Women’s basketball fans who followed the game on multiple continents were stunned today to learn of the murder of Shabtai Kalmanovich. Kalmanovich was killed near his home today while sitting in his car. His driver was injured, and Kalmanovich later died of his wounds. Police believe a contract had been put out on Kalmanovich’s life.
Who is Shabtai Kalmanovich? An article called “Rolling in Rubles” from Sports Illustrated told Kalmanovich’s story. Ex-spy and oligarch, Kalmanovich lavished millions of dollars on WNBA players in order to build up Spartak Moscow, a super power in the Russia Superleague A. With Kalmanovich’s death, the fate of Spartak Moscow has plunged into uncertainty. Even if another Russian with rubles to spare buys Spartak Moscow, more than likely they won’t be spending the same kind of money that Kalmanovich spent. Furthermore, Kalmanovich’s death might make Western players think twice about playing in wild, wild Russia.
Earlier this year, the CSKA club gave notice that it would not be competing in Euroleague play or Russian Superleague play. The CSKA clug had big names like Becky Hammon, Katie Douglas and Janel McCarville. Last year the club had financial difficulties and temporarily withdrew from both leagues, but found a sponsor and completed the 2008-09 season with minimal interruption. With the economic crisis that hit the world in late 2008, CSKA found that it couldn’t afford to compete and disbanded.
CSKA is gone. Spartak Moscow might either disappear or return in a less glamorous form. What does all of this mean for Russian basketball?
It seems that there is still a club out there that can afford the big payday – Ekaterinburg, also known as UMMC. Ekaterinburg is undefeated in Russia Superleague A play, and has players like Deanna Nolan, Svetlana Abrosimova and Ann Wauters on the roster. The big question is whether any other Russian club will spend the kind of money that CSKA or Spartak Moscow spent.
More than likely, the days of the six-figure contract for WNBA players in Europe has not yet passed. As I’ve written before, there are 13 pro teams in the WNBA and about 13 pro teams in Europe. There will still be European teams willing to spend, spend, spend to ensure a national or European championship. However, there might be more competition for those spots in the future…and an era of Russian club dominance in Europe might be about to pass us by.