Why did WNBA stars flock to Russia? It wasn't just the money.
The Washington Post May 10, 2022
When Jonquel Jones, today the reigning MVP of the WNBA, arrived in Russia in 2018 to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg, the first thing that shook her was the jet.
"You go to the airport and straight on to your plane," Jones said. "We have our own plane. All business-class seats — the ones you can recline all the way back!"
"This is freaking nice," she recalled thinking. "I could get used to this."
Then there was the roster, so preposterously stacked with WNBA talent.
"That team could go up against any all-time team," Jones said. While EuroLeague, the cross-European competition, offered challenges, the domestic Russian league was a pushover. So best of all were the practices.
"I wouldn't say the coaches just threw the ball out," Jones said, laughing. "But we go through a couple of drills, then play five-on-five, and it's such a great level."
With Jones' Ekaterinburg teammate and Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner detained in Russia — wrongfully, U.S. officials now say — many in American basketball circles have rightfully argued that the issue of pay inequality is elemental to Griner's situation. That has created a perception that Americans only go to Russia for the money — that they're playing through gritted, shivering teeth for big paychecks.
But that doesn't tell the whole Ekaterinburg story, players and others say. A generation of WNBA stars has come through a city closer to Siberia than Moscow. And for many, the camaraderie and the world-class peers have helped make playing in "Ekat" one of the greatest experiences of their careers.
"They love it there," Mercury President Vince Kozar said. "It's easy in hindsight to say, 'That's a scary place for an American.' But that's never been [Griner's] experience."
It hasn't been Jones', either. For her, playing in Ekaterinburg was "the first time I felt like I'd arrived as a basketball player."
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Mike Cound, a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based agent who has been sending Americans east for decades, said the Ekat story began in the early 2000s with a man named Shabtai Kalmanovich.
"He was an Energizer Bunny," Cound said. "He was the motor. He was everywhere."
In the late 1980s, Kalmanovich was arrested in Israel and outed as a KGB spy. After the fall of the Soviet Union, he reinvented himself with UMMC Ekaterinburg, a club in the Russian Women's Basketball Premier League, where Kalmanovich oversaw all basketball decisions and was able to spend happily.
He was a "bigger than life, crazy dude," Cound said, "a short guy with a potbelly and a big-ass mullet that was hideous and that he thought was the most beautiful thing. And he always had some beautiful-looking woman on his arm. There were no ethical parameters for him. He was a combustible tyrant. And he was hated by other Russian teams — haaaaated."
Cound's former agency partner, Tom Cross, briefly worked as a consultant for Ekaterinburg in the early 2000s. Once, Cross said, he had to fill in as an emergency head coach for a EuroLeague game in Italy. Cross remembered arriving at the hotel in Como at 5 a.m., where he was greeted by a fur-coat-draped Kalmanovich and his phalanx of bodyguards.
"He had some cornflakes and he poured a shot of cognac," Cross said. "I'd been traveling for 30 hours, but I felt I needed to take it." Afterward, Cross said, Kalmanovich handed him a thousand U.S. dollars in cash for travel expenses, then joked that he would happily give him more — in case Cross wanted to hire a sex worker.
In 2019, 30 For 30 Podcasts released an episode charting Kalmanovich's colorful life, largely describing him as a beloved benefactor acting on pure love of the sport. In Cound's recollection, though, Kalmanovich was also "disgusting to a lot of women." Cound also recalled Kalmanovich making racist attempts at humor with some Black players.
The UMMC in UMMC Ekaterinburg represents the club's parent company, Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company, a corporate giant controlled by the oligarchs Iskander Makhmudov and Andrei Kozitsyn. Years after his consultancy, as an agent engaged in negotiations with the club, Cross would throw out any crazy sum; the club would always agree, and Cross would think, "Why didn't I ask for another half a million?"
Ekaterinburg was paying three or four times as much as any other club in the world, Cound said. And while a standard contract elsewhere might include an apartment and a car, Cound said, "In Ekat, you're talking a penthouse-type apartment, a driver at your disposal, private jets — and the money never, never late."
In 2009, while running a rival club, Spartak Moscow, Kalmanovich was killed by a drive-by assassin while sitting in his Mercedes. Ekaterinburg's front person is now Maxim Rybakov, the team's GM — a calm professional who's a world away from Kalmanovich's cinematic shenanigans. For years, WNBA legends such as Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi played in Russia amid the swirling insanity of the Kalmanovich era. But, at least before Griner's detention, players enjoyed a placid professional experience.
The Seattle Storm's Breanna Stewart, who played in Ekaterinburg from 2020 until February of this year, echoed a love of practice: "We were going up against the best players in the world every day." She listed them off, almost as if still in awe: "Jonquel Jones. Courtney Vandersloot. Brittney. Every day."
Within the constraints of a year-round professional career, finding time "to continue to develop, to put in that work" is almost impossible, Stewart said. But banging against Griner in Ekat naturally sharpens your sword. Stewart said that's an underrated aspect of the Ekaterinburg story.
"We obviously are going there for the overseas experience, for the money. But we're also going to get better," she said.
Jones said Griner "showed me the ropes" once she arrived in Ekaterinburg, which was part of the club's communal experience.
"People really looked out for each other," Jones said. In their time off, they would go "to the malls, to the hookah bars, to the restaurants. We saw the city, for sure." Longtime Ekaterinburg players such as Taurasi and Deanna Nolan would circulate a list of restaurant recommendations to the newcomers. Jones' favorite was a deer tapestry-adorned gastropub called Gastroli.
Candace Parker's agent, Boris Lelchitski, remembered the moment, in 2008, when he first spoke with her mother about Parker possibly playing in Russia. "She looked at me like, 'No way in hell,'" Lelchitski laughed.
Parker would play in Ekaterinburg from 2010 to 2015. Said Lelchitski, "Her daughter grew up there eight months out of the year." In 2021, Parker married Anna Petrakova, one of her Ekaterinburg teammates.
"Even now, when some players had to leave the club because of the situation in Ukraine, I'm sure they miss it," said Ewelina Kobryn, a native of Poland who played for Ekaterinburg and in the WNBA. "I'm really sad that such a big club collapsed."
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For Cound, despite his many years of landing lucrative contracts in Ekaterinburg, the club's operations still feel mysterious. "The question is why?" he asked. Offering a salary at twice over asking price would have been enough to land American stars. Why was Ekaterinburg going four times over?
There is no obvious financial answer. Ekaterinburg does not appear to recoup its multimillion-dollar investments in ticket sales or merchandising. The popular assumption is that it's a vanity project on the part of club owners. And yet, in modern Russia, you can't spend millions without at least the tacit support of the Kremlin.
Stanislav Markus, a professor at the University of South Carolina, studies Russian oligarchs. He said the operations of UMMC Ekaterinburg can be understood as an element of state propaganda. Having Americans in Ekaterinburg "helps the Kremlin boost its image both at home and abroad," Markus said. "The message is: Russia is attractive for foreign talent, even more so than Western countries."
Markus also noted that UMMC's two oligarch owners, Makhmudov and Kozitsyn, "were active in the weapons business until recently and have close ties to Russia's orthodox church, which itself is intertwined with the state" — all indications they are close to political power. But "the arrest of a U.S. citizen is very likely a Putin-sanctioned act," Markus said, speaking generally of the arrest of high-profile Americans. So even if the UMMC bosses were working behind the scenes to free Griner, he said, "these two oligarchs would not have any influence against Putin."
For Americans in Russia, their value cannot be divorced from the antagonistic relationship between Russia and the United States. If luring WNBA stars to Russia was in part about accruing capital, as Markus suggested, Griner's detention could be viewed as a possible endpoint of the whole project.
Kosar, the president of the Phoenix Mercury, said: "We have a ton of faith in what's being done and the people who are working on it. It's not easy, but we're remaining hopeful."
After Russia's invasion of Ukraine, UMMC Ekaterinburg was kicked out of EuroLeague play. At the end of April, its season came to a whimpering end with a loss in the domestic league finals to Dynamo Kursk. For decades, America's greatest basketball players came to Ekat. Then, in a matter of a few days in February, they were all gone. For now, at least, a wild, captivating era in women's basketball is over, with some of its secrets still untold.
Over the years, as he brought player after player to Ekaterinburg for big contracts, Cound remembered thinking: "Please don't tell me something I can't ethically deal with. Just please don't tell me. That'd be killing the golden goose."