WNBA star from South Dakota will play for Russians in Olympics

South Dakota native Becky Hammon, one of the WNBA's most popular players, will play for the Russians in the Beijing Olympics.

San Antonio guard Becky Hammon became a Russian citizen this past year.

Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press - Ap

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Lynx star Seimone Augustus will play in the Beijing Olympics this August. So will San Antonio's Becky Hammon, whose team plays the Lynx today at Target Center.

But the two WNBA all-stars won't be teammates.

Hammon, a 5-6 point guard for the Silver Stars, will play on the Russian women's basketball team in Beijing.

"I was looking at two doors," said Hammon, a native of Rapid City, S.D. "I could go home to my apartment and watch the Olympics [on TV] or I could take part, which would be so much better."

Albeit a little riskier choice. Hammon, 31, knew some people might not understand her decision.

Anne Donovan, the U.S. women's basketball coach, is in that category. "It's unimaginable," Donovan said, "especially when you are talking about Becky Hammon, who is apple pie and that is what she always has been known as. To think of her willingly putting on a jersey for Russia is unfathomable to me.

"You'd have to tie me down and force it over my head and I still would be fighting it off, I'm sure. I'm an American. Period."

For the record, Hammon's favorite food is not apple pie, it's her mother Deb's pasta, and lobster or steak. But nonetheless she is very American. She loves "American Idol." She hunts and fishes. (Once she killed a rattlesnake, cooked it and ate it.) She has a golden retreiver.

WNBA players, family and friends have been supportive of her decision -- once she explains it, Hammon said.

Growing up she dreamed of playing in the Olympics in a United States uniform, but USA Basketball has showed little interest in the four-time WNBA All-Star.

Last season, she was the runner-up for league MVP, yet she was not on the first list of candidates for the U.S. team.

Hammon and her agent sent a letter early this year to every member of the selection committee for the U.S. women's basketball team, asking if she still had a chance to make it. Nobody responded.

Unexpectedly, another door was opening. Because of a lucrative contract offer from club team CSKA in Moscow, Hammon played in Russia for the first time this past offseason.

Initially, the idea of her joining Russia's national team seemed absurd. "The Russian girls were dead against it and I was against playing for them," said Hammon, in her 10th WNBA season as an undrafted free agent out of Colorado State. "But a small miracle happened. They changed their hearts and minds -- that was not expected. In a matter of months, friendships, trust and camaraderie were formed."

Maria Stepanova, Russia's national team captain and a CSKA teammate, eventually told her: "I know you now. You can play on my team any time."

By then, Hammon had turned down a late invitation to attend a U.S. team tryout. She had to abide by her club contact and had already applied for Russian citizenship for economic reasons. As a citizen, she could double or triple her overseas salary because CSKA, by its league's rules, could have only two Americans on its roster at most.

After becoming a Russian citizen, Hammon signed a three-year contract with CSKA on April 7 and agreed at the same time to play in the Olympics for Russia.

"Olympic sports should be about unity, friendships and bringing the best athletes on the planet together," Hammon said, "and not about gloating over dominating other countries."

Two other American WNBA players also are among the 24 players being considered for Russia's Olympic team: Kelly Miller of Phoenix and Deanna Nolan of Detroit. Both are Russian citizens and have not played in a FIBA international tournament for another country, which is the eligibility criteria. It's uncertain whether Miller, a former Rochester Mayo star, or Nolan will be offered spots like Hammon was.

The U.S. and Russian teams are in different pools in the Olympics, so if they meet in Beijing, the earliest would be in the quarterfinals.

"I'll face that if it happens," Hammon said. "It will be strange in warm-ups and the first couple minutes but, as in other big games, I'll settle in and play."


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