- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2008

For me, the Olympics aren’t a really patriotic exercise, a contest to determine cultural (or is it chemical?) superiority. They’re just the World’s Greatest Sports Festival - and that’s enough. The flag waving might improve television ratings, but at the end of the day, the competition is athlete vs. athlete, not country vs. country.

So it’s hard to get worked up over the decision by America’s Becky Hammon, the most luminous of the WNBA’s San Antonio Silver Stars, to play basketball for Russia in the upcoming games. Some, such as U.S. coach Anne Donovan, would paint her as a traitor - inasmuch as Hammon has no genealogical tie to the Land of the Czars - but I view her more as a test case than a turncoat. Perhaps, with Hammon, we can start seeing the Olympics less as Us vs. Them and more as All of Us Together. Perhaps we can begin to acknowledge how increasingly borderless the world is becoming, what with U.S. companies outsourcing around the globe, Europe uniting under a single currency and the sprawling Internet recognizing no boundaries.

In times of war, particularly, the games tend to take on a nationalistic tone. What’s important to remember now, though, is that America’s war - cold or otherwise - is no longer with Russia, except maybe in the economic sense. The Berlin Wall, last I checked, is gone, and our CIA was actually given use of air bases in Uzbekistan during the invasion of Afghanistan. The U.S. and the Former Soviet Union may not be best buds, but they’re hardly the blood enemies they once were.

Besides, Hammon isn’t trying to make any grand statements. She’s merely trying to take advantage of an opportunity that wasn’t going to be afforded her by her home country. That, in itself, is a subject worthy of discussion. Why hasn’t one of the best players in the WNBA, a point guard who finished second in the MVP balloting last year and also received votes in 2004 (10th) and ‘05 (T12), ever been a member of our national team? But then, it’s easier for Donovan to brand Hammon the Benedict Arnold of basketball than to broach the touchy subject of how political - or subjective - the selection process can be.

And not just in women’s hoops, either. It’s still hard to figure how Virginia Tech’s Angela Tincher, the 2008 USA Softball Player of the Year, didn’t make our Olympic team - especially after she threw a no-hitter against the team in March, snapping its 12-year winning streak in pre-Olympic exhibitions. The reason given was that other pitchers had more big-game experience, but who knows? It might have come down to marketing … and all the effort that has been put into promoting pinup pitcher Jennie Finch (who was outdueled by Tincher that day).

Fortunately for Angela, she’s only 22. There will be other Olympics for her. But put yourself in Hammon’s sneakers. She’s 31. She probably won’t get another shot at the games - unless she wants to rent herself out to Trinidad and Tobago in 2012. She received an invitation to the U.S. tryouts, sure, but never saw it as an expression of serious interest.

By then, she had signed a lucrative deal to play for a Russian team during the WNBA offseason. They’re truly women of the world, these female basketballers. If they’re not honing their game here, they’re doing it somewhere else - Spain, Italy, Israel, you name it. Hammon now has a Russian passport, making her eligible for their Olympic basketball team - and the team, naturally, is more than happy to have her.

It couldn’t have been easy for her to come to this decision, knowing the criticism it would bring. But then, it couldn’t have been easy for her to get passed over, year after year, for our national team - until one day she just had to admit to herself: It’s not going to happen. I’m never going to get the chance to play for my country in the Olympics.

By the way, this isn’t the first time a situation like this has come up - though you’d hardly know it. In 1976, another spurned American basketball player suited up for a rival team in the Olympics. His name was Butch Lee, and he played guard at Marquette under the legendary Al McGuire.

Lee didn’t even get an invite to the U.S. trials, not that he would have made the team. North Carolina’s Dean Smith, who coached the squad that year, scandalously kept four of his own players and three other ACCers on the 12-man roster. (In those pre-Dream Team days, the U.S. could still get away with sending callow collegians to the games.)

Undeterred, Lee hooked on with the team from Puerto Rico, where he was born. When he crossed paths with the Americans in Montreal that summer, he nearly pulled off the biggest upset in Olympic basketball history. He hit 15 of 18 shots and scored 35 points, the most ever against the U.S. in the games, but the Americans rallied in the last minute to win 95-94.

Might Hammon’s detractors be imagining a nightmare scenario like that? Russia, after all, is a lot more formidable than Puerto Rico. Granted, it’s hard to see Becky pulling a Butch Lee, but if Russia knocks off the U.S. - and she has much to do with it - the grief she gets will make the abuse she’s dealt with the last few days seem like a testimonial. Not that she’ll deserve it.