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Originally published Wednesday, June 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Becky Hammon follows her Olympic dream to Russia

Anne Donovan calls her a traitor. Bloggers have questioned her loyalty to her country. But all Becky Hammon has ever wanted is the chance...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Anne Donovan calls her a traitor. Bloggers have questioned her loyalty to her country. But all Becky Hammon has ever wanted is the chance to be Olympian.

Hammon is one of the stars of the WNBA. Her jersey has been the second-highest selling jersey in the league, behind Lisa Leslie's. A point guard for the San Antonio Silver Stars, she has been called the female Steve Nash.

This is her 10th season in the league, and she had worked herself from an undrafted reserve at the end of the New York Liberty's bench to four WNBA All-Star Games. She is as American as cheeseburgers, but this summer at the Beijing Olympics, she won't be playing for the United States. Instead, she'll be a point guard for the Russians.

This woman from America's heartland — a native of Rapid City, S.D., and a graduate of Colorado State who speaks very little Russian — will march into the Olympic Stadium under a Russian flag, wearing a Russian uniform.

"When I was a little girl there was no WNBA, so the Olympics was the highest thing and, in my opinion, it's still the highest thing in basketball," said Hammon, 31, before a game last week in Seattle. "It's the ultimate prize. And the dream of playing in the Olympics is something I've carried around with me for 30 years.

"There has been a lot of soul searching over this decision, but now I'm just going to be at peace with it, enjoy the moment and take the whole experience in."

It is silly, reactionary to call Hammon a traitor. The Olympics should be about the best athletes in the world testing themselves against the highest level of competition. The Olympics aren't war, and they aren't meant to test one nation's ultimate strength against another. And Hammon is playing by the rules.

"I don't expect everybody to understand, or jump on my bandwagon," Hammon said. "I know how I feel about my country. I'm very proud of what America represents to the world. But this is a basketball game. This is not life or death. The real heroes are over in Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm playing a game.

"I think the Olympics are about unity. Bringing all the countries together. It's not about going out there and beating everybody up. It's supposed to encompass the spirit of sportsmanship. I kind of let everybody just say what they want to say, and I'm comfortable knowing what I know in my heart."

The Russians, without Hammon, were runners-up in the 2006 world championships, losing to Australia 81-74 in the gold-medal game. They are a serious gold-medal contender in Beijing.

"Being an Olympic athlete myself, I think Becky and I are coming at it from two completely different perspectives," said Lauren Jackson, the Storm forward and captain of the Australian national team. "She's got this opportunity that a lot of people don't get and I support her in whatever she decides to do. I think Becky's a great player and she hasn't had the opportunity to play for the United States.

"My dream, as a kid, was to play for Australia in the Olympic Games. I love my country and I'm so patriotic, I would wear a flag on my forehead if I could. But I like Becky. I can understand what she's thinking. I empathize with her, and it is a very difficult decision and people will bag her and put her down and say things."

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Among those bagging Hammon is Jackson's former Storm coach, Donovan, who is the U.S. national coach. When Jackson heard that Donovan called Hammon a traitor, she smiled and said, "That would be something that Anne would probably say. But I don't think that way at all. She's not a traitor by any means."

For Jackson and Storm point guard Sue Bird, who, like Hammon, play winter basketball in Russia, representing their countries is a large part of the Olympic experience. Bird remembers the wall of noise when she walked into the Olympic Stadium in Athens four years ago behind Dawn Staley, who was carrying the flag of the United States.

"When you walk into that stadium, it really, really hits you," Bird said. "There is something to be said for representing your country and going over there and competing against other countries' best."

Many American players in Russia carry passports from other countries. Bird has a passport from Israel. Diana Taurasi has one from Italy. Those passports mean their roster spots don't count against the limit of "non-Europeans" allowed on Russian teams. Hammon chose to get a Russian passport.

Because she is a star player in Russia and because she has a Russian passport, marketing opportunities have opened for her in Moscow.

"I think, for Becky, this a business decision," Jackson said. "That's what it is. And I think that's how people are going to view it ultimately."

There is ample precedent for Hammon's decision. J.R. Holden, for instance, an American citizen who plays professional basketball in Russia, will play for the Russian men's team in Beijing. And in the 1996 Games, Hakeem Olajuwon, who was born in Nigeria, played for the United States.

"I think there's going to be a lot of different sides saying a lot of different things," Bird said. "But if the question is, 'Is she a good enough basketball player to make our team?' The answer is, 'Absolutely.' "

Hammon was invited to a tryout for the United States team, but that was after she had signed a seven-figure contract with her Russian team that obligated her to be in Moscow. She says she believes the invitation was a courtesy.

"If I had been a serious contender for the U.S. team I would have played with them at some point, in a FIBA event, or would have been on their list of 20-some players," Hammon said. "I wasn't. It just wasn't meant to be, but that's all right with me. This door was open to me, and in my mind, the U.S. was never open to me. I just feel everything's working out the way it's supposed to work out.

"This is not a business decision for me. That's not the reason I'm doing it. Yes, I'm a basketball player and that's my business. But I've never been one to sit life out on the sidelines, and I've got this one shot at the Olympics, so I might as well take the shot."

Hammon earned her spot on the Russian team with her play in the Russian league. She is no traitor. She's a basketball player about to realize an Olympic dream.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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