Commentary

Why Becky Hammon isn't a traitor

Updated: August 12, 2008, 1:01 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

BEIJING -- I don't get this whole Becky Hammon controversy. I mean, I see both sides of the issue, but it's not like she betrayed her nation by signing with the Yankees.

Hammon loves her country. She grew up in Rapid City, S.D., with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt practically breathing down her neck from Mount Rushmore. She also loves basketball and earns a salary playing in Russia that is six times the amount she makes with the San Antonio Silver Stars of the WNBA (the end of communism in Russia was a wonderful thing). She also has long dreamed of playing in the Olympics, but initially the U.S. didn't invite her to try out for the team. Russia, meanwhile, offered her a spot on its national team even though she doesn't have any Russian ancestry and can't speak the language.

Her choice was clear. Just give me the ball.

"This door opened and it was a great opportunity," Hammon said after helping Russia to a surprisingly close 77-72 victory over Korea in an Olympic preliminary round game Monday. "My career has been about taking hold of opportunities and learning with them. I've had a lot of people pass on me. I wasn't drafted. I wasn't heavily recruited. I didn't go to a big college. So I'm used to people telling me no. But there are always other ways. So I'm very grateful to the Russian team to accept me as one of their own. And I still love my country -- it doesn't really have anything to do with that. I just want to play basketball."

Well, not everyone sees it that way. U.S. coach Anne Donovan questioned Hammon's patriotism, calling her a traitor for playing for Russia, as if we still were fighting the Cold War and Ivan Drago was playing in the low post. Of course, Donovan has a little different perspective than Hammon on this issue. She was on the 1980 American team that didn't go to the Moscow Olympics because the U.S. boycotted over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

[+] EnlargeBecky Hammon
AP Photo/ Elizabeth DalzielBecky Hammon didn't believe Team USA had genuine interest in her, so she opted to play for Russia.

That was a long time ago, though. We should be used to this by now. Athletes compete in the Olympics for other countries all the time.

Haley Nemra will run the 800 meters next week for the Marshall Islands though, one, she finished fifth in the event at the Washington state high school meet last spring, and two, she's never been to the Marshall Islands (a mere detail). Khatuna Lorig is competing in archery for her third country (the Unified or ex-Soviet Team in 1992, Georgia in 1996 and 2000 and the U.S. this year). Major League Baseball is paying Jim Lefebvre to manage the Chinese baseball team.

Hell, for that matter, Herb Brooks, the architect behind the Lake Placid Miracle on Ice, perhaps the greatest triumph in American sports, coached the French Olympic hockey team in 1998. Yes, Herb Brooks coaching the French! And did anyone complain about that (other than, perhaps, Herb Brooks)?

So what's the big deal about Hammon? Would anyone complain if she played for any other nation? Would anyone care if she weren't one of the WNBA's best players and might actually get in the way of a U.S. gold medal? Would anyone question her if she weren't playing for Russia?

"I think it's the fact that it's Russia," she said. "If I played for a small country that nobody had ever heard of, it would be different."

True. The risk is, it's one thing to compete for the Marshall Islands. It's a little trickier when the country on your jersey goes to war against another nation amid worldwide condemnation, as Russia did over the weekend about the same time Hammon was marching in the opening ceremonies with her new teammates. Asked whether the war in Georgia affected her feelings toward playing for Russia, Hammon said she's been too busy with the Olympics to know everything that's going on there.

"I'm not really up to date," she said. "I haven't watched TV or anything."

Hammon should probably catch up on the news between games, but playing basketball for a country is hardly the same thing as directing its foreign policy. After all, plenty of Americans disapproved of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but that doesn't make them question U.S. Olympians.

What Hammon is doing is simply playing for another country in a world where boundaries, markets and cultures are increasingly becoming so blurred that LeBron James can seriously entertain thoughts of doubling his salary in Europe.

[+] EnlargeBecky Hammon
AP Photo/ Elizabeth DalzielHammon held her hand over her heart when "The Star-Spangled Banner" was played prior to a U.S.-Russia exhibition game last week.

"This is the globalization in sports," said Russian assistant coach Natalia Hejkova. "If you have a chance to play in the Olympics, sometimes you have to play in another place because you don't have a chance in your country and you want to. For sportsmen, your first aim, your first dream from when you are a 10-year-old child, you are dreaming about the Olympics. If the Olympics are not possible in your country, you change."

Hejkova earns her pay coaching in -- and for -- Russia, but she is Slovakian. She was the coach for the Spartak team in Moscow for whom Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi play each winter. Because of league roster limits on Americans, Bird plays on an Israeli passport and Taurasi on an Italian passport, though neither has lived in those countries.

Hammon, likewise, also commanded a premium salary -- reportedly more than $2 million over four years -- for her team in Russia because of her passport status. That not only was a major incentive in her decision, it's what spurred this whole thing in the first place.

The U.S. didn't include Hammon on the initial short list of players invited to its tryout camp, although it added her to a 30-player list before fall camp after she was runner-up for the WNBA's MVP award in 2007. By then, Hammon was already in negotiations for her contract in Russia and felt she had only an outside chance at the U.S. roster.

"I know some people thought I had turned USA Basketball down and that simply was never the case," Hammon said. "There just was never a genuine interest in me for my national team, and I'm OK with that."

Russia, meanwhile, needed a point guard.

"This is a big problem," Russian forward Ilona Korstin said. "This is why the Russian federation got her a passport, because we need a good player at that position. I think she can help us. Good for her and good for us."

That's the real trouble here. I don't have a problem with an athlete playing for any country to which they can claim a natural tie. But there needs to be some limits. It's not a big deal now, but if this trend continues -- if countries sign athletes as if they were free agents -- it could get ugly.

And by ugly, of course, I mean Scott Boras could get involved.

Alex has always expressed a profound love for your country, as well as its tax-exempt status.

There are some restrictions, fortunately. FIBA rules prevent athletes playing for another country after playing on one national team. Hammon is completing a dream by playing in the Olympics, but will she feel the same fulfillment as she would by playing for her own country? Perhaps she will. Perhaps she won't. She'll find out. For now, everyone is satisfied. Hammon is in the Olympics, and the U.S. team looks strong without her.

"I could either have gone home and sat on the couch and watched the Olympics on TV or come here and taken part," Hammon said. "And for me, I love playing basketball, and I love my teammates, and this is a great opportunity to encourage them and make friendships with people all around the world. That's what the whole sporting thing is about, isn't it?"

Meanwhile, Taurasi has a simpler view of Hammon's nationality: "All I know is that when she steps on the court, she's Russian."

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com