Using his cash to court a dream

Times Staff Writer

He can’t keep his backside on the bench, not when the clock is running and one of his stars is dribbling down the lane. He bounds to his feet, frizzy mullet springing crazily around his ears, eyes locked on his girls, Diana, Tina, Sue, the players he lured from the U.S. to catapult his team to greatness.

At the start of the quarter, he sends them onto the court with his ritual, lingering embrace and a pat on the lower back. Like so many of the rich, powerful and shadowy men living large in today’s Russia, Shabtai von Kalmanovic is a man with a colorful, sometimes mysterious past.

He has been linked romantically to Liza Minnelli. He did prison time in Israel, accused of being a Soviet spy. He has amassed what he says is the largest collection of Judaica in Eastern Europe. This is a man who can do just about anything that catches his fancy.


As it turns out, he’s got a thing for basketball, a sport he played growing up in Lithuania. He has dumped millions of dollars into rebuilding Spartak, the franchise he owns, into what is now one of Europe’s best women’s basketball teams.

Kalmanovic cherry-picks the brightest stars from the Women’s National Basketball Assn., pays them as much as 10 times more than they earn in the United States, and brings them to Moscow in the WNBA off-season, where they live in luxury and play before halfhearted audiences.

It’s an extreme measure, he acknowledges, but he insists that drastic steps are necessary to awaken a taste for women’s basketball in Russia.

“If they win a game, I feel like a winner,” he says. “To make basketball popular, you need victories. You cannot make a sport popular without winning.”

To spend a night in Kalmanovic’s gym in suburban Moscow is to learn a little something about America, about the miles and time zones that young basketball stars are willing to cross to supplement their incomes and secure their futures beyond the rocky, relatively unglamorous world of the WNBA.

But it’s also a surreal sketch of a booming Russia, where the rich can’t find enough ways to blow their cash. The 60-year-old Kalmanovic is part of a growing band of Russian millionaires investing in sports franchises as vanity projects, jostling to outspend and outplay one another with a patriotic, high-rolling fervor.

Many team owners split the cost with the government. Kalmanovic says he’ll pour at least $7 million into the program this season, roughly half of the team’s budget. The rest will come from the Moscow regional government.

The Russian government seems eager to restore its slumping athletic programs to their Soviet splendor. In recent years, the government has bestowed sports facilities like medals upon Moscow’s suburbs; one outlying town is the home of ice hockey, another is dedicated to soccer, and so on. And like so much else in post-Soviet Russia, athletics has gotten entangled with the massive wealth streaming through the oil- and gas-rich country.

“It’s great when the government is in love with sport,” Kalmanovic says. “But you need, still, some crazy people to do some crazy things that are difficult for journalists and readers to understand. Misunderstanding is the price you pay. So what? So what if people think you’re doing it to show off?”

Besides, he says, what else is he going to do with his money? Invest in oil? Hang out at casinos? He considers his basketball team proof that he’s now matured.

As with much else about Kalmanovic, the origin of his fortune is murky. He says he made his money in construction, putting up buildings in apartheid South Africa’s Bantustans, or black homelands. Published reports that he was tangled up in the diamond industry are false, he insists.

He held on to his fortune through the 5 1/2 years he was imprisoned in Israel, where he was convicted of spying for the Soviet Union. Kalmanovic refuses to discuss the case; he claims silence was a condition of his early release. “Before I went to prison, I was too much crazy already,” he says. “Maybe God saved me.”

Twenty years after becoming wealthy through his African venture, Kalmanovic no longer considers himself nouveau riche, and he bridles at the word “oligarch,” with its connotations of corruption and lack of culture.

“I had already years of craziness when I didn’t know which tie to buy and didn’t know which wine to order -- I was ordering by price,” he says indignantly. “I was buying a house in the south of France without understanding the location.”

Now he’s using his money to indulge his basketball obsession. Along with the professional team, Kalmanovic has opened a basketball school for youths, which he hopes will churn out top Russian players. His second wife, a onetime Russian basketball star, trains the children.

Nobody is making money off Spartak. On the contrary, it’s better described as an extravagance than a business: Kalmanovic has to pay Russian television to air the games, and they often end up being broadcast in the middle of the night. Nobody even bothers to sell tickets to the games. Too much bureaucracy, Kalmanovic says. The spectators are mostly schoolchildren, soldiers and locals looking for a free night of entertainment.

On this point, the players are defensive. Basketball is different in Russia and the United States, they say, but that doesn’t mean the interest in it is lower.

“You can’t compare the two,” Diana Taurasi, one of the team’s stars, says firmly.

Meanwhile, Kalmanovic says his players are on par with George Michael and Madonna, and he spoils them rotten. A staff of 25 assistants, not counting drivers and housekeepers, caters to their whims. They are chauffeured in Mercedes-Benzes, put up at Europe’s finest hotels and greeted with bouquets at every airport, whether they’ve won or lost. They aren’t allowed to carry their own luggage -- they’re women after all, Kalmanovic says.

“If [the players] will go to the game and think, where’s her child or is the TV working at home and where will she eat after and is the flight home booked and will the money arrive on time -- if she has any concern other than basketball, I cannot demand the maximum from her,” he says. “I have to take away each and every concern.

“They should be treated like people of art, like stars.”

The women bask in the attention, but it’s the money that lures them to these frigid winters year after year. In Russia there are no salary caps, no rules about perks, no limits to the bonuses the women can collect from their ever-magnanimous owner.

Taurasi, a 25-year-old Chino native and WNBA star, doesn’t like to talk about the money. But she allows that she makes 10 times more than her WNBA salary, which Sports Illustrated last year reported was $49,000.

She and the other women play the WNBA season in the U.S. during the summer and early fall, then travel to Russia for the winter, locking themselves into a grueling cycle of year-round professional ball.

Taurasi and two other WNBA players, Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, both of whom play for the Seattle Storm, share a gated house with an indoor pool and sauna. Kalmanovic spirits them off to dine at the best restaurants in town, and hands out cash bonuses and impromptu vacations for good play.

“This is our window of opportunity to make money,” says Taurasi, a guard for the Phoenix Mercury, the 2007 WNBA champions. “You look at the other side, when your body starts breaking down . . . you have to look at what you did over the last 12 years, your portfolio.”

“I come here and work every single day. Every penny I take, I earn. I don’t feel bad at all,” Taurasi says.

Sure, she’s heard all the stories about Kalmanovic. About spying for the Soviet Union. About jail. So what, she says.

“I know a lot of people who’ve gone to jail,” Taurasi says with a shrug. She loves Kalmanovic, she says. She calls him Papa.

“We’ve heard a lot of stories. He’s this, he’s that,” she says. “Everywhere you go with Shabtai, it’s either going to be a gracious welcome or boos. It’s kind of like Donald Trump in America. How many people like him? Nobody, because he’s got all the money, he’s got everything everybody wants.”

On a recent wintry night, Spartak hosts a team from France in its facility, which is not much bigger than a high school gym. Russian troops, who say they have been ordered to attend, line the stands, hardly bothering to applaud when players sink a basket. Schoolchildren have been bused in too, and leap up and down, hollering for their favorite Spartak players.

When play halts, cheerleaders in knee boots prance onto the floor. Dolled up like strippers, they are bursting out of their tiny strappy tops and wearing sparkly pink miniskirts that don’t cover their bottoms.

After the game, Kalmanovic sits in his private lounge with the mayor of Vidnoye before a spread of fancy food and liquor. Tina Thompson slips into the room, prettied up in a green hoodie, a Chanel bracelet and long, gold necklace.

“My girlfriend!” Kalmanovic exclaims happily, grabbing at Thompson.

“A smart Russian Jew should have a Russian wife and an American girlfriend,” he adds, grinning.

Thompson rolls her eyes a little, smiling with closed lips. “He’s not serious,” she says.

A 33-year-old single mother and player for the Houston Comets, Thompson has come to Russia with her 2-year-old son and mother in tow. She doesn’t even know the name of the town where she’s living, but she knows that she makes more money playing in Russia for a month than she can earn in an entire WNBA season.

“He knew that my comfort level was based on the comfort of my family,” she says of Kalmanovic. “They get to travel with us the way we travel. We travel business class, and my mom and Dylan do too. They get the same treatment I do. He understands how much my family means to me.”

Like her teammates, Thompson speaks glowingly of the owner, shrugging off questions about his shady past.

“I don’t know those things to be true or not,” she says. “I think if you sit and listen to Shabtai, his stories, you can’t take them to be true or not. I think a lot of them are embellished.”