Spartak team owner Shabtai von Kalmanovich treated his star players well, but Lauren Jackson often felt uneasy. Picture: Bob Martin /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
Spartak team owner Shabtai von Kalmanovich treated his star players well, but Lauren Jackson often felt uneasy. Picture: Bob Martin /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Aussie basketball star was ‘owned’ by KGB spy

ONE of Australia's most successful basketballers, Lauren Jackson won three Olympic silver medals, and a WNBA championship for the Seattle Storm, where she was the first foreigner to be crowned MVP.

But a lesser-known part of her story remains with her - her time playing in Russia. Lauren played for a team owned by a Russian oligarch, and she soon found out things over in Moscow were very different to what she was used to.

Below is an extract from Lauren's new book My Story, where the very private athlete shares some extraordinary insights into her remarkable life.

Shabtai could certainly be charming. Shabs, we called him, or Poppa. He wanted me to call him Poppa, he treated me like he would have treated his daughter, but I wasn't. There was always that level of expectation because I was paid, all of us were paid well to play, we were his. There were other foreigners in the same boat as me, because probably the three best players in the world - Sue, Diana and myself - were playing for Spartak Moscow at the time.

For some reason, not long after I arrived, our team name changed to Sparta & K, apparently Shabtai had had a falling out with the Spartak club, so created his own name for his team. Making his own rules, that was so typical of him. It's what Shabtai did - made his own rules in life.

He had obscene wealth, and close connections with all sorts of businessmen. I'd never been exposed to anything like that before. He rented out a big house for Sue, Diana and myself with a pool, spa and sauna, whatever we wanted he would provide us with, to make things as homely as possible.

The apartment was actually half of a large house, and there was a family living in the other half. Their babushka (grandmother) would come in and clean the house for us every day when we were at practice, do our washing, laundry, everything. She was a lovely old woman but didn't speak a lick of English.

Lauren Jackson was a star in Seattle, winning the MVP. But in the
Lauren Jackson was a star in Seattle, winning the MVP. But in the"off" season she was also playing in Russia. Picture: Elaine Thompson/AP

Shabtai would take us to the most remarkable restaurants and we'd have the best food. I love borscht (beetroot soup) so he would make a point of taking me to places that served good borscht. He'd give us money or his credit card to go shopping, took us out to nightclubs, gave us holidays - we had a house, a driver, got whatever we wanted whenever we wanted. He once organised box seats at a Marilyn Manson concert in Russia for me, because he knew I loved his music. It was an eye-opening experience - I'd never seen so much wealth splashed around.

One time we had to go to Paris to play for a week and Shabtai suggested we leave a couple of days early and do some shopping. After our last game in Russia before the Paris trip I saw him hand this wad of cash, €10,000, to one of the other girls for us to use as spending money in France. I saw her put the money in her bag, and that evening we went to a nightclub and the money was taken, the bag was still there, but the money was gone. Someone with the team must have known about the money, someone saw it. If I'd had that much money in a bag I wouldn't have put it down anywhere. I can't remember if we ever told Shabs, I'm sure we did, but there was no fuss made about it.

Another memorable time, Shabtai hosted a major European All-Star game against a team of the best foreigners, American and Australian, and he flew in the American rapper Kelis to perform at the match after-party. She came back and partied until late with us at our house, with everybody else who was there, a lot of Americans, the players from the European league. That night was indicative of my time in Russia, it was just unbelievable really. Shabtai wanted it to be a good experience for us. He would have done anything for us - he genuinely cared for us as people, not just as basketballers.

Shabs did want us to be happy, but once we were under contract there was a shift in how he saw and treated us. He wouldn't deal with my agent, he didn't want to pay their fee. He basically felt like his relationship with us would trump everything.

So, after the first contract, there was no further negotiation about what he came to us with - but the money was so good I didn't question it. I think I went through a couple of agents when I was in Russia, but that was where the big money was being made and Shabtai wouldn't work with them, so I let them go. That's just the way it was.

Like I said, the money was so good who was I to argue with him? I'd try to, but there was no point, because he would always win. He made me feel as though I had to trust him even though there was this underlying cynicism and worry. It was the strangest feeling.

***

My family was also really concerned about me - they could see I wasn't happy. I was sitting at my Uncle Lyle's place and I remember him asking me, 'How are we going to stop you going back to Russia? How do we get you out of that situation?' I told him half-seriously and half in jest that the only way would be if Shabtai had a heart attack, because I knew he'd already had a triple bypass, either that or he'd have to be murdered. I truly believed it would take one of those two things for me to be released, I felt like he had so much control over me.

As well as working towards the 2008 Olympics, Lauren was struggling with her mental health while she was playing in Russia.
As well as working towards the 2008 Olympics, Lauren was struggling with her mental health while she was playing in Russia.

I believed I could only play in Europe under him. It might have all been in my head, but I know what I saw and I know how I felt and I know what Shabtai said to me as well, 'When you're over here, you play for me.' It was just known, I couldn't play anywhere else in Europe. I once saw him go up and say something to a man on the corner of the basketball court in the Czech Republic, and the guy wet himself. You know when you see something you don't understand or it doesn't quite register and you do a double-take? That's what it was like. It was unbelievable. There were so many times with Shabs that I felt I did that.

Nothing comes for free in life. Shabs knew I was struggling emotionally and he tried to make it better for me, but ultimately I think he put more pressure on me by doing that, and it made me even worse.

***

At night, I tend to have my phone on silent, but at about 11pm I could hear it vibrating. I decided to ignore it. I thought someone was being terribly rude calling me at that hour, and I tried to go back to sleep through the tumultuous thunder and lightning. Eventually I looked at my phone and saw it was Sue. She'd been calling me constantly. I answered and she said, 'Dude, where have you been? Shabtai's dead, he's been murdered.' I was stunned. I didn't sleep the rest of that night and by eight in the morning I was on a plane to Israel for his funeral. It was the most bizarre sh*t I've ever been through in my life, between the crazy storm and then the news that Shabtai had been killed.

I flew out on Melbourne Cup day, November 3, 2009. The horse that won the cup that year was Shocking, with Crime Scene coming in second.

According to the newspapers, Shabtai von Kalmanovich had been a KGB spy, successful businessman, concert promoter and basketball sponsor. On November 2, 2009, he was shot 10 times by an unknown gunman as he sat in his black Mercedes at traffic lights in Moscow, waiting for the signal to change. He'd actually been on his way to his office to pick up one of my teammates to take her to a concert - she was lucky she wasn't in his car with him. Nobody knows who shot him, no one was ever arrested.

Shabtai was very important to me. I'm still trying to work out in what way, because there was part of me that loved him and part of me that was so intimidated by him. Shabtai was a scary man, but he was always good to me, he always wanted to try and make me comfortable and happy - I truly believe, though, that our cultures were so different he could never have known what I needed over there.

He was involved in a lot of different things, I heard so many stories over the years, and it was hard to decipher what was fact and what was fiction. I know that whatever I heard come out of his mouth was generally true, which is frightening in itself. Looking back, I wish I'd been more present mentally during that time, so I could have asked him more questions and learnt as much as possible from him.

Lauren Jackson has told her life story in a new memoir.
Lauren Jackson has told her life story in a new memoir.

The man knew five different languages (at least), he was incredibly intelligent, his life was straight out of a movie. As much as I felt constricted in his world, he really tried to make that time as good as he could for me, for all of us. Some of his later ventures in particular were very honourable - he was extremely generous and he tried to help people, he really did. There was a very kind side to him.

The other side, what little I saw, I will never talk about because of his wife Anna and his gorgeous kids, who I still think about to this day, particularly his youngest daughter, who I have seen turn into her own beautiful person.

I still see Shabtai in my dreams, both good and bad dreams.

This is an edited extract from My Story by Lauren Jackson, $32.99, out now.



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