The Spy Who Signed Me For Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird, life in the WNBA paled in comparison to the lavish treatment they received in Russian professional basketball, courtesy of their team owner and benefactor, Shabtai Kalmanovich. Kalmanovich spoiled his stars, showering them with expensive gifts, luxury hotels, and private concerts — but eventually the two stars would have to confront his shadowy past.
JODY AVIRGAN: From ESPN, you’re listening to 30 for 30 podcasts, my name is Jody Avirgan.
In the early 2000s the most popular women’s basketball team in America was not a pro squad, but Coach Geno Aurriema’s University of Connecticut Huskies. Built around the dominant backcourt of Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, the team won four titles in five years.
After college, the next step was obvious — turn pro. But the WNBA came with some built-in limitations. Namely, a hard salary cap. So, Bird and Taurasi did what a vast majority of WNBA players do — they signed up to play a second season, overseas.
It was a decision that would bring the two women opportunities… and complications that exceeded anything they could have imagined.
A quick warning – this episode contains mature language and graphic descriptions of violence.
And now, here’s producer Keith Romer, with The Spy Who Signed Me.
ANNOUNCER: Diana Taurasi at the line. It’s UConn, undefeated, looking to go become…
ANNOUNCER: Connecticut, quite simply, is the most talented offensive team, perhaps in the history of women’s college basketball.
ANNOUNCER: The difference between Uconn and everybody else is that we have Diana and you don’t.
ANNOUNCER: Still a chance for the huskies! BUZZER, CHEERS]
KEITH ROMER: Even in college, there was always something that separated Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi from everybody else.
ANNOUNCER: Now the pass to Bird, oh my, you’ve got to be kidding. You’ve just, you’ve seen it all now from Sue Bird.]
KEITH ROMER: Bird with her blazing quickness and near perfect decision making.
ANNOUNCER…Selfless but when her team needs her to make shots, yes she can step up. 7 now for Bird.]
KEITH ROMER: Taurasi with her swagger and ability to score from anywhere at anytime.
ANNOUNCER: And now Taurasi from the outside. Wow. Holy smokes.]
KEITH ROMER: These were players the WNBA GM’s built their dreams around.
VAL ACKERMAN: With the first pick in the 2002 WNBA Draft, the Seattle Storm select Sue Bird from the University of Connecticut.
VAL ACKERMAN: Phoenix Mercury select Diana Taurasi from the University of Connecticut.]
SUE BIRD: My name is Sue Bird.
DIANA TAURASI: And, I guess I‘m the second part of that tag team, my name is Diana Taurasi.
KEITH ROMER: At UConn, Sue and Diana had gotten used to being treated like what they were–two of the top athletes in the world.
DIANA TAURASI: We chartered everywhere, we stayed at the best hotels, we had the best gear, the latest gear. And then, alright, my next stop is the pro game. It’s only going to get better right? It’s only going to get better? Sue?
SUE BIRD: I think she’s trying to say, it doesn’t get better.
KEITH ROMER: After the initial excitement around the WNBA’s first few season in the late ‘90s, attendance had started a long, steady decline. The basketball was still great, but the financial pressure had a way of translating directly to the players.
SUE BIRD: Well, you know we don’t make money right? There was always that vibe to it.
DIANA TAURASI: $45,000? Like, that’s what I’m going to make? That’s what I’m going to make after four years of playing at the most prestigious basketball college…That’s what I’m going to make? I mean, the janitors are going to make more than me. The guy who takes the floor out and puts it back… he’s going to be making more than me.
KEITH ROMER: So, Sue and Diana looked for other ways to capitalize on their talents.
SUE BIRD: An agent came to me and was just like hey, would you be interested in this club in Moscow? And I was like, oh my God, Russia, like what?
KEITH ROMER: But the offer the Russian team was making was for a lot more than what Sue made playing in the states.
SUE BIRD: I think I was in the 200,000 range… So, yeah. For 4 or 5 months. Do the math. It’s obviously worth it.
[RUSSIAN COACH: Coach speaking Russian.]
SUE BIRD: My coach spoke zero English, I had a translator next to me the entire time.
SUE BIRD: A lot of times I was just in my apartment with nothing to do, on my AOL instant messenger, like, hey you guys up?
KEITH ROMER: After one season there, Sue was done with Russia.
SUE BIRD: I was like I’ve had enough. This is it.
KEITH ROMER: But then her team in Moscow, Dynamo, made an offer, not just to Sue, but to Diana as well. Come back to Russia, and next year, they could play together.
DIANA TAURASI: You know there is some security knowing, alright, Sue will be there. How hard could it be? It’s basketball, like. Okay there’s snow, I just spent four years in Connecticut. It’s snow, no big deal.
DIANA TAURASI: It was the worst experience ever of playing basketball in my life.
KEITH ROMER: Dynamo’s facilities were old. The style of play didn’t make sense to her. She didn’t speak Russian.
DIANA TAURASI: Plus, I had never had a thing with a coach before. For as much as Coach Auriemma and I used to fight. The coach we had there, I hated. And the guy equally hated me. So it was a disaster.
DIANA TAURASI: His name was Anus, so.
SUE BIRD: Well, it was like Ainus or something.
DIANA TAURASI: It was Anus. It was Anus.
SUE BIRD: Well, we called him Anus.
DIANA TAURASI: And we made sure we called him Anus every single day. “You are a terrible player.”
SUE BIRD: “Pick and roll at the top of the key.” Somehow when we imitate him, he’s Italian, but he’s not. He’s actually Latvian.
DIANA TAURASI: When the season ended, I said, I will never, in my life, play here ever again.
KEITH ROMER: But, there was one, very wealthy, businessman in Russia who was determined to change her mind.
[Australian Broadcasting Corporation Library Sales
REPORTER: Shabtai von Kalmanovich is a co-owner of the Spartak women’s basketball team.]
SUE BIRD: There was like whispers of this guy Shabtai, and Spartak.
REPORTER: Born in Lithuania in 1947, Kalmanovich emigrated to Israel.]
DIANA TAURASI: You really didn’t know what was true or what was, you know, false.
REPORTER: Before being unmasked as a spy in 1987, and sent to jail.]
SUE BIRD: We had heard stories, right?
REPORTER: But five years later, the multinational citizen and speaker of nine languages was released and arrived in Moscow.]
DIANA TAURASI: It was just word of mouth. Everything was word of mouth. Next thing we know, they’re like Shabtai would like to meet with you two.
SUE BIRD: And I’m like, whoa, who is this guy?
DIANA TAURASI: I don’t know what to expect. I’ve never met this guy before he wants to bring us in and have a sit-down what Powwow? We get in a random car, we drive into the center of Moscow where his office is. Just you know communist building big ol ugly thing from the outside walking up these big old just Marble Slab stairs and then you know, they open these double doors. And the minute you walk into his office, you’re just like this is just a weird place already. Like, we’re talking like walruses’ penises there, all kinds of Torahs everywhere. So we sat down. There he is the man, the legend, Shabtai.
SUE BIRD: He was short. He was probably… I think he’s shorter than I am.
DIANA TAURASI: He was an interesting looking character.
SUE BIRD: And he’s got like a, uh, humpty-dumpty type body type.
DIANA TAURASI: He was dressed to impress.
SUE BIRD: Classic suit. Always a white shirt.
DIANA TAURASI: You knew everything he had was a lot of money.
SUE BIRD: This man looked, like, put together.
KEITH ROMER: And then, there was the hair.
SUE BIRD: I mean it’s hard to see past the mullet, I’m not going to lie.
DIANA TAURASI: It’s incredible this mullet that he had.
SUE BIRD: The mullet is curly.
DIANA TAURASI: It’s just amazing how he got away with this mullet.
DIANA TAURASI: I think the first thing I said is, I won’t play in this country ever again.
SUE BIRD: He was like, you haven’t seen Russia. You don’t know Russia the way I can show you Russia.
KEITH ROMER: Before long Shabtai turned the conversation to just how a deal for Sue and Diana might work. In Europe, teams could only have two American players on the court at one time. But Shabtai had found a way around that rule. Get his American players European passports.
DIANA TAURASI: He was the pioneer with the passports and apparently he gave an player, an American player, a passport of a person who was dead. So someone’s walking around with a dead person’s passport.
KEITH ROMER: Because Diana’s dad was Italian, she already had an Italian passport.
SUE BIRD: So, D had the Italian passport. I remember for me the first thing he said was I heard you’re Jewish. And I was like, well my dad’s Jewish, you know, and he was like, okay, I think I can get you an Israeli passport. He picks up the phone dial some numbers, it’s on speakerphone. Him and some guy are speaking Hebrew. I’ve no idea like we have no idea what they’re saying. And he’s like, okay, gets off the phone. He’s like, okay, we’re going to make this work. So we’re we’re going to get you an Israeli passport. D already Italian, and you both will play for my club next year.
KEITH ROMER: Shabtai wrote out on a piece of paper the rough outlines of a deal.
DIANA TAURASI: It was literally a very general contract of “I Diana Taurasi…”
KEITH ROMER: What did the contract say?
DIANA TAURASI: I don’t know.
KEITH ROMER: And Sue and Diana signed on.
SUE BIRD: Okay, cool. Yeah, we’re good. Alright, so now what you’re going to do is you’re going to get in the car and tell me what kind of food do you like.
KEITH ROMER: Depending on bonuses, Sue and Diana were set to make between 400,000 and a million dollars each to play half the year for Kalmanovich’s team, Spartak Moscow Region.
SUE BIRD: And then I remember we were sitting at this dinner like this is gonna be fun.
DIANA TAURASI: Like, then I was like, well now I can put up with Russia.
KEITH ROMER: Shabtai Kalmanovich had been in love with basketball for a long time.
ANNA ARKHIPOVA: You know when he was a boy in Lithuania, it’s sports number one.
KEITH ROMER: In the late ‘90s, Shabtai had partnered with former Soviet star Arvydas Sabonis to finance a Lithuanian team that went on to win its first ever European championship.
ANNA ARKHIPOVA: He understand all the tactics, all the techniques. He understand everything.
KEITH ROMER: Then, in the year 2002 he was brought in as a kind of consultant/fixer/general manager for the women’s club in the Russian mining city of Ekaterinburg. Anna Arkhipova was the point guard on both the Russian national team and the club in Ekaterinburg.
ANNA ARKHIPOVA: When he comes in our team like manager… and we doesn’t lose no one game, we win everything and it’s only because he comes, it’s for sure.
KEITH ROMER: Kalmanovich wasn’t much of a player himself.
KEITH ROMER: Was he any good?
ANNA ARKHIPOVA: Him? No. No, no, no, but he tried.
KEITH ROMER: Still, he was willing to do whatever it took to impress his new point guard.
ANNA ARKHIPOVA: When it was end of season, he proposed me to be his wife. For me, it was very very strange.
KEITH ROMER: Kalmanovich was 25 years older than Anna. And she lived with her boyfriend of ten years. But Kalmanovich was a charmer.
ANNA ARKHIPOVA: I feel myself like princess, like everything for me, everything.
KEITH ROMER: The couple moved back to Moscow, and, after they married in 2005, they both swore off basketball. Anna would retire and Shabtai would go back to just being a businessman.
ANNA ARKHIPOVA: But in one month. He decides to be manager of Spartak Moscow Region, you know, so he change his mind.
KEITH ROMER: In Shabtai’s first year with Spartak, the team qualified for Europe’s highest league–the EuroLeague. And that is when he went shopping for his new pair of stars. Bird and Taurasi. At first, Sue and Diana’s motivations for coming back to Russia were very simple.
DIANA TAURASI: The only reason you go there is for money. That is the only reason you leave your country to go to a different country to play basketball.
KEITH ROMER: But Sue and Diana quickly discovered that the perks of playing for Shabtai didn’t end at their salaries.
SUE BIRD: Everything literally was first class. We’re staying at the best hotels. We go to Paris, we’re in like the bomb hotel in Paris.
DIANA TAURASI: He goes, okay, you two live here in this mini-mansion.
SUE BIRD: I mean, it’s huge. A pool, a sauna. And we’re like, we’ll take it!
DIANA TAURASI: This was the beauty about Shabtai, the minute you said anything, it was literally taken care of the next day.
SUE BIRD: I don’t know we were somewhere, all of a sudden, there’s like knocks of the doors. Everyone got like this huge crate of strawberries that like, were fresh strawberries from like I don’t even know where.
DIANA TAURASI: The Slovenian countryside..and we’re just like all right.
KEITH ROMER: Shabtai spoiled his stars.
SUE BIRD: He basically was just like here’s my credit card just go shopping.
DIANA TAURASI: Get whatever you want.
SUE BIRD: Get whatever you want. And we were like very tentative at first. Well, I was.
DIANA TAURASI: So you know automatically like, okay, can we spend $500? Can we spend a thousand? And you know, you get nervous you have this adrenaline where you’re like, should I get this Louis Vuitton bag that’s $3,000 which I would never buy? Yes, I will and I’ll get two of them one for me and one for Jessika Taurasi… We get in the car and I mean we have what like 25, 30 bags. I feel like we robbed a bank.
[SHABTAI KALMANOVICH: Shabtai talking about Spartake and Taurasi.]
KEITH ROMER: When Spartak won, it was easy to find Shabtai after games, bragging to journalists about his team.
[SHABTAI KALMANOVICH: Shabtai talking about Spartake and Taurasi.]
KEITH ROMER: And, journalist Jeff Taylor says, once Bird and Taurasi arrived, Spartak won a lot.
JEFF TAYLOR: It was almost like an immediate start of domination.
DIANA TAURASI: We had Sue, who was in her prime best point guard in the world.
[2009 EUROLEAGUE ANNOUNCER: Sue Bird, and that jump shooting has been on the money for Spartak.]
KEITH ROMER: On top of that, Shabtai had also recruited one of the WNBA’s greatest scorers, Tina Thompson.
[ANNOUNCER: Tina Thompson lights it up from three.]
DIANA TAURASI: And I was okay.
[FIBA ANNOUNCER: Taurasi goes right past Stepanova on the base line.]
JEFF TAYLOR: You’re talking about three of the greatest players of all time.
DIANA TAURASI: And then we had probably the top three Russian national team players.
JEFF TAYLOR: They just cut through the competition.
[FIBA ANNOUNCER: Again and again Taurasi, Sue Bird always come up with the big plays for this team (cheering).]
DIANA TAURASI: I mean we were really really good.
KEITH ROMER: In 2007, that first year with Taurasi and Bird and Thompson, Spartak won the European title.
JEFF TAYLOR: With Bird and Taurasi, they were unbeatable. They really had no rivals.
KEITH ROMER: After playing for Spartak, it was hard for Sue and Diana to adjust to playing for their American teams again.
DIANA TAURASI: You get back to the WNBA and you’re just like lugging all your shit around getting on a terrible American Airline flights at 4:45 a.m.
KEITH ROMER: Staying in hotels that were… not first class.
DIANA TAURASI: You know that air conditioner that’s really loud, but all it does is really just make the room like sweatier.
KEITH ROMER: Kate Fagan is a journalist, and a former college basketball player herself. She saw firsthand how all these little annoyances could start to add up.
KATE FAGAN: You’re taking layovers, you’re flying coach.You’re staying in hotels that don’t have simply room service that you can maybe get a bite to eat at a late hour. It just makes the grind of the season and the wear and tear on their bodies all the more daunting.
KEITH ROMER: The league had rules that prohibited charter flights. And required younger players to double up in hotel rooms on the road.
KATA FAGAN: The amount of emotional toll that has been placed on WNBA players and the amount of pressure to just accept whatever comes to them because how can you ask for more shouldn’t you just be lucky to play women’s basketball. I mean these are pressures that have been on them for two decades now.
KEITH ROMER: To Fagan, that reality was what made the stories she was hearing about Shabtai so fascinating.
KATE FAGAN: It’s one thing to go overseas and get paid $80,000. That’s amazing and awesome but then when I was like no like we’re talking close to a million right? My reaction was holy shit, because they’re making life-changing money, and I never thought that I would see that in women’s basketball.
KEITH ROMER: Sue and Diana’s lives split neatly in two. In the summer, they would play in the WNBA and earn the maximum salary of around $100,000. Once that season ended, they would get ready for Russia.
DIANA TAURASI: I was just like this is what I do. WNBA ends, I get my seven days to hang out with my family, pack all my shit up, get on that aeroflot straight to Moscow. I’m good.
KEITH ROMER: Waiting for them in Moscow… Shabtai. A patron unlike any they could have found in the U.S.
DIANA TAURASI: We were kind of in awe of him.
SUE BIRD: He has this like mystique to him and he kind of he feeds it and he presents it.
KEITH ROMER: Shabtai would tell them stories about working with Michael Jackson and Liza Minelli. About how he was best friends with Giorgio Armani. Shabtai was connected. At the end of one season, Spartak played the Russian League Final on the road, in Yekaterinburg. Ekat, the players called it.
SUE BIRD: There’s like this one flight that leaves Ekat to go to Moscow. Let’s let’s say it’s at eight o’clock. And there’s no way we’re going to make it the game was at seven. And the next thing you know it’s like the morning of the game maybe right after shoot around, they’re like aright guys, you’re gonna be able to make your flights tomorrow morning. And we’re like what how? Shabtai called aeroflot. He called the airline, and he had the flight moved back two hours. A commercial flight. He had a commercial flight moved back two hours.
DIANA TAURSAI: It’s like you calling Delta and being like, you know what we need this flight to LaGuardia to leave at 11:00 tonight. Okay. Thanks. We’ll talk to you later.
SUE BIRD: What? We were like, I mean, okay great. Like, what?
KEITH ROMER: As for why Shabtai could just call up Aeroflot and have them change their schedule…
SUE BIRD: Nobody knows that’s the thing. Nobody knows.
KEITH ROMER: Sometimes Shabtai would give them glimpses into who he was and who he had been.
SUE BIRD: One day I was at his office, and literally for like hours he would just tell me these stories these like crazy epic like of his travels.
KEITH ROMER: There was his time in Israel in the 70s and 80s.
OMRI ASSENHEIM: He gets very close to Golda Meir who was the Prime Minister back then in Israel. He has close ties with Menachem Begin who is the head of the opposition.
KEITH ROMER: Journalist Omri Assenheim says that was how Shabtai worked.
OMRI ASSENHEIM: He knew how to get very close to high- ranked officials and he knew how to get very close to his taxi driver. He just has this very unique and very helpful ability to get connected to people. All sort of people.
SUE BIRD: He was in Africa for something.
KEITH ROMER: While there, Shabtai worked his magic in two countries. First, he won a series of construction contracts in the South African puppet state of Bophuthatswana. Then he was granted control of the diamond trade in Sierra Leone. When he was back in Israel, Shabtai turned his attention to a very different business. Reporting on his powerful Israeli connections to Moscow.
OMRI ASSENHEIM: He was a Russian spy for the KGB.
KEITH ROMER: In 1987 Kalmanovich was arrested in London for passing millions of dollars worth of false checks. He was allowed to return to Israel to await trial. But, while he was there, he was charged by an Israeli court with spying. Within months he was convicted of espionage and sentenced to nine years in prison.
OMRI ASSENHEIM: It was on the headlines of every newspaper. It was a great surprise to find out first of all that there is a Russian spy in Israel. And secondly, that this Russian spy is the famous Shabtai Kalmanovich.
DIANA TAURASI: I mean life is about second chances, right? Shabtai want to be more than a convicted spy. He wanted to be more than whatever else people suggest he is. He wanted to be more than that.
KEITH ROMER: Which, maybe, is where basketball came in. Whatever else people might have said about Shabtai, no one ever doubted his love for the game. Least of all the point guard he had made his wife, Anna Arkhipova.
ANNA ARKHIPOVA: He was a sick about basketball. He was crazy about basketball.
SUE BIRD: In the big games, he could be an animal. He would be all up in the ref’s face.
DIANA TAURASI: You know, we had coaches, but he’s the one who made the subs. Like if he didn’t like what was going on, “Sue, back in the game.” And you’re like… you’re not the coach.
SUE BIRD: Everything was very dramatic. A foul call, you know, his hands would go in the air, the mullet would be flying.
ANNA ARKHIPOVA: Time to time, I think that he will had heart attack, you know during the game.
DIANA TAURASI: He wanted this team to be the Barcelona of women’s basketball, the Chelsea women’s basketball. And I think Sue and I were just two of those little pieces that he was trying to integrate into that.
KEITH ROMER: In 2008, Shabtai added a third piece, the previous year’s WNBA MVP, Lauren Jackson. With Jackson and Bird and Taurasi, Spartak wasn’t just the best pro team in Europe, it was the best of all time.
[FIBA ANNOUNCER: Up ahead it goes to Jackson, the great pass from Sue Bird. And Jackson knocks it down!]
KEITH ROMER: In 2008 they won the EuroLeague for a second time, then a third time in 2009.
[FIBA ANNOUNCER: It’s the Spartak Moscow Region fans. And the team that’s all smiles right now as they go to the changing rooms. They have beat their nemesis this season, by nine points.]
[Australian Broadcasting Corporation Library Sales
REPORTER: Why did you hire Lauren Jackson?
SHABTAI KALMANOVICH: I love her.
REPORTER: As a player?
SHABTAI KALMANOVICH: As a player. As a player. As a daughter. She calls me Papa. I call her my Australian daughter.]
DIANA TAURASI: He took care of us like we were his daughters. Which was funny because my Mom would call him Papa too. I’d be on the phone with her, and she’d goes “how’s Papa doing?”
SUE BIRD: You just always knew he was there the way a father would be.
DIANA TAURASI: I don’t know how many times he would call. Tomorrow you will be coming to dinner with me and the family the boys and Anna.
SUE BIRD: He came at it from a sense of family, you know, he really created and cultivated this whole environment where you felt connected.
DIANA TAURASI: And I don’t have that with a lot of people, but with him I had it from the day I met him.
SUE BIRD: Loved his family, loved women’s basketball, loved us. Viewed us as performers and entertainers and wanted to share our talents with the world. And then also, he was you know, I was going to say providing, but he was allowing us to like have a career, and make tons of money doing it, and with that you’re able to take that home, and have a life.
KEITH ROMER: However well Shabtai might have treated Sue and Diana, somewhere in the back of their minds, there was always some uncertainty about just who he really was.
DIANA TAURASI: You know every time we’d go to an opposing city to play a team, there’s always a black SUV with a guy holding a suitcase waiting for him. I mean every single time, any city that we went to.
KIRILL BELYANINOV: My name is Kirill Belyaninov. I did investigative reporting for many years, covering Russian organized crime, corruption, you know, all the wonderful things in Russia…
DIANA TAURASI: I don’t know what’s in that suitcase who knows, might be shrimp in there. I don’t know. There might be two million dollars in euros. I don’t know.
KIRILL BELYANINOV: The Kalmanovic story is murky. Many things are very, very unclear about his life.
DIANA TAURASI: We always saw one side of Shabtai. We know there’s another side.
KIRILL BELYANINOV: It was clear that he’s wealthy, nobody really knew where he’s getting his money from.
SUE BIRD: This was a guy that wore many hats and we knew he wore a lot of hats.
KEITH ROMER: Some of those hats Kalmanovich had been wearing since he returned to Russia in 1993.
KIRILL BELYANINOV: Basically, if you businessman in Russia, successful businessman in the 90s, you have to break the law in every single day and every single move of your life. Does it make you criminal? I don’t know. That’s how an entire country lived for more than a decade.
KEITH ROMER: When Kalmanovich had gotten started in Moscow, the country was in chaos. The Soviet Union had fallen at the end of ‘91. Russian capitalism was just two years old. And so were all the new laws that were supposed to contain that capitalism.
KIRILL BELYANINOV: In Moscow he was immediately involved in some business ventures with Iosef Kobzhon, whom many called Russian version of Frank Sinatra, not only because of his music fame, but also because of his many connections with the organized crime and Russian mafia.
KEITH ROMER: In a country where the police and the courts didn’t always do a whole lot to protect property rights, Kalmanovich made a killing in construction and real estate.
KIRILL BELYANINOV: You don’t have to be criminal to be successful businessman in Russia in the ‘90s, but you have to have friends who are criminals. As long as you’re not killing people in the street and blowing up their cars, you’re not really a criminal, in the Russian sense in the 90’s.
KEITH ROMER: And, as Shabtai told one journalist, yes, he had friends who were in the mafia, he took pictures with them — but that didn’t mean he was in the mob himself.
KEITH ROMER: November 2nd, 2009. 5 pm.
DIANA TAURASI: We had practice that morning and it was Janel McCarville’s birthday. So it was a Beyoncé concert that night. So the day before we’re like Shabtai, can we get to the concert, you know, and he’s like no problem. He sets it all up.
KEITH ROMER: Sue wasn’t in Russia yet. She was rehabbing in the states and planning to come over in January. Diana and the rest of the Spartak players finished up practice, then met up at Shabtai’s office in Moscow.
DIANA TAURASI: And there was just this weird feeling, like you just know when there’s when something’s wrong.
KEITH ROMER: The doors to Shabtai’s office, which were always open, were closed that day.
DIANA TAURASI: And they’re like, just wait in the waiting room. And I was like, this is strange, you know. Because even if he wasn’t there, we’d always go into his office.
KEITH ROMER: After a while, one of the Russian players went over to the drivers to try to figure out what was going on.
DIANA TAURASI: And she comes over and she goes Shabtai has just been killed. He was driving to the Kremlin and you know, was at a stop sign and someone just came up and… I don’t know how many rounds of ammunition they put in there, but they said he just dead on on-site really. And we’re just I mean… it was just silent. No one said a word. It felt like we were just sitting there for days. No one knew what to say. No one knew what to ask. There was just no there was there was no questions. There was no sense of like what do we do next? There was just like this just really happened.
KEITH ROMER: Eventually, Diana’s driver took her home.
DIANA TAURASI: We get in the car, and we’re driving back to the house. And we literally drive by the scene. And there, you know, this was what an hour and a half afterwards maybe. Everything was still intact. The Mercedes that was there for, you know, for our whole careers that we drove in a million times. We were in that car. I can’t tell you how many times were in that car. Gunshots everywhere, just completely shot up, police, ambulance. And there he was hunched over dead. You know, where his, his belly is on kind of where the foot rest is. When I saw that I was, I was in shock. I’ve never seen someone dead. No one close to me has ever died. I mean that was the first time where it was like that person is dead.
KEITH ROMER: Diana called Sue back in the states and told her what had happened.
SUE BIRD: She’s just like, he’s dead. And I’m like, who? And she’s like, they killed him. They killed Shabtai. I did a very poor thing in that later that night maybe the next day I googled, there’s some pretty… I don’t know. There’s some not great pictures on there. There are pictures of him, you know his white shirts. He always wore white shirts just all blood, him laying on the ground, him slumped in the car. You know, it showed the car window where the bullet holes were and that’s when it really hit me like he got murdered like this was like a contract killing because the bullet holes in the window are very I mean, I don’t know how many there were 30,40 and they’re all like concentrating this one area like this person knew what they were doing.
[Russian news on Shabtai’s death]
KIRILL BELYANINOV: It was covered by all the media outlets in Russia.
[Russian news on Shabtai’s death]
KIRILL BELYANINOV: All the journalists enjoyed basically going into very colorful Shabtai Kalmanovich past.
KEITH ROMER: Including Kalmanovich’s connections to a recently murdered mobster known as Yaponchik, the Little Japanese.
KIRILL BELYANINOV: Vyacheslav Ivankov, also known as Yaponchik, is the most famous and most influential leader of Russian organized crime.
KEITH ROMER: One of the theories about Shabtai’s murder was that he was killed over a shopping center that he had controlled with the backing of Yaponchik.
KIRILL BELYANINOV: According to some police sources and some sources in organized crime circles both Kalmanovic and Ivankov were involved in a dispute about Dorogomilovsky Market in Moscow. And they got into conflict with some organized crime groups from Northern Caucasus, who we’re trying to take over control of this market.
KEITH ROMER: According to that theory, all the connections that had served Kalmanovich so well for so long, had either stopped working for him, or actively turned against him.
KIRILL BELYANINOV: I was told that basically he was a victim of a major gangster war.
KEITH ROMER: With Shabtai killed, and nothing more than rumors for explanations, Spartak’s players were at a loss for what they were supposed to do next. So, they came to the gym.
DIANA TAURASI: So we had a long hallway and it was just a trail of people slumped over sitting on the ground crying. I’ve never experienced that before. I just have never been around that type of despair, really. I mean I was right there with them. I mean I can… you know, I didn’t know how to console them. I mean, I didn’t know what to say. They didn’t know what to say.
KEITH ROMER: Entire days passed like this.
DIANA TAURASI: There’s just so many fucked up moments, like, so they did a huge funeral at the arena.
KEITH ROMER: Government officials, pop stars, crime bosses all came to pay their respects.
DIANA TAURASI: And I go over to one of my Russian teammates and I go you know, who could have done this? And she goes, the person who killed him is probably here now, and then she just moved on to the next conversation. That that just like was bizarre to me. But that’s… Russia is a different world.
SUE BIRD: I just remember thinking like do I even go over there? Is there going to be a team? Like, does this exist without him, on every level?
DIANA TAURASI: I was like this doesn’t make sense for me to stay here. This doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense for them either, maybe.
ANNA ARKHIPOVA: We had problem with money, in club.
DIANA TAURASI: We had this meeting at the gym, with his wife, and she pretty much couldn’t guarantee anything.
ANNA ARKHIPOVA: And, I come to girls and tell you know what, I will try to find the money. But if somebody wants to break the contract now, I agree.
DIANA TAURASI: She pretty much said, you guys are free to go somewhere else.
ANNA ARKHIPOVA: And Diana stand up in this room. She stand up and tell, you know what, I will play until end of season for free. And I was crying.
DIANA TAURASI: There was just something like I couldn’t leave. I just couldn’t leave. I couldn’t leave. I had this responsibility to him and his family. I just couldn’t leave.
SUE BIRD: I think a lot of people. A lot of women who play overseas like these are just places they go and they stop there and they play and they get paid and they leave and they move on to the next. It was so much more to us than that, so much more.
ANNA ARKHIPOVA: I don’t know why, but when Shabtai died, I made everything for win this championship.
DIANA TAURASI: That team was just so fucking edgy. Like there was anger about us when we played. And usually when you play angry things don’t work out well, but for whatever reason this sadness and this anger and this just unknown feeling of what can we do to make this better. That was our only solution.
JEFF TAYLOR: They just went out and started cutting people down, didn’t matter if they were home or away. They were still too talented, too confident, too experienced to fall to any of these teams.
KEITH ROMER: Spartak dominated the Euroleague that year. When the playoffs rolled around, they hadn’t lost a single game.
SUE BIRD: They never wanted two teams from the same country to be in the finals. They had to play each other in the semis.
KEITH ROMER: So, in the semifinals, Spartak met their biggest rival. The team where Shabtai had gotten his start in women’s basketball and met his wife, Yekaterinburg.
DIANA TAURASI: There’s no team that he wanted to beat more. We could lose every game that year. But if we beat them, he was the happiest man on Earth.
SUE BIRD: That Ekat team had Candace Parker, Cappie Pondexter, Deanna Nolan.
DIANA TAURASI: Three or four of the starters from the Russian national team.
SUE BIRD: They were stacked.
DIANA TAURASI: We didn’t like them. They didn’t like us. It was a nasty rivalry.
DIANA TAURASI: I just remember that whole day I couldn’t nap. Sitting in that hotel room, I couldn’t nap. I couldn’t sleep the night before.
SUE BIRD: I don’t know this was the first time where it felt like it was shifting towards them like they were kind of okay now they’re the ones that are going to be the big dogs Whereas we had been the big dogs for so long.
SUE BIRD: And in that game, in the first half like, that’s what it felt like. It felt like oh crap, like they got our number.
KEITH ROMER: At half time, the invincible Spartak, trailed by three.
DIANA TAURASI: I remember it being really quiet at half time. You know, usually there’s this like rally together, let’s go mentality. There wasn’t quite that.
KEITH ROMER: Diana Taurasi was 27 years old. Arguably, the greatest women’s basketball player in history at the absolute peak of her powers.
SUE BIRD: There is a cockiness, a swag, a confidence that just oozes. Who she is, how she plays. She’s one way. It’s all or nothing with her.
KEITH ROMER: In the second half of the game, Taurasi went to a place few players ever do.
DIANA TAURASI: It’s mindless. All those little moments of learning, of shooting, of playing basketball whether it was in the front yard whether it doing drill work at practice with coaches, whether it was just playing two-on-two you know on a Saturday. It’s just one of those days where everything kind of comes together and you’re just out there. You’re just out there. You’re just out there. Just out there.
KEITH ROMER: Diana put the team on her back. She had 37 points. 12 rebounds. 6 assists.
DIANA TAURASI: Like this was the one game where I had to do it, like I just had to do it.
KEITH ROMER: Spartak wasn’t done though.
DIANA TAURASI: If there’s one thing that Shabtai always cared about more than anything, it was Euroleague. He wanted to be champions of Europe.
KEITH ROMER: In the locker room before the championship game against Spain’s Ros Casares, head coach Pokey Chatman didn’t even bother with x’s and o’s.
SUE BIRD: They used to make these like baseball card ish type things of our team and she handed one out to every player, and was just like, I know I don’t have to say anything to you guys. It was Shabtai’s baseball card.
SUE BIRD: We had black uniforms for the first time and we had all decided to wear these like black high socks. And so everybody stuck their picture of Shabtai in their sock.
DIANA TAURASI: When you take the basketball court, it’s a very subtle thing.
DIANA TAURASI: You just know when your team and you’re just ready to win. Like everyone’s committed to that no matter what happens.
KEITH ROMER: That day in Spain, the game was over before it ever started.
DIANA TAURASI: They already knew they lost. I already knew too.
KEITH ROMER: Spartak won the European title 87-80.
SUE BIRD: When that game ended it was I don’t know like this this huge dose of like joy and like excitement. It’s like this like oh we did it, but very quickly there was this other huge dose of like, you know, the reality that was still hanging over us all.
DIANA TAURASI: It was, it was a sad day. Because it was an end of an era. And, you know, Shabtai wasn’t there. He wasn’t there to experience it.
KEITH ROMER: White t-shirts were given to all the players to commemorate their 4th straight championship. In red letters across the front: This is 4 Shabtai.
SUE BIRD: I remember looking up into the stands and seeing Shabtai’s wife Anya, seeing his daughter Liat. And just how like same for them, like you could see them like kind of like a smile on their face but tears streaming down.
ANNA ARKHIPOVA: I not was happy, you know. It was just, I made what I wish, you know. That’s all. It was target, you know. By yourself. Like inside, you know. For him, we made to win, for him. And we made it.
KEITH ROMER: Today, Shabtai’s widow Anna runs Spartak. The club is now more of a training center for promising young Russian players than a European powerhouse. Sue played one more season for Spartak. Diana immediately moved on to a club in Turkey. They joined up in Russia again in 2012 to play for Spartak’s great rival Ekaterinburg. The murder of Shabtai Kalmanovich remains unsolved.
KATE FAGAN: I always thought understanding Shabtai and Spartak and Sue and Diana’s place in that team would help explain something about women’s sports.
DIANA TAURASI: He made everything bigger than life. And at the time women’s basketball needed someone to make it bigger than life. And that’s what he did.
DIANA TAURASI: I think about what I have in my life now from a financial standpoint and it’s like in large part due to Shabs and it’s like crazy to think about. It’s just this one person who took interest in women’s basketball, but what would my life be like without that? You know, I could retire and be totally fine and not a lot of people can say that at 38. And it’s because this man provided, you know myself the rest of us, this opportunity.
KATE FAGAN: The way we treat female athletes here is disrespectful. I mean it we should be embarrassed that the best experience that Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird have where they felt most respected was by apparently an ex-KGB officer who was eventually shot dead outside of the Kremlin. He treated our female athletes with more respect than they’ve ever felt domestically. Like that, that’s quite an interesting legacy to actually try to understand.
KEITH ROMER: If he were you know a Mafia figure like what would that mean to you as a player?
SUE BIRD: I don’t know. It’s like if you presented me with facts that, you know, he was like out there murdering people and like doing… that would be hard to detach from. So, yeah, I don’t know it would be hard, because he did mean so much to us in all these other ways, and we never saw anything like that. You know, never.
DIANA TAURASI: I can only go from how he treated me. I could only go on the basis of how he helped my career and that’s all easy for me to say right because he did nothing but help me. So would it be ignorant for me to be like oh I wouldn’t change my perception of him at all, I don’t know. I don’t know if it would to tell you truth. The good person in me says yeah, you know, of course it would. I should feel different. I don’t know if I would though. I really don’t.
CREDITS: The Spy Who Signed Me
Keith Romer: reporter and producer
Jody Avirgan: host and series editor
Mitra Kaboli: sound design and mixing
Erin Leyden: series editor
Production assistance: Vin D’Anton, Ivan Kuraev, Charles Maynes, Yael Even, Joel Shupak, Robert Frazier, Andrea Casino, Yvan Bing, Lindsay Collins, Roger Jackson
Archival research and licensing: Maria Oleneva and Meghan Geier
Special thanks: Steve Costalas, Ivan Golunov, Oleg Fochkin, Vladimir Ivanidze, Svetlana Abrisomova, Sonja Petrovic, Maxim Glikin, Carol Stiff, Carol Callan, Anastasia Bagaeva, Ryan Nantell, and Jenna Anthony.
30 for 30 Podcasts producers: Andrew Mambo, Meradith Hoddinott.
30 for 30 Production support: Cath Sankey, Jennifer Thorpe, Eve Wulf, Reilly Bloom.
Executive Producers for 30 for 30: Connor Schell, Rob King, and Libby Geist
Development: Adam Neuhaus and Trevor Gill
ESPN Audio: Traug Keller, Tom Ricks, Megan Judge, Pete Gianesini, Ryan Granner
Our theme music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, who also makes the Song Exploder podcast.