Latest Hammon vs. the World tilt all about hoops, not politics
BEIJING -- Though Becky Hammon played for Russia during the game, she made her true national allegiance known when the anthems played before the United States-Russia women's basketball semifinal Thursday. When "The Star-Spangled Banner" played, she placed her right hand over her heart. When the Russian anthem played, the hand was at her side and she was chewing gum.
"I'm still American -- that's why I had my hand on my heart," Hammon said. "I love my country, and that's a special time for me to give thanks for growing up in the United States. I feel very fortunate to come from there. I've been around the world, and the rest of the world doesn't have it so easy as we do in the States. I just feel blessed."
And so we can step away from the brink in the latest crisis in American-Russian relations. Move back the hands on the Doomsday Clock, return to DEFCON 1, send home the guards at Checkpoint Charlie and lower the Homeland Security threat level to yellow -- Armageddon has been averted.
Hammon played for Russia, America rallied from a third-quarter deficit for a 67-52 victory and everyone associated with the red, white and blue went home happy (or at least relatively so).
After all the fuss about whether she was committing treason by doing what so many athletes (perhaps too many) do in other sports -- play for a country other than their own -- Hammon scored only three points on a foul shot and a fourth-quarter bucket when the game was all but decided. She had one assist and one rebound, and turned the ball over twice in 24 minutes of play.
"Obviously, it wasn't a factor," Team USA guard Katie Smith said of the Hammon brouhaha. "The Russians came out, she played a little bit. And then they sat her pretty quick and went with their team, and they played well. She's one of 12 players, and we did a good job of keeping her under wraps. And she really didn't have much of a factor in the game."
Even U.S. coach Anne Donovan, who earlier had questioned Hammon's patriotism, said she was fine with the point guard's decision. Donovan said that she had merely been caught off guard initially and wished the point guard the best: "More power to her."
"What I've learned from my first strong statement is that unfortunately, I'm an old-timer at age 46," Donovan said. "The generations have changed, and the Cold War is over and a distant memory -- if it's a memory at all for our players' generation. The borders have opened and our players are going to Russia and the Chinese are coming to the U.S., and there are no borders anymore."
Indeed, it was playing professionally in Russia -- where Americans can earn up to 10 times what they make in the WNBA -- that started this whole thing. Because Russian league rules limit the number of Americans to two per team and require at least two Russians on the court at all times, a Moscow club secured for Hammon a Russian passport. That made her more valuable and able to command a reported $500,000 annual salary. And when the U.S. didn't initially invite Hammon to try out for the Olympic team, the Russians -- who needed a point guard -- asked her if she would play with them instead. Wanting to play in the Olympics, Hammon said sure.
The two nations met in a pre-Olympic tournament, and Hammon downplayed playing against her country Thursday. "I know all those girls. I've seen them, talked to them. This was a big game because it was a semifinal game at the Olympics, not necessarily because it was against the United States. The game was bigger than me."
American forward Sylvia Fowles said it wasn't odd seeing Hammon in a Russian uniform. "We treat her like she's a Russian. I guess it's just me speaking, but we treat her no different from anyone else."
Far more important to the outcome than Hammon was Diana Taurasi, who drilled five three-pointers, scored 21 points and had nine rebounds. "The bigger the game, the better she is," Donovan said.
Taurasi, by the way, plays for Spartak, the two-time defending Russian league champion, each winter. She hugged Hammon after the game.
After trailing by five early in the third quarter, the U.S. took control by dominating the boards, shutting down Russia from long range and feeding the ball to Taurasi. Russia made only one of 14 treys and was outrebounded 52-33. Hammon missed all four of her 3-point attempts.
The U.S. will play Australia in the gold-medal game Saturday, while Hammon and Russia will play China for the bronze.
"I wanted to come out and enjoy the moment," Hammon said. "This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, and I wanted to soak it all in. It's 40 minutes, 40 minutes of a life. Even though the outcome wasn't good, it's something I'll always take with me, and I'm just very thankful for the opportunity to step out there.
"I know where my heart is. I love my country, and I've said this a thousand times: I'm just a basketball player."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.
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