BEIJING – Becky Hammon's new team spells her name "Rebekka." A player and the coach of her old country's team have called her "un-American" and "a traitor."
The back and forth over whether a Rapid City, S.D. native should be playing not for the United States but Mother Russia has been a heated subplot of women's basketball. And that was even before Russian tanks started rolling into the city of Gori, John McCain declared "Today, we are all Georgians" and the U.S. and Russia plowed through the Olympic tournament to set up a semifinal matchup Thursday.
"This is sports. It's never been a political statement on my end," Hammon told the media Tuesday, according to the New York Times. "I don't agree with everything that our government does, and I don't agree with everything the Russian government does."
In the United States, at least, not everyone agrees with what Becky "Rebekka" Hammon is doing, a knee-jerk reaction from what should be the bye-gone era of the politics of fear, division and isolationism.
The reality is Hammon is doing what any American should do – and our government and major corporations do each day – boldly striking out into the world in search of opportunity and advancement.
For all the handwringing over this pony-tailed daughter of the Dakotas' supposed anti-Americanism, this story and its polarizing debate stems from a simple and undeniable beginning.
Team USA didn't want Becky Hammon.
Despite having enough talent to finish runner-up for WNBA MVP honors in 2007, Hammon was not included on USA Basketball's original list of candidates for the team. As a result, her chance of wearing the red, white and blue were all but over.
She could either root her fellow Americans on from home or she could pursue her lifelong dream and find another country to play for in what has increasingly become a free agent-fueled Olympics.
"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," Hammon told the Seattle Times. "The dream of playing in the Olympics is something I've carried around with me for 30 years."
Hammon had no natural country to turn to. She wasn't Grand Rapids' Chris Kaman using his grandparents' heritage to play for Germany. She would have to pick a country and become a naturalized citizen.
She chose Russia, in no small part because of its well-funded women's basketball league, where star players make far more than the WNBA pays. A team called CSKA Moscow was willing to give her a four-year, $2 million contract. Playing for the Russian national team was a benefit to the team because it will boost her popularity and box-office appeal.
So Hammon saw business and she saw an Olympic dream and she, most likely, never saw what was coming.
Anne Donovan, the U.S. coach, hammered her for it.
"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."
Donovan has since calmed down on her rhetoric, even dubbing it "a good business decision." She's been gracious to Hammon in Beijing. The damage was done, though. U.S. star Lisa Leslie piled on by declaring, "That's un-American." Hammon received plenty of negative feedback.
And just as much positive.
Using hired guns to bolster a nation's Olympic team is an unseemly development to the Games. It is, however, hardly a Russian or a Hammon development. Everyone is doing it, including the United States.
No matter how much some want to retreat to the old days of good vs. evil at the Olympics, this is a new world order. If anything, the athlete – the individual – has been empowered. It's the nations that, by going begging, have opened the door of opportunity.
Hammon was able to dictate her own Olympic experience. She was able to pursue her own happiness. It may just be something as simple as playing basketball, but it still matters.
The slight, 5-foot-6 31-year-old certainly didn't anticipate the souring of relations between Moscow and Washington. No one could've predicted Russia's response to Georgian military action in South Ossetia, an action decried by U.S. politicians. It hardly matters.
Hammon insists playing for Russia is not a statement about international affairs, just the pursuit of an individual dream.
"I don't expect everybody to understand or jump on my bandwagon," she told the Times. "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."
A game between the two countries she holds citizenship in, between one team that didn't want her and one team that did.
Not accepting personal and professional rejection from Team USA, Becky Hammon forged her own path to the medal round and found a way to make her goals come true.
It was a most American of acts.
- Becky Hammon