More to the point: How can women basketball players earn so much money here? Even Taurasi acknowledges, "I don't know how it works, to be honest," and she's played two winters in Russia.
Well, begin with von Kalmanovic, the Spartak owner who is sort of the Mark Cuban of Russian basketball. Or he would be if Cuban dressed much, much better … and if he once owned a European championship team with Arvydas Sabonis … and once dated Liza Minnelli … and if he married one of his players (on his women's team that is) … and once spied for the Soviet Union … and if a Google search linked his name with some shady innuendo. Among the tales alleged on the Web — that von Kalmanovic might have been involved in Africa diamond trafficking and that he was arrested for spying in Israel. von Kalmanovic says he made his first fortune in construction in Africa, though he does admit to being arrested as a spy in Israel.
He insists, however, that contrary to rumors he was not with the KGB: "I was in the military intelligence service. I was in the army of the Soviet Union. Later this year will be 20 years from the day I was arrested [for spying in Israel], and then it will become no more secret. I cannot tell you the truth now, and I don't want to lie. So leave it. We'll meet one year from now and I will tell you, if you are still interested."
Like most owners, von Kalmanovic says he loses money on his team. Unlike most owners, his claims are believable. Spartak averaged approximately 3,000 fans a game, but the specific attendance doesn't really matter because tickets are free (the plan is to get fans hooked, then start charging admission). He says the team also pays to have its games televised. With salaries, travel, publicity, overhead and a youth basketball school his wife manages, von Kalmanovic estimates this year's expenses would run $5 million to $6 million. And how much revenue does he take in? "There is no revenue. I take in nothing."
When basketball is your passion and you're part of the new Russian oligarchy, what is $6 million over the course of a season? One person said he saw von Kalmanovic go through $1 million in a single weekend trip to France.
"I have friends who go to casinos," von Kalmanovic said. "I know friends who risk on the stock exchange. I am Lithuanian — for me, basketball is everything. It is a hobby, a pleasure, a casino, whatever you want."
"There are six or seven owners [like him] in Russia," Taurasi said. "They're hotheads who want the best women's basketball team, and that's their hobby, so they don't care how much they pay."
The beneficiaries of this competition for talent are the players. WNBA salaries are strictly slotted based on a narrow range of maximums and minimums determined by seasons of service and year of entry. In the former Soviet Union, Bird and Taurasi can offer their services through the free market system to earn the best basketball salaries offered in Europe.
"It's not even comparable," Bird said. "There's been a huge increase in the last two years."
There are also lucrative incentive bonuses — $5,000 for beating a good team on the road — plus the free house, the drivers, etc. Heck, all they're missing is a posse.
Nice. We were a decent team last year but barring any unforeseen major injuries we should be improved in almost every capacity this season no?