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December 15, 2008
Imagine Mark Cuban with three times as many teams and five times as much money. He'd still be a piker compared with the Russian zillionaires who offer a life of luxury to lure world-class athletes and are bankrolling a new national sports machine
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December 15, 2008

To Russia With Love

Imagine Mark Cuban with three times as many teams and five times as much money. He'd still be a piker compared with the Russian zillionaires who offer a life of luxury to lure world-class athletes and are bankrolling a new national sports machine

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ALLOW HIM to lead you through the chambers of his Moscow office, the entire floor of a six-story building he owns, and Shabtai von Kalmanovic—international businessman, former Soviet spy, lifelong basketball Bennie—will impress upon you one additional entry on his r�sum�. "I am a collector," he says between gestures toward his private acquisitions. Here are rooms full of menorahs and mezuzahs, part of a collection of Judaica so impressive, he says, that rabbis come from around the world to inspect it. Here too are Faberg� eggs and Russian folk paintings and Soviet curiosities such as a limited-edition chess set (Red Bolsheviks vs. White Russians) commissioned by Stalin himself.

The czarist-era porcelain, impressive as it is, pales next to what can be found in another of Kalmanovic's residences, in St. Petersburg, where a visiting staffer from the Hermitage let out a gasp upon realizing that the collection rivaled even that of Russia's greatest museum.

And then there are Kalmanovic's women. More precisely, there are his female basketball players, the three gemstones of which reside on the southern edge of Moscow, in a gated villa replete with sauna, indoor pool and on-call cook, and are showcased on his Spartak Moscow Region Vidnoe team, the defending Russian and Euroleague champions. A discerning collector would be sure to acquire only the finest specimens, and so Kalmanovic has. This season Spartak features seven Olympic medalists, including the players he regards as the world's best at their positions: guards Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi and center Lauren Jackson.

These three wintering WNBA stars call their mullet-haired benefactor Papa, and he in turn calls Bird "my Jewish daughter," Taurasi "my Italian daughter" and Jackson "my Australian daughter." Free of WNBA payroll restrictions, Shabtai's Angels earn up to 10 times more during a Russian season—around $500,000 for Taurasi, for example—than during a U.S. summer. After big Euroleague wins, Spartak players collect cash bonuses of $5,000 and diamond jewelry. On trips to play club teams in provincial cities in France and Italy they make Kalmanovic-arranged shopping stopovers in Paris and Venice. "We don't do it backpack-style," Jackson says. "We do it seven-star-hotel-, chauffeur-style."

A year ago, after Taurasi idly mentioned that she had always wanted to play the piano, one materialized in the living room of Casa Papa. When Kalmanovic discovered that Jackson had never seen her favorite performer, Marilyn Manson, from beyond a mosh pit, he treated her to VIP concert seats from which she sipped champagne. Last fall, when USA Basketball auctioned the uniforms of its Beijing Olympians, Kalmanovic bought Taurasi's and Bird's so that he could give them to the women he regards as their rightful owners. "Don't ever sneeze around him," says Bird. "He'll pull out five different medications. The way he treats us, it really makes you want to play hard."

Next to playing for "Shabs," Taurasi says, with irony that hits as hard as a well-set backscreen, "the WNBA is, like, communist."

Kalmanovic shrugs. "I trust them, so they trust me," he says. "I give them better conditions, they give me better dedication."

True as that may be, it doesn't fully explain why Kalmanovic spends $6 million to $7 million annually on his club—a sum approximately matched by its main sponsor, the Moscow Region government—while collecting virtually no revenues. (The club doesn't charge admission and pays to have its games telecast throughout Russia.) But then Kalmanovic's heart has always been tangled up in basketball. He grew up in Lithuania, where the game is a national passion, and later partnered with Soviet-era star and former Portland Trail Blazer Arvydas Sabonis to bankroll the Lithuanian team Zalgiris Kaunas during its drive to the 1999 Euroleague men's club title. Over the next two years Kalmanovic stepped away from hoops, until one day when he was in Yekaterinburg, the Russian city at the foot of the Urals, tending to his construction and pharmaceutical interests. He ducked in to watch the local women's team and literally fell in love with the point guard, Anna Arkhipova. In short order he had married her and bought the team.

After helping Russia to a bronze medal at the Athens Olympics, Arkhipova retired in 2004. Kalmanovic and his wife left Yekaterinburg for Moscow, where Shabtai soon resurfaced as owner of Spartak Moscow Region, which had just finished 11th in the Russian league. Four years and hundreds of millions of rubles later, the club is hunting its third straight Euroleague crown—although Spartak expects stout challenges from CSKA Moscow, whose natural-gas-mogul owner spends lavishly on such WNBA stalwarts as Becky Hammon and Katie Douglas, and Yekaterinburg, Kalmanovic's old team, which is now under the stewardship of two copper barons who, according to a Russian basketball source, will pay Candace Parker, last summer's WNBA MVP as a rookie, $1.2 million for four months beginning in January.

"There is a very big difference between having $100,000 and a million," says Kalmanovic, who goes on to hint at the extent of his own wealth. "For sure there's a difference between having $1 million and $3 million, but after $150 million or $200 million, you're just rich. So if you understand that you can't eat breakfast twice, and you can wear only one tie at a time, there might as well be something else. There still isn't enough of a middle class in Russia for sport to pay for itself. And you cannot deduct expenses on sport [from your taxes]. So you need to have a very big heart and very big balls, and need to be something between a fanatic and a patriot. And a little bit crazy."

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