LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - In many ways, Becky Hammon feels playing basketball for Russia and not the United States is the most “American” thing she has ever done.
After all, what good is freedom if it is not exercised?
So when the Beijing Olympics begin, the American-bred Hammon will put her basketball skills on display for the red, white and blue -- of Russia.
The 31-year-old was not initially sought by the U.S. team. So Hammon, who has no ancestral link to Russia, accepted an offer to play for the Russian national squad.
She received a passport and naturalized citizenship in February, enabling her participation. Last year she signed a four-year deal worth $2 million to play with the CSKA Moscow professional club.
Long before she ever became a member of the San Antonio Silver Stars of the WNBA, Hammon dreamed of participating in the Olympics. But she never quite saw it playing out like this.
“It was a hard decision. I know I‘m doing it for the right reasons,” Hammon told Reuters.
“I know how I feel about my country. I love what America stands for and that we’re the free world. But freedom has never been free. People have paid for it.”
Hammon knows that now more than ever.
She has been the source of much discussion, and in some cases, shock, about an American clad in a Russian uniform.
Hammon was most notably lambasted by U.S. women’s basketball coach Anne Donovan.
“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.
But the 5ft 6in point guard who finished second in WNBA MVP voting last season, had not been given an immediate opportunity to wear a USA uniform.
When USA Basketball released its first list of 23 prospective players to make the Olympic team, Hammon’s name was not on it. Later, the committee expanded the list to 30 and invited Hammon to try out, but it was too late.
“I’ve never even played in an FIBA sanctioned event,” Hammon said. “They had a long time to give me the opportunity.”
Little has ever been handed to the feisty Hammon who is known for taking the big shot in the pressure-packed moment.
Hammon, who averages 17.4 points and 4.7 assists per game this season, went undrafted out of Colorado State University and began her WNBA career in 1999 on the New York Liberty bench.
So when she felt passed over by her national team she filed it away as just another challenge and it is this mental toughness that has earned her the respect of her peers.
“If (Becky) was given a fair shake to begin with than maybe she would be in a U.S. uniform,” said Los Angeles Sparks forward DeLisha Milton-Jones, a member of the U.S. team.
“I wish her well -- to each their own. I mean, we have people doing much worse in the world.”
The glaring irony in the criticism Hammon has received is found in her Rapid City, South Dakota, beginnings.
Hammon is as Americana is it gets. She grew up in a community marked by mid-western values where American flags flew generously.
Her wholesome image has translated into WNBA popularity. Her Silver Stars jersey sales are among the best in the league. All of which makes her decision to play for Russia the riskiest shot she has ever taken.
But Hammon does not see it that way.
”This is basketball, it isn’t the Cold War,“ she says. ”I think a lot of things are often blurred with patriotism. (Playing in the Olympics) is more important than taking the heat (for the decision).
“I‘m not immune to it, but I’ve learned to extend people grace.”
Editing by Dave Thompson