- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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When Sue Bird heard a rumor that Atlanta Dream owner Kathy Betty paid to have "Sesame Street Live" move out of Philips Arena so Game 3 of the WNBA Finals could be played there, she thought, "That's a total Shabtai move."
Shabtai von Kalmanovich was the owner of the Moscow-area Spartak basketball team for whom Bird plays during the winter. He was gunned down last fall in what can best be described as gangland style. The Mercedes he was riding in was stopped at a Moscow intersection and was riddled with submachine guns and shotguns.
Almost a year later, Bird says she has heard several stories about what might have prompted the killing (one involving von Kalmanovich's alleged failure to help someone open a casino) but that she doesn't really know what to believe. "No one knows anything," she says.
That's not surprising. Von Kalmanovich was a colorful figure with a mysterious if not downright suspicious past. There are rumors he made part of his vast fortune in blood diamonds (he denied it, of course, saying he made it in pharmaceuticals). He was jailed in Israel as a spy, but was repeatedly admitted back in the country -- he took Bird and Spartak teammate Diana Taurasi there for short vacations -- and he was buried there, as well, which is not how nations usually treat former spies. When I asked him about what really happened in Israel, he first insisted that he was with the Soviet military, not the KGB, then said that he couldn't tell me the truth yet but that he would be happy to explain everything in one year when a gag rule passed. I didn't get the chance.
However von Kalmanovich made his fortune, he spent it lavishly on his players, paying them up to five times what they could earn in the WNBA. He flew them first-class to games (as well as on mini-vacations) and set them up in luxury villas. A native of Lithuania, von Kalmanovich loved basketball -- he married a former star on the Russian women's national team -- and stopped at nothing to assemble the finest team he could.
"He really set the bar high; he set a standard for women's basketball in Europe," Bird said. "And who knows, he could have ended up in the WNBA before it was as all said and done. He treated us the way he felt a professional athlete should be treated. He set the bar high, he took care of us. He made us enjoy another culture.
"Basketball-wise, in terms of the whole entity, because he was willing to do the things for his players he did, it forced other owners to step up and pay their players more. That's the only way to get the prices to go up -- you need competition -- and he was the main competition. Without him, I foresee player salaries dropping, no doubt about that."
Bird says salaries haven't declined yet, but "eventually I just don't see them paying a player X amount of dollars if no one else is. It's a market thing; I just don't see other clubs having the means."
Von Kalmanovich's widow has been running the team along with a local governor. While Taurasi is leaving Spartak to play in Turkey this winter -- "warmer weather," Bird said -- Bird is returning to Moscow for at least one more year. This is the final year of her contract with the team. She will join them in January, more than a month into the season, so she can give her body a little rest. The late reporting date is a contract detail she negotiated with von Kalmanovich.
"Financially, it's not what it was, but we'll still be good," she said. "The basketball is still good. We don't fly first-class, so there are little things that are different. But that was a privilege, that wasn't the norm. There is, like, one other team that would do that. So now we're like everyone else. People view that as a negative. I don't. I view it that I got to live this amazing life for three years."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @jimcaple.
Sue Bird will return to play for Russia during the WNBA's offseason. But since Shabtai von Kalmanovich's death, the experience just won't be the same -- and Bird expects the salaries won't be, either.