In the early 2000s, WNBA stars Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi made a decision that would bring them opportunity — and complications exceeding anything they could have imagined. In a new audio documentary from 30 for 30 podcasts, Bird and Taurasi open up for the first time about their experience playing for Spartak Moscow Region, owned by mysterious Russian billionaire Shabtai Kalmanovich.
Kalmanovich spoiled his stars, showering them with expensive gifts, luxury hotels and private concerts. And he genuinely believed in women’s basketball. Taurasi says that Kalmanovich “took care of us like we were his daughters,” while Bird recognized that he “was allowing us to have a career, and make tons of money” that was simply not possible in the WNBA. Led by Bird and Taurasi, in 2009 Spartak became the best women’s basketball team in the world, perhaps of all time.
But Kalmanovich was a man with a complicated past. “We always saw one side of Shabtai. We know there’s another side,” Taurasi says. Ultimately, the two superstars had to reckon with his secret life as a purported double agent and mob-affiliated businessman — and rally their teammates after tragedy struck.
“The Spy Who Signed Me” is the first episode in the new season of 30 for 30 podcasts, rolling out each Tuesday beginning Nov. 12. Other episodes feature stories about a Chilean soccer goalie who went off the rails, an abduction that derailed an aspiring Olympian’s career and the Superdome in New Orleans. You can listen for free, wherever you get your podcasts.