A few years back, I was discussing overseas women’s hoops with someone very familiar with international basketball. I asked her if the players who competed in Russia, especially, knew how their team owners had amassed their wealth.
“The question,” she said wryly, “is whether they want to know. And the answer is no. They don’t want to know.”
But one of these days, I suggested, this could come to a bad end, couldn’t it? Of course, she said, and it probably will.
Alas, I thought back on that conversation after hearing the news Monday that Shabtai von Kalmanovic, who bankrolled the Spartak Moscow women’s team, had been murdered in Russia’s capital.
Kalmanovic was considered a “fatherly” figure to players such as Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson – someone who paid them far more than they earned in the WNBA and set them up to live in palatial digs while they endured the Russian winter to play basketball in large part for the gratification of his ego.
Kalmanovic is one of those fellows who’d be very amusing as a fictional character … but is not so funny as a real person. Among other things, Kalmanovic had served five years in an Israeli prison for passing along technology secrets to the KGB. He was released in the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union was well into the process of falling apart and a couple dozen businessmen seized much of the industrial and natural-resources wealth of the nation.
Was he a real “spy” … or someone who did certain things to survive at a time and in a place where all the choices were bad? He kept saying sometime in the future, when the conditions of his release from prison would allow it, he’d tell the “real” story. But he didn’t live to do that.
As for the state of things the last couple of decades in Russia, the word “chaos” comes to mind. There were those who’d profited from the black market during the era of communism. They continued their businesses in what essentially became a more lucrative but also even more dangerous and lawless new age where many former government officials, if they weren’t already involved in crime, descended into it.
And this is the world in which a handful of women’s basketball players not all that long ago began making several hundred thousand dollars – despite their teams not earning any profit for their owners.
The combination of ego, enormous wealth and a type of patriotism linked to sports all combined to make what didn’t seem like it was sensible actually, in fact, happen. That is, athletes got paid a lot of money to play for teams that didn’t make any money.
Authorities are using terms like “contract killing” in regard to Kalmanovic, whose car was strafed with bullets. We’ll wait to see if the perpetrators are found and punished, and if it’s publicly revealed exactly what Kalmanovic’s alleged transgression was against whomever wanted him dead. Unfortunately, drive-by killings like this are not exactly rare occurrences in Russia.
We’ll also wait to see how Kalmanovic’s death affects the entire marketplace for women’s basketball overseas. Might the bottom fall out for foreign talent going to that part of the world now?
Suffice to say, if any of this is really shocking to you, just remember what went on in the 2002 Winter Olympics.
A reputed Russian crime “boss,” Alimzan Tokhtakhounov, was arrested several months after the Games, in which a scandal over the pairs figure skating judging resulted in a “second” gold medal given to Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier. A French judge had admitted she felt pressured into giving better scores to the Russian skaters, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, and a bizarre “plot” was subsequently unraveled.
Tokhtakhounov allegedly had tried to fix the outcome of competition in both the pairs skating (in favor of the Russians) and ice dancing (in favor of the French) by pressuring the respective federations for both countries. The whole thing was so bizarre – just seeing the terms “Russian mob” and “ice dancing” in the same sentence is ludicrous _ that it would be laughable if it weren’t actually deadly serious.
Of course, there were far-reaching consequences in the wake of the Salt Lake Games judging scandal: The entire points/judging system for figure skating was changed. Out went the 6.0 system that was inherently arcane but at least familiar, and in came a more complicated points-accumulation system that many spectators still don’t understand.
At any rate, the involvement of crime figures with sports is hardly unique to Russia. But the fact that organized crime has become imbedded in so many aspects of Russian life since the fall of the Soviet Union made it impossible for any of us who follow women’s basketball to avoid speculating about whether the “mob” just might be into that, too.
Which is not to say Kalmanovic was involved with organized crime … just that it’s very difficult to do business in Russia and completely avoid it. Ultimately, how one defines the lines between what’s legal and illegal in Russia, what’s legitimate and what isn’t, what is politically motivated by forces and beliefs that are largely alien to an average American’s way of thinking … well, we pretty much can’t fully understand it. Or even partially understand it.
I’m sure it was no different for the foreign players who’ve gone to play in Russia; they saw Kalmanovic as a “good guy” because it was in their economic self-interest to see him that way and not attempt to dig any deeper. Kalmanovic treated his favorite players extremely well and seemed to care about women’s basketball – or at least about winning championships in the sport. His well-rewarded favorites came to be very fond of him, but how much they really knew of his wealth and his business and political dealings was limited. Which is how they preferred it.
But it isn’t something they can really ignore now; not when their patron has been gunned down on the street and their future overseas is surrounded by doubt. Grief, fear and uncertainty are emotions they’re experiencing. And now they’re going to have to try to get some real answers to questions they probably never wanted to ask.