Becky Hammon becomes Russian

There’s controversy right now in US women’s basketball because an American player, Becky Hammon, is going to play for Russia in the Olymics. The coach of the US Olympic squad, Anne Donovan, has called her a traitor. Others have different views: like how can Becky be a traitor when she was never asked to try out for the US squad despite putting up MVP (most valuable player) numbers and being one of the best guards in the world?

Mechelle Voepel writes a very smart and nuanced article about the furore:

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.

There are Hammonites:

The Hammonites are made up of these folks (Group 1), who include lesbians and straight guys. That Hammon effortlessly projects a confident, playful, tough-gal swagger is just more fuel for that fire.

Also among Hammonites are people (Group 2) who aren’t in the “Becky Babe Watch” mode but simply admire Hammon for her tenacity and fearlessness as a player, plus fondly see her as being like their daughter or granddaughter or niece. And lastly (Group 3), there are youngsters who just want to “be like Becky.”

The Hammonites are united in their belief that 5-foot-6 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.

I’m not sure where I fit in there. I don’t have a crush on Hammon, I don’t feel like she’s my daughter or niece, and I don’t want to be like her, but I admire her play. As a New York Liberty ticket holder I watched her play for years and get better and better and better. I certainly agree that she’s been consistently underestimated. in fact, Voepel leaves out what to me was the most egregious underestimation: Liberty coach Adabato never making her a starter, despite her earning it over and over again. She became a starter after he was fired and replaced by Patty Coyle.

(Photo credit: D. Clarke Evans)

The day I found out Hammon had been traded to San Antonio I almost cried.

Hammon is a joy to watch. She’s tough, smart and a gorgeous shooter and has a kind of physical charisma that is more commonly associated with men than women. She saunters, she grins, she commands the court. Part of it is the way she doesn’t let her lack of stature (she’s 1,68/5-6) get in the way. Our rookie point guard Lelani Mitchell (1,65/5-5) kind of reminds me of Becky though (as yet) she has none of that charisma. There are many reasons to be a Hammon fan.

What’s most interesting to me about Becky’s decision to play for Russia is the economics of it. The money in women’s basketball is not in the US, right now it’s mostly in Russia. Hammon will be moving up from being a popular player on the winning CSKA team to being on the national team. There will be more endorsements and thus a lot more money.

We’ve all heard about women making 70% of what men make in the same jobs. But women in the WNBA earn about 1% of those in the NBA. Indeed, the worst-paid player in the NBA makes twice as much as the best-paid among the women. And, perhaps more astonishing, there are dozens of male players who make more than the total league-wide payroll of the WNBA.

(Photo credit: Gregory Bull, AP)

That’s a huge disparity and it’s the reason why the majority of the women play in more than one league. The WNBA in the (Northern) summer and Russia or Israel or Italy or wherever in the (Northern) winter. And many of the USians have non-American passports to get around the rules about the number of foreignors on a given team. Taurasi has an Italian passport, Sue Bird an Israeli one and as of the beginning of this year Becky Hammon has a Russian one.

I think part of the anger and discomfort around Becky’s decision is that in the past players who’ve come to play for the US or Australia (to cite the countries I know about) have come to escape oppression and to live a better life and earn WAY more money. The idea of the latter happening in reverse is startling. It plays on our fears of globalisation: the good jobs are moving overseas, along with the real economic power.

I’m sad that Becky never got the chance to play on the US Olympic team. Like Voepel I think she earned that opportunity last year when she turned in the best performances of her entire career (though sadly for San Antonio not New York). She came in second to Lauren Jackson in MVP voting and yet the US Olympic team still wasn’t interested. The US team has a ridiculous amount of talent to choose from. I don’t think Hammon’s absence is going to make much difference to Team USA, but I do think it will make a big difference to the Russians. I suspect that’s something else Donovan’s mad about.

Athletes don’t have a long shelf life. Hammon’s already 31. She has at most six or so playing years left. And then what? Earning as much as you can while you can and saving it in preparation for the many, many years of your life when you’re not playing is smart. Even if it means playing for a country not your own.

If it’s okay for countries like Australia and the US to add last minute “Australian” and “American” players then it should be okay for it to happen in reverse.


  1. Arthur D. Hlavaty on #

    I thought it was unseemly for the US men’s team to include Hakeem Olajuwon, even thought he was an American citizen by then.

  2. Dave Hogg on #

    It isn’t like Becky was the only player angling for the spot – Deanna Nolan was trying hard to get onto the Russian team.

    The money Becky is going to get for doing this is more than she’ll make in her entire WNBA career. I don’t blame her a bit.

  3. Justine on #

    Dave: Nope, me neither. Good luck to her. Just gives me another team to barrack for along with the Opals! 🙂

  4. Aden on #

    More power to her. If it’s all right for us to import players, well, shoe’s on the other foot now!

    (And lordy does Donovan sound foolish.)

  5. Patrick on #

    I always thought the US wouldn’t allow its citizens to become dual citizened. Or how ever you would describe it.

  6. Dave Hogg on #

    Hammon’s not actually getting Russian citizenship – just a Russian passport.

  7. Justine on #

    I know lots of USians with duel citizenship.

Comments are closed.