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Using his cash to court a dream

A Russian mogul with a thing for basketball pays female players from the U.S. league to live in luxury and help him sell the sport.

March 26, 2008|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

VIDNOYE, RUSSIA — He can't keep his backside on the bench, not when the clock is running and one of his stars is dribbling down the lane. He bounds to his feet, frizzy mullet springing crazily around his ears, eyes locked on his girls, Diana, Tina, Sue, the players he lured from the U.S. to catapult his team to greatness.

At the start of the quarter, he sends them onto the court with his ritual, lingering embrace and a pat on the lower back. Like so many of the rich, powerful and shadowy men living large in today's Russia, Shabtai von Kalmanovic is a man with a colorful, sometimes mysterious past.

He has been linked romantically to Liza Minnelli. He did prison time in Israel, accused of being a Soviet spy. He has amassed what he says is the largest collection of Judaica in Eastern Europe. This is a man who can do just about anything that catches his fancy.

As it turns out, he's got a thing for basketball, a sport he played growing up in Lithuania. He has dumped millions of dollars into rebuilding Spartak, the franchise he owns, into what is now one of Europe's best women's basketball teams.

Kalmanovic cherry-picks the brightest stars from the Women's National Basketball Assn., pays them as much as 10 times more than they earn in the United States, and brings them to Moscow in the WNBA off-season, where they live in luxury and play before halfhearted audiences.

It's an extreme measure, he acknowledges, but he insists that drastic steps are necessary to awaken a taste for women's basketball in Russia.

"If they win a game, I feel like a winner," he says. "To make basketball popular, you need victories. You cannot make a sport popular without winning."

To spend a night in Kalmanovic's gym in suburban Moscow is to learn a little something about America, about the miles and time zones that young basketball stars are willing to cross to supplement their incomes and secure their futures beyond the rocky, relatively unglamorous world of the WNBA.

But it's also a surreal sketch of a booming Russia, where the rich can't find enough ways to blow their cash. The 60-year-old Kalmanovic is part of a growing band of Russian millionaires investing in sports franchises as vanity projects, jostling to outspend and outplay one another with a patriotic, high-rolling fervor.

Many team owners split the cost with the government. Kalmanovic says he'll pour at least $7 million into the program this season, roughly half of the team's budget. The rest will come from the Moscow regional government.

The Russian government seems eager to restore its slumping athletic programs to their Soviet splendor. In recent years, the government has bestowed sports facilities like medals upon Moscow's suburbs; one outlying town is the home of ice hockey, another is dedicated to soccer, and so on. And like so much else in post-Soviet Russia, athletics has gotten entangled with the massive wealth streaming through the oil- and gas-rich country.

"It's great when the government is in love with sport," Kalmanovic says. "But you need, still, some crazy people to do some crazy things that are difficult for journalists and readers to understand. Misunderstanding is the price you pay. So what? So what if people think you're doing it to show off?"

Besides, he says, what else is he going to do with his money? Invest in oil? Hang out at casinos? He considers his basketball team proof that he's now matured.

As with much else about Kalmanovic, the origin of his fortune is murky. He says he made his money in construction, putting up buildings in apartheid South Africa's Bantustans, or black homelands. Published reports that he was tangled up in the diamond industry are false, he insists.

He held on to his fortune through the 5 1/2 years he was imprisoned in Israel, where he was convicted of spying for the Soviet Union. Kalmanovic refuses to discuss the case; he claims silence was a condition of his early release. "Before I went to prison, I was too much crazy already," he says. "Maybe God saved me."

Twenty years after becoming wealthy through his African venture, Kalmanovic no longer considers himself nouveau riche, and he bridles at the word "oligarch," with its connotations of corruption and lack of culture.

"I had already years of craziness when I didn't know which tie to buy and didn't know which wine to order -- I was ordering by price," he says indignantly. "I was buying a house in the south of France without understanding the location."

Now he's using his money to indulge his basketball obsession. Along with the professional team, Kalmanovic has opened a basketball school for youths, which he hopes will churn out top Russian players. His second wife, a onetime Russian basketball star, trains the children.

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