February 21, 2024

After being repeatedly overlooked by USA Basketball, Becky Hammon accepted an invitation to play for Russia in two Olympics. He led the team to bronze in Beijing in 2008.

I am playing

The deep sadness throughout the WNBA following Brittney Griner’s conviction and sentence was understandable.

So, too, Becky Hammon’s rage.

Asked for her thoughts on the nine-year sentence handed down Thursday to the two-time Olympian and eight-time WNBA All-Star, Hammon initially said, “I definitely have a lot of thoughts on it.” He paused briefly, then called Griner’s detention since Feb. 17 “heartbreaking” and “beyond concern.”

“Athletes really have to think twice now about where they go because all of a sudden you can be grabbed and you become a prisoner of war or a political pawn,” the Las Vegas Aces coach said.

That statement alone would be impressive enough.

But Hamon is no ordinary coach. He was once a Russian citizen. It is remarkable, in fact, to play in two Olympic teams.

Hammon might be the top coach in the WNBA – she is at least $1 million per season after Aces owner Mark Davis lured her away from the NBA, where she was a longtime assistant to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich — but he’s sparing with both her opinions and her words. When the former point guard speaks, then, her thoughts have added weight.

More: Russia says trade for WNBA star Brittney Griner must be discussed without publicity

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More: Brittney Griner Timeline: Events That Led to WNBA Star’s Conviction in Russia

But what Hamon did next was simply stunning: she took direct aim at Vladimir Putin.

“It’s difficult to play against an opponent who doesn’t play by the rules. Or they make their own rules,” Hammon said. “One person was unjustly detained, an entire country was unjustly invaded. I don’t think he’s (not) playing by the rules.”

Russia’s judicial system is so corrupt that it’s impossible to know if Griner actually did what she’s accused of – bringing vaping cartridges filled with hashish oil in her luggage. Putin, however, knew he was going to invade Ukraine and that would make Griner a valuable bargaining chip. It’s about time someone called him out on his role in her detention.

But as Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza can tell you, crossing over to Putin can be dangerous.

Navalny, a longtime critic of the Russian dictator, nearly died in 2020 after being poisoned by what international experts said were Russian agents. Navalny survived but is now serving time in a maximum security prison after being convicted in a show trial. Kara-Murza, another opposition politician, was has been jailed since April for his criticism of the war in Ukraine.

Hundreds of ordinary citizens who criticized the government have also been jailed during Putin’s regime.

Being outside of Russia won’t necessarily keep you from Putin. Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal were both living in the UK when they were poisoned by Russian agents. Skripal lived. Litvinenko did not.

Before you scoff at the comparisons, thinking that Putin has bigger concerns than what a basketball coach thinks of him, remember that Hammon is no ordinary coach.

When USA Basketball wouldn’t give her the time of day, Hammon, who like Griner and many others spent the offseason playing in Russia, accepted an offer to represent Russia in the 2008 Olympics.

“I love our country. I love what we stand for. This is an opportunity to fulfill my dream of playing in the Olympics.” Hammon told ESPN.com in 2008.

Russia won the bronze medal in Beijing, with Hammon scoring 22 points in the third-place game. He also played at the 2012 London Olympics, where Russia finished fourth.

So Hammon’s criticism of Putin, and the role he played in Griner’s detention, will resonate differently than if it had been said by, say, Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve. And Hammon no doubt knows this.

But hearing that Griner could be forced to spend the next nine years in a Russian prison unleashed a sense of despair that has been building in the WNBA for six months.

When the Phoenix Mercury, Griner’s team and the Connecticut Sun took the floor for Thursday night’s game, the players’ faces were still wet with tears. Skylar Diggins-Smith later said that Mercury didn’t even want to play, but they have no choice but to go on with their lives as “normal”.

“What’s going on right now with Brittney is real life,” Hammon said. “It’s tough. It’s tough for our girls. It’s tough throughout this league, honestly. It’s tough throughout the league.”

And on this day, it was too much to take.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armor on Twitter @nrarmour.

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