Olympics opportunity too much for Hammon to pass up

MOSCOW -- Becky Hammon dreamed about the moment as a young girl growing up in Rapid City, S.D. Someday that would be her on that Olympic podium, tears welling up as she hears the national anthem, quivering with emotion as a gold medal is placed around her neck.

"I love my country," Hammon said last month in her Russian apartment. "I love our national anthem. It absolutely gives me chills sometimes. I feel honored to be an American, to be from America because of what we stand for."

But if the 5-foot-6 point guard from America's heartland does ascend that medal stand in Beijing, she won't be wearing America's red, white and blue. And if Hammon does win gold, it won't be the U.S. anthem she hears. It will be the Russian anthem, a melody she says she has come to enjoy since signing a multiyear, multimillion-dollar deal last year to play for CSKA, a Russian professional club.

In April, Hammon signed with the Russian national team, about two weeks after receiving her Russian passport. "I'm going where they really want me and where I have an opportunity to win a medal," Hammon said at the time.

But Hammon -- who's averaging 13.6 points and 4.4 assists for San Antonio (2-3) this season -- says she would have given up "any amount of money" for the opportunity to represent the United States in the Summer Games. Though she finished as the runner-up in the WNBA's MVP race last season, Hammon asserts she never has been on the short list of candidates for the U.S. Olympic team.

"When their list of 23 players came out last year, we're talking about 23 players, and I was not on it, that's a pretty strong statement that 'we're not considering you,'" Hammon said.

"It's unfathomable to me that that would happen," said Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst Nancy Lieberman, who placed calls to USA Basketball inquiring about Hammon's status. "How can you not? She's earned the right to be on the stinking list!"

In September, USA Basketball expanded the list to more than 30 names. Hammon was invited to try out just days before training camp began. She knew that if she accepted the invitation and participated in international play for the United States, she would greatly diminish the value of her Russian contract, one of the most lucrative in women's basketball. Essentially, she says was choosing between a guaranteed seven-figure contract and the long odds of making the U.S. team.

"Why should I take that chance for a really, really long shot and pass up four years of playing over in Russia?" Hammon asks. "I couldn't do that financially."

"If we didn't think she could make the Olympic team ultimately, we would not have invited her," said Carol Callan, an executive with USA Basketball who previously had declined to speak on the record about Hammon's bid to make the U.S. squad.

"I would say everybody has a legitimate chance," Callan added. "It's just when you don't come, then you certainly don't have the chance."

When the Russians first approached Hammon about representing them in the Olympics last fall, Hammon says she had absolutely no interest. "I was like, 'No, I can't play for the Russians,'" she recalled. "Never did it cross my mind it would be Russia across my chest.

"It's not about getting back at the U.S. It's never been about that. Nobody would love to play for their country more than me. [USA Basketball] had an idea of what they wanted, and it wasn't me. You go where you're wanted."

Even though Hammon is not of Russian descent, speaks no Russian and is not a full-time resident, she was fast-tracked for Russian citizenship in February by the highest levels of Russian government.

Dual citizenship makes Hammon a precious commodity in the Russian league because two Russians must be on the floor at all times, and each club is allowed only two American players. That's why American stars like Diana Taurasi (Italy) and Sue Bird (Israel) also have procured foreign passports.

But unlike Taurasi and Bird, Hammon has a Russian passport. Because Hammon has never competed in a sanctioned international competition for USA Basketball, FIBA rules allow her to represent another country in the Olympics. Capitalizing on the fact that FIBA rules allow one naturalized citizen to compete for each country, the Russians offered Hammon not only a passport but also an opportunity to play for them at the Olympics.

Hammon makes the maximum WNBA salary, approximately $95,000. Her Russian team pays her six times that much. Knowing that her character and her patriotism would be questioned in America, Hammon (and her agent Mike Cound) made sure it was worth the trouble.

In March, she signed a four-year deal worth well more than $2 million. By agreeing to dual citizenship, Hammon nearly tripled her salary. "There's nothing more American than taking advantage of an opportunity," she said, smiling.

If Hammon leads the Russians to a silver medal, she'll receive an additional $150,000 in bonus money. For gold, she'll earn $250,000.

Lieberman told Hammon to "just tell everybody you made a business decision," and Hammon acknowledges that money played a role. But ultimately, the opportunity to play on the Olympic stage was too compelling to pass up, and Hammon admits she would have chosen to play for Russia even without financial incentives rather than sit out the Olympics entirely.

"Yes, I would've done it. It hasn't been about the money," she said. "The money to me is icing on the cake, it's a nice bonus, it's what I get paid to do."

And though Hammon calls herself "one of the most patriotic people you'll ever meet," Team USA coach Anne Donovan, one of the most accomplished players and coaches in women's basketball history, is not convinced.

"If you play in this country, live in this country, and you grow up in the heartland and you put on a Russian uniform, you are not a patriotic person in my mind," Donovan said.

When told of Donovan's remarks, Hammon bristles.

"You don't know me. You don't know what that flag means to me. You don't know how I grew up," Hammon replied, directing her comments to Donovan as if she were in the room. "The biggest honor in our classroom was who could put up the flag, roll it up right, not let the corners touch the ground. Obviously we definitely define patriotism differently.

"True patriotism would be giving everybody a fair shot, an equal opportunity and to not play politics. That would be a very American and patriotic thing to do."

Still, Donovan -- who says, "If you'd slit my wrists, I'd bleed red, white and blue" -- sees it from a different perspective.

"Once you give up your jersey and your right or opportunity to try out for this Olympic team and you go someplace else," the 46-year-old Hall of Famer said, "you've given up your right for people to think that was a smart decision."

Becky Hammon gets paid to make decisions. Difficult decisions.

As the point guard for the WNBA's San Antonio Silver Stars, the ball, and often the game, is in her hands. She must make instant decisions under extreme pressure. Last season, Hammon's decision-making was so consistently brilliant that she won the WNBA assist title and finished second in the league's MVP voting.

"I believe I am one of the best players in the world," Hammon said. "I believe I'm one of the best in our country."

WNBA fans agree. According to the league, Hammon's jersey trails only rookie sensation Candace Parker's in popularity. Lieberman calls the pint-sized playmaker "the WNBA's version of Steve Nash," and "a media darling who's adored by the fans."

"You mean Sweet Polly Purebred?" Lieberman said, laughing. "Becky's image is impeccable. She's the consummate All-American girl."

And she could be the consummate Russian point guard. After all, Russia has beaten the United States only once in international play, and point guard is historically the team's weakest position.

"They're getting a superstar," Lieberman said. "Russia was good without her. They're going to be even better with her."

Some of Russia's most prominent players told ESPN that they initially were opposed to having an American on their national team. The team's star, Maria Stepanova, said, "We thought we could manage on our own."

But after getting to know Hammon as a teammate in the Russian league, Stepanova -- who played for the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury from 1998-2001 and then again in 2005 -- is a believer and a fan of Hammon's. "She will help us at the Olympic Games. Practically, she is almost like a Russian. She has mentality similar to ours."

Added Russian teammate Ilona Korstin: "When we play the world championship and the Olympics, we miss something. We were very close, but we never won the gold medal, so I think this something is a good point guard. This something is Becky."

Hammon's agent calls her "a killer." Cound also said Team USA knows the value of a player who's unafraid of a big moment, and he pointed out that the United States might not have won gold in the 2004 Olympics without fearless Shannon Johnson, the team's 12th player.

"When the game's on the line and the pressure of the entire nation's on your shoulders, some players don't react well," Cound said. "It's those moments where you need a killer. Sue Bird may be better 90 percent of the time. But how many WNBA general managers wouldn't want Becky Hammon when the game's on the line?"

Hammon's former New York Liberty coach, Richie Adubato, calls Hammon one of the greatest shooters he has ever trained. And he has coached some great ones: Mark Price, Rolando Blackman, Trent Tucker.

"Becky Hammon's definitely in their league," Adubato said. "She's Mark Price. She's a shooting point guard with tremendous heart, not much size, who'll take the biggest shot and who'll make the biggest shot."

Adubato signed the undrafted Hammon out of Colorado State in 1999. She played five seasons for him in New York.

"In New York City, fans loved her!" Adubato recalled. "She put three to four thousand people in the seats. She's so exciting. I can't believe they ever traded her."

Adubato says he understands where Donovan's coming from but that "times have changed."

"Twenty years ago when we had the Cold War and the hatred, you wouldn't even have considered it. Needless to say, players in Donovan's time wouldn't have been playing in Russia," said Adubato, who coached briefly in Russia in 2002 before leaving because he "couldn't take 23 degrees below zero."

"We live in a different era. And there is a big difference financially between what players make there compared to what they earn in the WNBA. … If Becky was my daughter, I would tell her to play for Russia. She wasn't going to make Team USA. It's hard to argue with her decision."

Callan, the USA Basketball executive, says she understands Hammon's pursuit of a dream. "I'm fine with Becky making her own decision, I really am."

Lieberman, however, worries that the decision could damage both Hammon's marketability and perhaps her popularity in San Antonio.

"My greatest concern is the imaging piece of this; she will no longer be looked at as the All-American girl," Lieberman said. "She could be looked at as a spoiled athlete that didn't get her chance to make the USA team and took her ball and went somewhere else. I wouldn't ever want anybody to think of her as a traitor."

Hammon laughs at the notion that she might lose endorsements.

"I don't have Glamour Magazine or American Express or Coca-Cola knocking on my door trying to endorse me anyway. I'm still an American girl. I'm not over here selling secrets to the Russians. This is not espionage. This is a game of basketball. We are not at war with Russia. The Cold War is over."

Hammon expects some backlash. But she says she's not afraid of having her reputation "tarnished."

"I have courage. I have strength. I can sleep at night," she said. "I rest on my faith alone, not on Anne Donovan's opinion or anybody else's opinion. … The decision on so many levels doesn't make sense to a lot of different people. That's OK. It makes perfect sense to me."

Reporter Mark Schwarz works in ESPN's enterprise unit and for the program "Outside the Lines." Producer Nicole Noren contributed to this report.