Becky Hammon Is Not a Traitor

by Kevin Jon Heller

A confession: except for the basketball, I don’t watch the Summer Olympics. In part, that’s because I’m not particularly interested in the medal sports. The more significant reason, though, is that I simply can’t stomach the rampant jingoism that inevitably accompanies the Games. Case in point — the reaction to Becky Hammon’s decision to play basketball for the Russian team:

The other day, Anne Donovan, former sweetheart of Old Dominion basketball and current coach of the U.S. Olympic team, called Hammon a traitor. What Hammon is doing, Donovan said, “is unfathomable to me.”

Detractors notwithstanding, Hammon is going ahead with her summer plans. In Beijing, this small-town girl from Rapid City, S.D., will be living out her American dream… by playing point guard for the Russians.

“I don’t expect everybody to understand or jump on my bandwagon,” Hammon said recently.

She’s a 10-year veteran of the WNBA who finished second in the MVP voting last year playing for the San Antonio Silver Stars but, until recently, she flew very low under the radar. Now she’s an Internet target who’s being asked to defend her patriotism.

“I know how I feel about my country,” she said. “I’m very proud of what America represents to the world. But this is a basketball game. This is not life or death.”

Hammon will enter Beijing National Stadium during the opening ceremonies under the Russian flag, wearing Russian colors. She has no genealogical connection to the country but was granted a Russian passport after signing a seven-figure contract with a professional team in Moscow over the winter.


Despite her WNBA credentials, at 31, she had never been invited to try out for the U.S. squad until after signing with her Russian club. The gesture was too little, too late as far as she was concerned.

Hammon could have been like thousands of U.S. athletes with thwarted Olympic ambitions. Instead, she chose the unorthodox, less-traveled route – seizing her one shot at the dream, knowing it would leave her open to abuse from self-styled patriots, cold warriors and anyone for whom the Olympics are more about nationalism than athleticism.


“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 said.

I could perhaps understand (though would still deplore) calling Hammon a traitor if she had been invited to play for the U.S. Olympic team but chose to play for the Russian team instead. But that’s not the case. Her choice was a simple one: play for Russia or not play Olympic basketball — probably ever. After all, she is 31; the chances that she will be playing better in 2012 are next to zero. So I think it’s perverse to call her a traitor simply because she would rather live out her dream of playing in the Olympics than be a “true American” and stay home.

3 Responses

  1. Perhaps she’s smuggling vital US basketball techniques to our enemies.

  2. Excellent and very funny comment! Maybe she should smuggle some to the Lakers. Boston Garden is very hostile territory in line with a long tradition of enmity between the clubs.



  3. In a roundabout way, this feeds into Peter’s thesis. I gather the problem wasn’t simply a choice between two routes for her Olympic aspirations; rather, by the time the late invitation came to try out for the U.S. team, she was already either contractually bound to pursue a Russian passport or had a huge economic incentive to do so because of Russian salary rules. How much that predetermined which Olympic team she played for is a little unclear to me, but it does suggest the changing nature of citizenship.

    Actually, Kevin, I’d think this would substantially *diminish* concerns about Olympic jingoism, given that the overall reaction from fans and other players seems to have been reasonably supportive — and given that Hammon appears to have been accepted by the Russian players. The traitor comment seems to have been made by the self-interested and probably embarrassed US coach — who explained her surprise by saying that Becky fit the image of apple pie etc. (!!!) — and a quick survey suggests as much condemnation of the coach’s comment as criticism of Hammon. On the whole, though, it’s inconceivable to me that there would have been such a limited outcry circa, say, 1980.

    This comment is brought to you by the glass-half-full department.

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