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BEIJING 2008 / BILL PLASCHKE

Hammon exercises freedom of choice

August 22, 2008|Bill Plaschke

Beijing

Who is the American?

Is it the woman standing with head down and hand over heart during the national anthem?

Or is it the women rocking and shuffling and squirming during the same anthem, clearly impatient for the darned song to end?

The respectful woman was wearing a Russian uniform.

The distracted women were wearing U.S. uniforms.

Who is the American?

The debate raged Thursday in a glittering basketball arena that felt like a small-town courthouse, two sides arguing a single point with passion, prejudice, and more than a little ugliness.

On one side was the U.S. women's basketball team.

On the other side was Russian guard Becky Hammon.

Officially, it was the clearly defined Olympic semifinals, but at stake was that elusive thing known as patriotism.

Hammon is a heartland kid born in South Dakota, schooled at Colorado State, a WNBA star who joined the Russian national team after signing a Russian club team contract worth about $2 million.

Many members of the U.S. team think this qualified her as a traitor.

Hammon said she jumped countries because she wasn't on the original list of women invited to try out for the American team.

Most of the American players think she jumped for the money.

The controversy spun for several weeks this summer, with U.S. Coach Anne Donovan even saying, "If you play in this country and you grow up in this country and you put on a Russian uniform, you are not being patriotic."

Donovan later softened her stance. But then the two teams met Thursday at the Olympic Basketball Gymnasium, and there was nothing soft about it.

Hard picks, hard shoves, hard elbows, oppressively hard defense by a U.S. team intent on making Hammon pay.

Lisa Leslie admitted the U.S. team had debated the issue during a pregame meal, and it was soon obvious who won that debate.

Those who thought Becky Hammon was Benedict Arnold.

After the Americans had held Russia's leading scorer to one basket in a 67-52 victory, it was time for hard words.

Or, in Leslie's case, no words.

Leslie revealed the American mind-set during the postgame handshake line when Hammon reached up to slap her hand.

Leslie never even looked down at her, walking silently in the other direction.

"I didn't even acknowledge her because, today, she is Russian," Leslie said.

Once the players left the court, the simmering anger continued.

"I could not do what she did," guard Kara Lawson said. "This is the only uniform I could ever put on."

Sylvia Fowles, a center, was asked whether she would do the same thing as Hammon if given a chance.

"No," she said. "I love my country."

Leslie blames Hammon for not trying hard enough.

"I don't know if she made all the effort she could have made to play on this team," she said. "I don't know if she tried as hard as she could."

Although Hammon wasn't on an original list, officials say she was going to be given a later tryout, and could have proved herself then.

Some folks think she knew this $2-million deal was coming, so she blew off the U.S. before the U.S. had given her a chance.

"Some people have lineage, some people plan to move to a country full time, but that is not the case here," Lawson said. "She's chose to be an American wearing a Russian uniform."

The U.S. team couldn't hide its glee at stopping her, and took particular pride that she was benched early and often.

Katie Smith laughed.

"She obviously wasn't much of a factor," she said. "I mean, they got her out of there pretty quick."

Lawson beamed.

"We paid a lot of extra attention to her," she said.

Afterward, the only person in this debate who didn't seem fired up was Hammon.

Her usually bright eyes were dull. She answered questions quickly, mechanically.

It was as if she didn't want to be there. Not on the court, and not facing more criticism afterward.

"During the national anthem, I was saying a prayer of thanksgiving that I'm an American," she said. "I know that in my heart, I love my country."

She said little else, but it didn't matter. What she had done spoke volumes about what she believes.

She believes in the freedom to choose one's path.

She believes that this freedom extends to the right to leave your country to make more money somewhere else.

This may not be pretty, but freedom rarely is. This may not be your idea of patriotism, but freedom means we don't have to all think alike.

In case you haven't noticed, the Olympics have blurred most boundaries, with Chinese showing up at nearly every table tennis team in the world, with Brazilians lending themselves out to several countries for beach volleyball, with Chris Kaman suddenly becoming German.

Although I criticized Kaman for lacking loyalty to the Clippers, never would I question his loyalty to the United States, nor the loyalty of any citizen smart enough to use our freedom to their advantage.

In going to distant lands in search of their dreams or their paychecks or whatever they want, athletes such as Becky Hammon are not dismissing America.

They are celebrating it.

--

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke

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