Sue Bird made 10 times as much money playing basketball in Russia and said it helped make her a millionaire
- The WNBA legend Sue Bird spent 10 seasons playing in Russia to supplement her income.
- Bird told "60 Minutes" that she made 10 times her first WNBA salary, which was under $60,000 a year.
After Brittney Griner spent nearly 10 months jailed in Russia on drug-smuggling accusations, a fellow basketball star, Sue Bird, explained why she spent 11 years playing professionally in Russia for an owner who was once convicted of being a KGB spy.
Bird told "60 Minutes" that despite being the first pick in the 2002 WNBA draft, she made less than $60,000 a year early in her career. While she plays only stateside now, as she enters her 21st season, she spent a large part of her career playing overseas to supplement her income, as many WNBA players have.
Bird said that after playing in Europe for two seasons, the Russian billionaire Shabtai Kalmanovich recruited her to Spartak Moscow of the EuroLeague.
She told CBS about the recruitment: "He was like, 'You know, I have a ton of money. And, you know, some people like to gamble. Some people like to buy cars. I like women's basketball. That's where I want to spend my money.'"
CBS reported that Kalmanovich paid Bird 10 times what she made in the WNBA. When asked if the money was life-changing, Bird said it was.
"Absolutely," she said. "Like, I'm a millionaire because of it."
A 2019 episode of ESPN's "30 for 30" described how Kalmanovich spoiled his players, and the perks went beyond salaries.
"Everything literally was first class," Bird told ESPN. "We're staying at the best hotels. We go to Paris. We're in, like, the bomb hotel in Paris."
Diana Taurasi, her teammate, said they were also provided a "mini-mansion" with a pool and a spa. Kalmanovich even gave the American players his credit card to go on shopping sprees, they said, telling the women to "get whatever you want."
"So you know automatically, like, 'OK, can we spend $500? Can we spend a thousand?'" Taurasi told ESPN. "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," she said, referring to her sister.
Taurasi continued, "We get in the car, and I mean we have what, like, 25, 30 bags. I feel like we robbed a bank."
CBS described Kalmanovich as "a former KGB spy and businessman with a record of operating outside the law." He was also assassinated while Bird played for the team.
A BBC report said Kalmanovich spent five years in prison in Israel, convicted of being a KGB spy. After being released, he made his fortune in the African diamond trade.
This story was originally published in 2022 and has been updated.
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