BECKY HAMMON'S first sense of xenophobia came from watching Red Dawn. Just seven years old when the film debuted with a PG-13 rating in 1984, she was too young to see it in the theater—and arguably still too young to see it a year later when it came out on VHS. Nonetheless, she watched in horror as Russian-led communist forces parachuted into a rural American town that bore a striking resemblance to her native Rapid City, S.D., wreaked havoc on a familiar-looking downtown and herded the town's grown-ups into a drive-in theater for "reeducation camp."
HAMMON imagined herself and her siblings, Gina and Matt, loading cans of soup, hunting rifles and a few thousand rounds of ammo into the family pickup truck and escaping into the nearby woods, just as the orphaned teenage heroes in Dawn did. "I slept with my parents for two months," Hammon says, "because I thought the Russians were going to invade and take them away."
Two decades later Hammon is encountering a different sort of anti-Russian fervor and from a new perspective: She has evolved from agitated young spectator to provocative leading lady. On Aug. 9 in Beijing, Hammon, the San Antonio Silver Stars point guard and the runner-up in the WNBA's MVP vote in 2007, will realize her lifelong dream of competing in the Olympics—only she'll be suiting up for the very Russians she once dreaded. "I never imagined I'd be playing for them," she says.
She isn't the only U.S. basketball player who will be wearing the Russian red, white and blue this summer; former Bucknell star and European leagues veteran J.R. Holden is on the men's team. And, if anything happens to Hammon, the Detroit Shock's Deanna Nolan is the likely alternate.
But Hammon is taking the most heat. Anne Donovan, Team USA's coach and a titanic figure in the team's international clashes with Russia as a two-time gold-medal-winning center, stopped just short of calling Hammon a traitor. "If you play in this country, live in this country and you grow up in the heartland—and you put on a Russian uniform—you are not a patriotic person," she said in June.
Hammon says she would've happily put on a USA jersey but argues that she didn't have much of a shot to make the team. In March 2007, when USA Basketball released its initial list of 21 players from which 12 would be chosen for the U.S. Olympic team, her name wasn't on it. So she signed a contract with club team CSKA Moscow that would eventually be worth $2 million for four years. It included the option of playing for the Russian Olympic team if she could become a naturalized citizen. There was also a six-figure incentive for winning a gold medal.
But Hammon insists that she's no mercenary and would gladly prove it. "I wish I was given the opportunity to turn down two million dollars, to play for my country," she says, "because I would've done it in a second."
Hammon, 31, showed an aptitude for basketball at an early age, learning to dribble and shoot with either hand by the time she was in third grade says her father, Marty. "Not many little kids can do that," he says. But coaches and scouts have always underestimated Becky. At 5'6" she's considered a bit undersized, and many have questioned her athleticism and defensive ability.
Over the years she has taken great satisfaction in proving her detractors wrong. During her junior year at Stevens High in 1994, a Nebraska coach called to formally terminate her recruitment. So she went to Colorado State and as a freshman led the Rams to 26 wins and their first NCAA tournament appearance. Even sweeter, she hit a late three-pointer to help beat Nebraska in the first round.
As a senior she led the Rams to the Sweet 16 but still went undrafted by the WNBA in 1999. She caught on with the New York Liberty as a free agent—and stuck for eight years. In six of those seasons, the Liberty went to the playoffs. In April 2007 New York wanted to get younger and traded her to San Antonio; with Hammon at point guard the Silver Stars made it to the postseason for only the third time in their 11-year history.