Ruble City

There are some seriously rich people in Russia. But how they got rich ... many of them do not want to say.

One of them, Shabtai von Kalmanovic, has done time in Israel for spying, and may or may not have made his money from diamonds, or South African real estate, or something else. He has also, in more recent times, taken a real shine to women's basketball, and is pouring millions into the Spartak club, where WNBA stars like Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, and Tina Thompson play for way more money than they make back home.

I learned about this club from the L.A. Times, via FanHouse, but a little googling revealed a way bigger and prettier article on ESPN.com, by Jim Caple. It even has video.

Both the Times and ESPN stories focus mainly on the lavish lifestyle these players lead, thanks to their doting and mysterious owner. Chauffeured Mercedes, massages, fine homes, lavish dinners ... and in the case of Taurasi, a salary that she says is ten times what she makes in the WNBA.

Caple's article contrasts that to Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi's experience playing for another Russian team:

That first winter with Dynamo was enough to make a player consider defecting to the West. "In the WNBA, when a player joins the team, you welcome them to the team," Bird said. "My first day with Dynamo, I walked into the clubhouse and said, 'Hi, I'm Sue.' They looked up from tying their shoes, looked at me without an expression, and went back to tying their shoes. They didn't even smile."

Fortunately, Bird's old Seattle Storm teammate, Kamila Vodichkova, was on the team and took care of Bird, cooking her soup and helping with shopping. "I'd say, 'This is face cream, right?'" Bird recalled. "And she'd say, 'No, it's hemorrhoid ointment.'"

Taurasi joined her on the Dynamo roster two winters ago, reuniting the two friends from their UConn days. Still, because of difficulties with the coaches and a brutally cold winter, that 2005-06 season was so unpleasant it wore down even relentlessly upbeat Taurasi. She compares it to the episode of "Married With Children" when the Bundys travel to Lower Uncton, an English town living under a constant dark cloud. Lower Uncton became her code for anything that went wrong during the season.

"My goal was to make one Russian smile a day -- one Russian," she said. "That lasted a couple days and I gave up."

When the players are asked about the origins of the money behind their luxuries, they understandably shrug off any concerns. Why would any of them be in the mood to question? And, frankly, how many teams in any league have owners with transparent finances?

(UPDATE: Reacting to that last line, TrueHoop reader Christopher wants to point out that the worst of business as usual in Russia is nothing like the United States, and suggests this scary article as evidence.)