better red than sad

HAINING, China — Becky Hammon imagined this moment for a long, long time: Playing in the Olympics, hitting the winning shot, climbing the medals podium.

She still might. Only her vision now comes in a different shade.

Raised on the Prairie, schooled at Colorado State and now starring for the San Antonio Silver Stars, she's going to Beijing wearing Russian red.

”We always used to watch the Olympics as a family growing up,“ Hammon said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press. ”My dream was winning a gold medal for the United States.“

”Now even though the dream changed a little bit, it's been kind of bigger than I expected in a way because this story has caught the world by storm. I'm wondering why this girl from South Dakota got caught up in this worldwide story.“

Hammon's odyssey began in March when she wasn't in the 29-player pool picked to select the U.S. Olympic team. So she chose another option.

The 31-year-old point guard plays for a Russian club team during the winter and became a naturalized citizen there. Because she hadn't played for the United States in any major FIBA-sanctioned international events, she was allowed to compete for Russia in the Olympics.

Fluent on the court, Hammon admits she doesn't speak Russian well and most likely won't improve much before Friday's Olympic opener.

”Not very good,“ she said, laughing. ”I need to learn the language. I'm working on it. I've only been over there for a year or two, and it's a difficult language. I know a few words, but I need to get a lot more words. Most of the girls speak English so it's fine.“

Although some critics say she shouldn't be allowed to play for Russia — she does have the backing of Maria Sharapova, by the way — Hammon said she thinks she's OK.

”If people really do have a hard time with it they should take it up with the Olympic committee or FIBA. I'm playing well within the rules, and I think it's a little strange. It happens all the time in the Olympics. For people to get maybe upset or bent out of shape about me is strange, because this is something the United States has done many times,“ she said. ”There have been many foreign athletes that have come and competed for the U.S. and won medals.“

If she can lead Russia to a gold medal, she potentially will earn $200,000. Given a choice, she'd prefer not to face the Americans along the way.

”I think everyone wants to see the Russia-America matchup.“ Hammon said. ”If I have to play the United States, obviously I'm going to go out there and compete to win, but that's not what I want. I know it's what everyone else wants, but it's not what I want.“

Hammon and her Russian teammates were blown out by the USA 93-58 Monday night in the FIBA Diamond Ball tournament.

Even though she was wearing a Russian uniform, Hammon had her eyes closed and her hand over her heart during The Star-Spangled Banner.

”I think the pre-game was worse than anything,“ said Hammon, who scored 10 points in the loss. ”Once the ball went up it was just another basketball game.“

If the United States and Russia meet again in the Olympics, it will be on a much bigger stage with most likely a medal at stake.

”You want to meet the U.S. as late as possible,“ Hammon said. ”I have been playing against those players for 10 years. I think when the ball goes up it's just going to be another basketball game. You just go out there and compete and enjoy the moment since it's not going to happen again.“

When she decided to play for Russia in March, the Olympics seemed far, far away. Now with the games set to begin this week, she's starting to get really excited about competing.

”This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I'm really looking forward to it,“ Hammon said. ”I'm glad I'm not doing as many interviews now. Just being able to be here and play basketball. I think it's been put off in the back of my mind for so long just concentrating on what we've been doing in the WNBA and now is the first time I've been able to be over here and enjoy the experience.“

One Olympic experience that Hammon may not get to enjoy is marching in the opening ceremony. With Russia set to begin its pool play the next day against Latvia, the team might not be allowed to participate.

”I know it's still up for discussion,“ she said. ”I'd love to go watch even if we're not taking part in it. I hear it's pretty tremendous.“

Hammon had a long journey to even get over and compete with Russia. Her WNBA season ended July 27. She was supposed to fly out to Russia the next day, but she missed three connecting flights and was stranded in New York until Tuesday.

From there she had one practice with her new team before heading to the FIBA Diamond Ball tournament in China.

”It's been quite a whirlwind to say the least,“ she said. ”I'm still learning most of the girls on the team. Three or four of them I've already played with, and I have a history with them. They are really a good group of girls; they are really sweet. They have made me feel very welcome and tried to get me accustomed to them very quickly and build chemistry on and off the court.“

Some of her new teammates were a bit hesitant about having Hammon play with them. But after she spent her winter playing for a Russian club team they warmed up to the idea.

”Maria Stepanova came up to me and said I was initially against having an American on our team but now that I know you, you can play with us any day,“ Hammon said.

”To me that was like a small bridge that had been built. That's what the Olympics is about. It's a small microcosm of what the goal should be on a grander scale.“