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Steve Kelley: At the Olympics

Steve Kelley, a Seattle Times sports columnist for 25 years, is covering his eighth Olympics. He'll share news and tidbits as the Beijing Games unfold.

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August 17, 2008 7:58 PM

Becky Hammon grows weary of grilling

Posted by Steve Kelley

Clearly Becky Hammon was getting tired of the line of questioning.

The Russian national basketball team was making its way through group play at the Beijing Olympics, heading toward Tuesday's quarterfinal match against Spain, but its pony-tailed point guard was answering questions about the Russian incursion into Georgia.

The point guard fron South Dakota, who plays for San Antonio in the WNBA, was questioned about walking into the National Stadium for the opening ceremony under the Russian, not the United States, flag and an exasperated frown creased her face.

She was tired from playing a difficult game and tired of answering and re-answering the same non-basketball questions.

"Any more basketball questions?" Hammon asked before leaving the mixed zone interview area.

She knew what she was getting into when she accepted this assignment. Even though she was second in the voting for the WNBA's MVP last season, Hammon believed she hadn't been given a fair chance to make the United States' team. All she got was what she believed was a courtesy invitation to a tryout camp in March of 2007.

In the meantime she had signed with Russian team CSKA Moscow for four-years and $2 million. It is also believed she was given the option of earning bonus money if she got a Russian passport and played for Russia in the Olympics.

She took the deal and has been taking the heat ever since.

In the most infamous criticism of Hammon's decision, USA coach Anne Donovan said, "If you play in this country and you grow up in this country and you put on a Russian uniform, you are not a patriotic person."

Funny thing about that is that this Olympics is full of people playing and coaching in one country who are citizens of another.

NBA assistant coach Donnie Nelson is an assistant on the China bench. He was trying to beat the United States last week. Is he unpatriotic? Los Angeles Clippers center Chris Kaman is playing basketball for Germany.

And China's sports superstar, Jenny Lang Ping, who helped her country win the 1984 volleyball gold medal in Los Angeles, is now the coach of the United States team. She was greeted with a loud, warm ovation by the Chinese people when she was introduced last week before the start of the China-USA women's volleyball game. China isn't holding some misguided grudge.

This is the way of the Games in 2008 and Hammon shouldn't be considered unpatriotic because she's playing basketball for Russsia. She's on a team. She's not in the army. She penetrating defenses, not invading Georgia.

"The experience has been great," Hammon said last week. "The Olympic Village has been awesome, meeting different people from all over the world. The Chinese people have been great hosts. They've been very hospitable."

Hammon has made it clear she isn't here to talk politics. She said she hasn't been involved in conversations with teammates about the situation in Georgia.

"The Russian girls comment on it here and there, but for me this has never been a political statement," she said. "It is not going to be a political statement now. I have nothing to do with our government and I have nothing to do with the Russian government. I'm just here playing basketball.

"I knew there were going to be people who had very strong opinions and strong feelings about me playing. My thing has been that I want to get the truth out and once people heard the truth I think they can draw their own conclusions."

She said she wasn't uncomfortable walking behind the Russian flag at the opening ceremony. Her only criticism of the ceremony was that she spent so much time underneath the stadium, waiting for the call to enter, that she didn't see much of the show.

She came here for basketball and there is no doubt Hammon is the Russian coach-on-the-floor. After a 24-second violation in a game against Brazil, she yelled at teammate Ilona Korstin and pointed to her temple telling Korstin to think.

But Hammon has had issues with Russian coach Igor Grudin. He has given her quick hooks after turnovers and, she says, he doesn't watch game tapes with the passion that American coaches do.

"I'm still trying to get everybody in the right spots and trying to communicate," Hammon said. "We've had a couple of shot clock violations and I'm screaming, but sometimes they don't hear me. I really wish I could sit down and watch ourselves. Watch film, but unfortunately we haven't watched much film and we really need to. We're finding ways to win, but they haven't been pretty.

"I'm still trying to feel him (Grudin) out. What kind of substitutions he makes. When and why. That kind of stuff. But I'm not here to question anybody's coaching ability."

The Russians entered medal play still looking out of sync. They lost Sunday to Australia 75-55 in their final game in Group A. The U.S. and Australia appear headed for an inevitable gold medal match.
Russia's best hope appears to be bronze.

Hammon has talked with most of the U.S. players. They visited during a pre-Olympic tournament. She said her decision never has been uncomfortable for them.

"They don't care that I'm playing for Russia," she said. "They're athletes. They get it. They understand. And since I've been here Anne (Donovan) has been nice to me. Water under the bridge. We've all moved on and let it go."

But the inevitable questions follow Hammon so that she can't completely let go. And when she talks about her U.S. Olympic snub there still is an edge to her voice.

"I had agents and coaches and GMs calling and feeling out that situation (whether she had a chance to make the U.S. team)," Hammon said. "There just wasn't much encouragement. It wasn't very positive. I'm a pretty bright girl. I can read between the lines. I can pick up what you're layin' down."

Hammon just wants to play basketball. But -- and this is unfortunate -- her decision to play it for Russia, in the Olympics, will linger through Beijing and all the way back to the WNBA.

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