Emotional Sue Bird returns to Russian team despite killing of owner
Storm star Sue Bird was close to Russian basketball team owner Shabtai von Kalmanovic, who was shot dead in his car in November.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Memories of him will engulf Sue Bird.
The Storm star rejoined Moscow Spartak on New Year's Day with a heavy heart following the assassination of club owner Shabtai von Kalmanovic in November. Bird's first game will be a road matchup Wednesday against Szeged Szeviep, one of the games that had been postponed due to von Kalmanovic's death.
Bird had a close relationship with von Kalmanovic. He affectionately called her his "Jewish daughter," paying her and teammates $5,000 bonuses for some victories, sending them on lavish shopping trips in Paris and other cities, and signing Bird to a contract worth several times more than her WNBA deal, despite poor ticket sales.
"I still get very emotional when I talk about it," said Bird via phone from her home in New York before leaving for Russia. "There's always going to be something missing. Memories of him are going to flash for me when I'm there. But at the same time, and I know it's somewhat cliché, he would really want us to go out there, have fun and win for him. He was one of the best at having fun in life. He's missed."
Many would wonder how Bird, 29, could board the plane without fear.
Von Kalmanovic, 59, was reportedly shot 18 times when his driver stopped their Mercedes at a traffic light in Moscow on Nov. 2. Police told reporters there was no doubt it was a professional contract hit, even suspecting the killing might be linked to the women's basketball team and stating there was $1.5 million in the car.
"Was in that same seat about a week ago," New York Liberty center Janel McCarville posted via the social-networking site Twitter that day. "Disappointed in humanity ... this drama got me shook, hoping to go to bed, wake up n have it all be a dream."
Von Kalmanovic, a businessman and former KGB spy, was sentenced to 10 years in jail when Israel discovered him passing secrets in 1988. After he was released from prison in 1993, he moved back to Russia where he became a concert promoter, organizing shows for Michael Jackson, Tom Jones and others.
It was also the period when von Kalmanovic, who first made money in construction, entered women's hoops, declaring himself "a collector of fine things" in a Sports Illustrated article. He amassed valuables from Faberge eggs and menorahs to three of the world's best female basketball players — Bird, Diana Taurasi and Lauren Jackson. WNBA legends Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson also once played for von Kalmanovic. Former Louisiana State coach Pokey Chatman is the current Spartak coach.
"I've never felt endangered there," said Bird, who attended von Kalmanovic's funeral in Israel. "This is not fact, but I seriously have a hard time believing where an article said this maybe is tied to his basketball — him being an owner. I really, firmly, do not agree with that.
"One thing I'll say about Shabtai — and this can cover his entire life — there was never a question he shied away from. He told us about his experiences in jail, he told us why he was in jail. To us, he was our owner and to some of my teammates, he was a father figure.
"There was no reason for him to do what he did — to pay us, to take us to the restaurants that he did, to show us the culture, to offer us vacations. I don't think I will ever meet a man as generous as him. That's the Shabtai I know."
Taurasi, who was already in Russia playing when von Kalmanovic was shot, phoned to notify Bird of the news.
Crying, the Phoenix Mercury star could barely get Bird to believe.
"If you're playing a joke, this is not funny," Bird told Taurasi, her close friend since their playing days at Connecticut.
It wasn't much longer before both were bawling.
Von Kalmanovic housed the duo and Jackson in a palatial villa complete with an indoor pool, chef and piano because Taurasi always wanted to play. He stopped by some evenings with cake, telling the women to make tea.
"And we'd literally sit and chill," Bird said.
On Facebook, there's a "R.I.P. Shabtai Kalmanovich" fan page with 119 members, including Bird. The Storm point guard, who averaged 11.2 points, 5.9 assists and 3.6 rebounds in helping Spartak win a record third consecutive EuroLeague title last year, is pictured receiving a big hug from von Kalmanovic. Other photos have him kissing Jackson and displaying his mementos.
Von Kalmanovic's business ventures have been questioned, but sports agents and players say his death will alter the scope of international women's basketball. He paid massive salaries, forcing rivals to offer players like Candace Parker a $1.2 million contract to play in the league.
"I think salaries are going to drop," said Bird, who waited to be sure everything was settled business-wise before returning to Russia. "Shabtai was the competition for a lot of people."
While von Kalmanovic's wife is operating the team now, the future remains uncertain.
"Contrary to rumors concerning 'financial problems,' thanks to the continuous support of the Governor of Moscow Region, Mr. Boris Gromov, it [Spartak] has signed the players we felt necessary for defending its European title," said Steve Costalas, Spartak's sports director, in a statement.
"After a couple of months of much needed rest, Sue is returning 'home' and the addition of the premier playmaker in the world hopefully will help us fulfill Shabtai's dream."
Coincidentally, von Kalmanovic wanted Bird to rest this year, not scheduling her to arrive until Dec. 1, after the season had begun. She missed the final three games of the Storm's regular season due to a sore neck.
Bird returns to Russia healthy, but without Jackson, who opted out of her contract to remain home in Australia. Jackson, a two-time MVP in the WNBA, rehabilitated from back surgery and plays for the Canberra Capitals.
"In some ways I'm envious because she gets to be home for a little while," Bird said. "To be there and have him not be, I know is going to be difficult. Some time has passed and it's still difficult. He's everywhere. I'm not going to be able to walk into the gym without ... "
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