Commentary

Hammon has right to play for Russia, but will it change Games?

Originally Published: June 6, 2008
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Breaking news, folks. This changes everything with Becky Hammon.

[+] EnlargeBecky Hammon
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty ImagesBecky Hammon's cultlike following supports her decision. But the popular San Antonio star also has more than her fair share of detractors.

All right, admittedly it's not confirmed yet, but … sources tell me a (maniacally) devoted Hammon fan claims to have just uncovered "startling" DNA evidence that proves Becky is actually of Romanov blood! She's a descendant of Grand Duchess Anastasia, who somehow did survive the 1918 execution of her family!

This Olympic thing is all OK now! Becky really is Russian!

OK … so you don't believe that, huh? As Maxwell Smart might say, "Um, would you believe that Becky's great-grandmother might have lived in Moscow … Idaho?"

You're not buying that one, either?

How about the rumor that Hammon once watched more than half of "Dr. Zhivago" before falling asleep?

All right, if you follow women's basketball, you've heard by now of the controversy about Hammon, the San Antonio Silver Stars guard, playing for Russia in the upcoming Beijing Olympics.

In Mark Schwarz's piece on ESPN.com and "Outside the Lines" report on ESPN (9:30 a.m. ET Sunday), he presents Hammon's reasons for this, USA Basketball's response and U.S. coach Anne Donovan's feelings about it.

To sum it up quickly: Hammon says she loves the United States, of course, but she wasn't going to get a realistic chance to play for the American team. And it came down to two things: It's financially beneficial to Hammon to play for Russia, and she wants to compete in the Olympics.

USA Basketball says Hammon did have a shot at playing for the Americans. Donovan says Hammon can't play for Russia and simultaneously claim to be a patriotic American.

It's all fascinating to me on a lot of levels because it has made me think about so many things: what the Olympics really are, the ways the world has changed in my lifetime, the difference in thinking between "generations," the bizarre economics of global women's basketball … and, not least by any means, the amazing cult of Becky Hammon.

We'll start with that last part, in fact, because it's why this entire story has even more traction than if somebody else were doing it.

Russian to judgment

Called unpatriotic by some and lauded for a smart business move by others, Becky Hammon's decision to suit up for Russia in the Beijing Olympics has spurred plenty of opinion. On "Outside the Lines" (Sunday on ESPN at 9:30 a.m. ET and reaired at noon ET on ESPNEWS), Mark Schwarz examines Hammon's controversial move.

Among women's hoops observers, there are "Hammonites" (they tend to worship), "Anti-Hammonites" (they tend to disparage) and the rest of us (we tend to find it all pretty amusing.)

Hammon is from Rapid City, S.D., and let's just get to the point … many people who are drawn to pony-tailed, girl-next-door, athletic good looks flat-out swoon over Hammon. That she effortlessly projects a confident, playful, tough-gal swagger is just more fuel for that fire.

Also among Hammonites are people who aren't in the "Becky Babe Watch" mode but greatly admire her tenacity and fearlessness as a player. And there are youngsters who just want to "be like Becky."

The Hammonites are united in their belief that Becky always is underestimated -- going back to her Colorado State days, her "undrafted" status (although it was because she got out of college in 1999, the year the ABL players were drafted into the WNBA), and her being "ignored" by USA Basketball.

Now … the Anti-Hammonites get annoyed as hell by all of this. They think that Hammon's physical attractiveness magnifies everything she does at least ten-fold. They make wisecracks that Hammonites are watching with their hormones or parently/grandparently bifocals or adolescent admiration … and thus are beyond reasoning with.

Message-board posts about Hammon typically turn into Hammonites and Anti-Hammonites battling each other, with witty barbs tossed in from the peanut gallery.

Hammon has been a great draw for the league, and she has proved her value and ability as a player. We journalists enjoy hearing her perspective. She continues to be a real boost to the sport.

But I can't say I ever thought USA Basketball was missing the boat on her … until last season. That's when the organization needed to show it recognized how Hammon was having an MVP-type season and give her more serious consideration -- not some kind of last-second appeasement that rang false.

I don't believe Hammon did have a realistic chance of making the U.S. team. So she's not wrong in thinking that. But it's still quite a leap from that disappointment to playing for Russia.

Which gets us to why she decided to become a Russian for the Olympics. The aforementioned economics of women's hoops seems to be the strangest in professional sports. The big-name organization is the WNBA, thanks to its brother league that founded it. But for sociological and cultural reasons, the big money for women's players is not in the United States.

In Russia in particular, there are business kingpins (the players don't necessarily want to know what businesses they are in) who see owning a basketball team as a status symbol. It doesn't matter to them whether they are men's teams or women's teams -- it's all about ego and winning. They have the money (at least for now) to invest in women's basketball.

[+] EnlargeAnne Donovan
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesUSA Basketball coach Anne Donovan, who says she bleeds red, white and blue, calls Becky Hammon unpatriotic for her decision to play for Russia.

Small and large communities in other nations attach their identities to teams like this. It gives people something to do and to be excited about.

These opportunities existed in women's basketball even before the WNBA (or the short-lived ABL) debuted, but they used to be much harder for American players to take advantage of for an extended period of time. The salaries were lower. And, just as important, the communication/entertainment technology we have now didn't exist then. American women went overseas into a type of basketball "exile" -- far from home, family and friends. They typically felt very isolated and lonely.

Today, thanks to so many things, the world is a smaller place and keeping in touch is drastically different from 20 years ago. So a large number of women's hoops players are staying overseas longer, feeling more "at home" there. And that greatly changes the dynamic of how they feel about their experience.

So although Hammon isn't really Russian in any way … she's comfortable in the country. In Donovan's playing days, the idea of being "comfortable" in Russia would have seemed like being able to breathe something other than oxygen. It was like another planet.

So I'll say to even the staunchest Hammonite, try to understand where Donovan is coming from, too. But that said, Donovan's apparent ire seems a little excessive because it's doubtful that she made any big push to have Hammon on the U.S. team.

Maybe Donovan isn't really angry as much as she is baffled because she sees the Olympics the way I'd guess most people do. Or at least most people 40 and over.

My first thought upon hearing that Hammon was going to suit up for Russia was, "Well, how could that even be any fun for her? How could the thought of possibly wearing a medal while hearing the Russian anthem be anything but hollow and kind of creepy? Wouldn't that be like waking up on a holiday morning in a stranger's house and trying to celebrate with people you didn't even know instead of with your family? And why would the Russians even want her? Where is their national pride? How could they possibly feel for her the way they would for real Russians?"

I have, since those initial thoughts, tried to examine why I feel that way and whether it's the "right" way to feel … or just one way to feel.

I am an almost embarrassingly passionate sports fan and yet … I have even more passion for the Olympics. From the first Games I watched -- the 1976 Winter Olympics -- I was hooked into their unlimited magic.

Being older and more cynical now, I know "the Olympics" are a big business. There's cheating and drug use and corruption and phoniness. But it's still the Olympics. And as a journalist, I get to go to the Beijing Games and be charmed and thrilled and moved by all performances, no matter what nation the athlete is from.

Further, coaching of Olympic teams has been opening up this way for years. Just as examples, the U.S. women's soccer team is coached by a Swede. The American women's volleyball team has a Chinese woman as coach. Such coaches say the boundaries of country do not matter to them so much because they are acting more globally in terms of improving their sport (and earning money for their coaching ability, of course).

So in some ways, I do have a feeling that Hammon has a right to experience the Olympics in whatever way she can.

Yet … still … I can't shake the fact that what Hammon is doing brings the idea of "free agency" to the Olympics in a way that doesn't seem right. It's one thing for someone to go to a country (such as athletes who come to the United States) and become citizens over time. To get to a point at which they are members of that nation and do stand for its principles, values and customs. For them to compete for their new country seems appropriate.

Then there's a practice I'm less comfortable with -- athletes competing for a nation because they are of that nation's heritage. Even if they've never lived there, they get citizenship based on blood relations.

Then there's what Hammon is doing, which is simply straightforward free agency. There's nothing wrong or weird about that in the general arena of pro sports. But when it comes to the Olympics, it's crossing a line that feels very odd to me.

The Olympics have never been just a big competition among the best athletes. They have always been about competing for your country. About representing where you are from while reaching out in athletic brotherhood and sisterhood to those from other places. It's idealistic and corny and wonderful.

That's why in the opening ceremonies, the athletes march in behind their flag. And then in the closing ceremonies, they again march in behind their flag … but then usually all mix together as one big group of "humanity." It's symbolic, sure, but the message is so profound.

We feel kinship to people on varying levels based on our commonalities with them. Thus, you can feel national pride, state pride, city pride, neighborhood pride, school pride. When the stage is "global," it's natural and understandable that we feel American pride.

We Americans get a lump in our throats when we see someone cry on the medal stand during "The Star-Spangled Banner." We smile when athletes from other countries cry at their anthem because we understand what they are experiencing … but it's not quite the same as the lump-in-the-throat feeling.

It's kind of like the difference between being in love and being happy seeing someone else in love. They are both really nice feelings … but only one is exhilarating.

Hammon thus will have to sort out her own feelings about her Olympic experience.

But her playing for Russia does make us think about the big picture of the Olympics in lots of different ways. That's not necessarily a bad thing.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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