Why do women’s NBA stars go to Russia? It’s not about the money

Amos Barshad

When Jonquel Jones, now the WNBA MVP, arrived in Russia in 2018 to play for the Yekaterinburg UMMC, the first thing that struck her was the team jet.

“You get to the airport and you get on the plane right away,” Jones said. mine airplane. All business class seats, they can be folded back all the way!”.

“It was damn nice,” the basketball player recalls, “I could get used to it.”

On the team roster list, the name of the WNBA star looked out of place.

“This team could compete with any team of all time,” Jones said. “If the Euroleague, the European tournament, was a challenge, then the victory in the Russian championships came easily. But the training was the best.

“I wouldn’t say that the coaches just threw us the ball, working out the number,” Jones said with a laugh. “We did a couple of series of exercises and then played five on five – the level was excellent.”

Following the detention in Russia of Jones’ UMMC colleague and Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner — US officials now say it was wrongful — many in American basketball circles have rightly pointed out that the issue of pay inequality is fundamental to its situations. There was a feeling that American women come to Russia only for money, and play with clenched teeth for big fees.

But players and others from the world of sports say that this was not the only thing in Yekaterinburg. A generation of WNBA stars have passed through a city that is closer to Siberia than Moscow. For many, the experience of playing at Yekat has become one of the highlights of their careers thanks to the team spirit and world-class teammates.

“They love it there,” said Mercury President Vince Kozar.

Jones didn’t experience this either. When she arrived in Yekaterinburg, she “felt like a professional basketball player for the first time.”

motor and money

Mike Cound, an agent from Chattanooga, Tennessee, has been sending Americans east for decades. According to him, the Yekaterinburg story began in the early 2000s thanks to a man named Shabtai Kalmanovich.

“He was an energizer rabbit, a motor. He was everywhere and everywhere,” Kaund said.

In the late 1980s, Kalmanovich was arrested in Israel, accused of spying for the KGB. After the collapse of the USSR, he devoted himself to the Yekaterinburg UMMC, the club of the Russian basketball premier league. In it, he tracked all decisions related to basketball.

According to Kaund, he was “a man with a big soul, a very cool dude.” “He was short, pot-bellied, and wore a mind-blowing mullet, which was just terrible, but he thought it was so beautiful. He was always accompanied by some pretty lady. There was no ethical framework for him. He was a hot-tempered tyrant. Other Russian teams of his just hated.”

In the early 2000s, Kaund’s former agency partner, Tom Cross, worked for some time as a consultant for the Yekaterinburg club. Once, according to Kross, he had to urgently replace the head coach during the Euroleague in Italy.

Cross remembers arriving at a hotel in Como at five o’clock in the morning. There he was met by Kalmanovich in a fur coat along with his bodyguards.

“He chewed on corn flakes and poured me a glass of cognac,” Cross said. “I was on the road for 30 hours and felt that I needed it.” After that, Kalmanovich handed him a thousand dollars in cash for travel expenses and joked that he would gladly give more if he suddenly wanted to hire a prostitute.

In 2019, the program “30 Events in 30 Years” released an episode about Kalmanovich’s busy life. In the film, he was portrayed as an adored benefactor who acted out of sheer love for the sport. According to Kaund’s memoirs, “Kalmanovich caused disgust in many women.” Kaund also recalled how Kalmanovich tried to make racist jokes about some black players.

UMMC represents the Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company, which is run by oligarchs Iskander Makhmudov and Andrey Kozitsyn. After several years as an agent negotiating with the club, Cross was already spending insane amounts of money, and the club agreed with everything. Cross even thought: “Why didn’t I ask for another half a million?”.

Yekaterinburg paid three or four times more than any other club in the world, Kaund said. Whereas in a normal contract anywhere else they offered an apartment and a car, in Yekat, according to Kaunda, “you could get a penthouse apartment, you had a driver, private jets, and there were never any delays with the money.”

In 2009, then already the head of the club of rivals “Spartak” (Moscow region), Kalmanovich was killed in his “Mercedes”. The face of the Yekaterinburg club was the general manager of the team, Maxim Rybakov, a calm professional, far from the cinematic machinations of Kalmanovich.

For years, WNBA legends like Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi have played in Russia. The era of Kalmanovich was dizzyingly crazy. But – at least until Greiner’s arrest – from a professional point of view, everything was calm.

Brianna Stewart from the Seattle Storm played at the UMMC from 2020 to February of this year. She, too, speaks fondly of her experience: “Every day we played with the best players in the world.” When she listed them, she seemed to still be in awe: “Jonquel Jones. Courtney Vandersloot (Courtney Vandersloot). Brittney. Every day.”

With a year-round professional career, it’s almost impossible to find time “to continue to develop, to refine skills,” Stewart said. But playing against Greiner in Yekat naturally helps to hone his skills. According to Stewart, this aspect of the Ekaterinburg experience is underestimated.

“Of course, we are going for foreign experience, for money. But we also want to improve,” she said.

Jones said that when she arrived in Yekaterinburg, Greiner “showed how things work.” It was part of the life of the club.

“People were really looking out for each other,” Jones shared. In their free time, they went “to shopping centers, hookahs and restaurants. Of course, we saw the city.” Experienced UMMC players such as Taurasi and Deanna Nolan showed the beginners a list of recommended restaurants. Jones liked the deer-carpeted Gastropub gastropub.

Boris Lelchitsky, Candace Parker’s agent, remembers how in 2008 he started a conversation with the basketball player’s mother about her daughter’s possible move to Russia. “She looked at me like that, like “for nothing in the world,” Lelchitsky laughed.

Parker played in Yekaterinburg from 2010 to 2015. “Her daughter grew up here for eight months of the year,” he added.

“Even now, when some players are forced to leave the club due to the situation in Ukraine, I’m sure they will miss him,” said Ewelina Kobryn, a Polish basketball player who played for the UMMC and in the WNBA. It’s sad that such a big club has disbanded.”

End of an era

Despite a long cooperation with UMMC on lucrative contracts, the club’s operations were still a mystery to Kaunda. “Why?” he asks. To attract American stars, it was enough to offer fees twice the amount requested. Why did Yekaterinburg pay at four?

There is no obvious answer to this question when looking at the financial aspect. It does not appear that the club is recouping its multi-million dollar investment in ticket sales or merchandising. There is an opinion that the owners of the club are engaged in this project out of vanity. However, in modern Russia, one cannot spend millions without at least the tacit consent of the Kremlin.

Stanislav Markus, a professor at the University of South Carolina who studies Russian oligarchs, believes that the operations of the Yekaterinburg UMMC can be perceived as part of state propaganda. The presence of Americans in the club “helps the Kremlin improve its reputation both at home and abroad,” the researcher says. “The message is: Russia is even more attractive to foreign talent than Western countries.”

Markus also noted that the owners of the UMMC, the oligarchs Makhmudov and Kozitsyn, “until recently were actively involved in the arms business, and they are closely associated with the Russian Orthodox Church, which is itself closely connected with the state” – all this suggests that they are close to the political authorities. “But the arrest of an American citizen is most likely approved by Putin,” Markus said, speaking generally about the arrest of prominent Americans. Therefore, even if the UMMC leaders secretly worked to free Greiner, “these two oligarchs would not be able to influence Putin in any way,” the researcher believes.

For Americans coming to Russia, the difficult relationship between Russia and the US also matters. If the arrival of WNBA stars in Russia is partly about money, then, according to Markus, Greiner’s detention could end the entire project.

Phoenix Mercury president Kozar said: “We believe in the project and the people who work on it. It’s not easy, but we still have hope.”

After the start of the Russian operation in Ukraine, UMMC was expelled from the Euroleague. At the end of April, the season ended with the defeat of the team. In the final of the Russian league UMMC was defeated by Dynamo Kursk. For several decades, the greatest American players came to Yekaterinburg, and then, in February, in just a few days, they all left the club. It’s the end of an exciting era in women’s basketball. Along with her, some undiscovered secrets also left.

Over the years, Kaund, who sent many players to the UMMC on big contracts, kept thinking, “Please don’t tell me anything that would be ethically unacceptable to me. Please just don’t say it. It’s like killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.” “.

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