, she was able to obtain a passport and become a naturalized citizen because she had never appeared for another country in a FIBA-sanctioned event. In other words, she was still eligible to compete for Russia internationally.
Obtaining an international passport can be a lucrative endeavor for some women's basketball players, as several international leagues have a limit on the number of Americans who can play on one team. A talented U.S. player with an international passport -- such as Diana Taurasi, who plays internationally on an Italian passport (her father was born in Italy), and Sue Bird, who plays on an Israeli passport (her grandparents are Jewish) -- doesn't count against that maximum number of American players. While an average salary for an American in an international league might be $15,000 per month, Cound said someone in Hammon's position can earn three to four times that amount.
Cound said Hammon's papers were approved quickly by the highest levels of the Russian government, just as they were for former Bucknell guard J.R. Holden, who hit the game-winning shot last summer to help Russia win the 2007 Eurobasket Championships. Holden, too, will compete for Russia in Beijing.
"It's interesting that the Russian government decided this was acceptable," Cound said. "I don't look at it as criticism of Becky as much as a country in which winning is so important that they want to have a non-Russian on the team. It comes down to a simple question: What does winning a gold medal mean if it's an American who wins it for you?"
What might make Hammon's decision an eye-opener in this country is that -- in addition to her scrappy point-guard play -- her popularity stems partly from the perception that she is the ultimate small-town all-American girl: blond hair, ponytail and near perfect smile. And now the all-American girl will suit up for Russia, which could knock a dent into that image.
The decision wasn't easy. Hammon said she has struggled with it since last October, absorbing the advice of everyone from current and former coaches to friends, fellow players and, of course, her parents.
"My mom had a heartfelt, motherly response," Hammon said. "She doesn't want anybody to get mad at me or call her daughter a traitor or anything like that. My dad, well, he was more logical. He said, 'Well, if USA Basketball doesn't want you, go for it.'"
In Beijing, Hammon will again have to try to prove her doubters wrong. Coming out of Rapid City, she struggled to find a Division I-A scholarship, yet became an All-American at Colorado State and led the Rams to their first Sweet Sixteen in the 1998-99 season. She went undrafted by the WNBA in 1999, but caught on with the New York Liberty. And last year, she finished second in the league's MVP voting and led the Silver Stars to the Western Conference Finals. In March, she signed a contract extension with San Antonio through 2011, and she intends to be with the team this summer until the WNBA takes a hiatus for the Olympic Games.
While the Americans are considered the favorites for gold in Beijing, the Russians should contend for a medal and are currently No. 3 in the FIBA world rankings. Hammon has already envisioned the scenario: The ball is in her hands as the final seconds tick down in the gold-medal game and she takes the shot to beat her home country.
"When it comes down to it, I'm going to take that shot," she said. "I'm going to play to win. You have to be honest to the game and yourself. Sure, it will be awkward, but I wouldn't have made this decision if I wasn't ready to take that shot."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.