Canberra Capitals star Lauren Jackson has opened up about some of the astounding experiences she has had across the course of her stunning career as one of basketball’s greatest success stories.
Jackson opened up to the Australian media about her time playing with all the perks imaginable in the mega-rich Russian league, gaining recognition from the President of the United States of America and why she loves to spend her time in her quiet country home.
It has been quite a journey, one which now has her back home in the WNBL with Sports Wizard® partner, the Capitals.
See the full story below.
There were two men armed with an AK47s outside her new boss’ office. The machine guns gave an indication of the kind of man Lauren Jackson was playing for.
Shabtai von Kalmanovic, was an ex-KGB spy turned businessman, who had a passion for basketball and a penchant for the best things in life
It was no surprise then that he tracked down Jackson, arguably the best female basketballer in the world, and signed her to his Russian team Spartak Moscow for millions of dollars.
“I love her,” Von Kalmanovic said simply, when once asked why he had recruited Jackson.
The excessive and dangerous world of Von Kalmanovic would radically change Jackson’s life forever.
“My experience there, the lifestyle, it is beyond belief to most people,” Jackson says.
Von Kalmanovic gifted Jackson diamonds for playing well. He flew Jackson on his private jet to plush hotels to holiday with his wife and children, and along the way bought her thousands dollars of designer handbags.
Jackson had a personal driver and lived rent-free in a luxurious six bedroom apartment almost the size of the Kremlin. To celebrate one win Von Kalmanovic flew in singer Kelis and they partied away the night away.
“There is no doubt that he changed my life for the better.My experience with Shabtai made me really reflect on role of power in our society.
“The next morning I woke up and the house was spotless,” Jackson says. “It was like the party never happened.”
Jackson’s brilliant talent has seen her play for healthy salaries in China, Spain, Korea and the USA — but the money in Russia was extraordinary. Von Kalmanovic initially paid Jackson $US100,000 for three special appearances.
She played a total of just 24 minutes. That works out to be an astonishing $4166 a minute contract. It was the nearly the same amount she would get for a whole season for the Seattle Storm in the WNBA.
He then paid her $US3 million dollars to sign up for two seasons from 2007 to 2009.
“He would have done anything to make me happy,” Jackson says. “He made life for me in Russia very, very easy”.
Von Kalmanovic treated Jackson like she was his own daughter. “I called him Poppa,” Jackson says. She loved her “Russian father” to bits.
Jackson often travelled in Von Kalmanovic’s luxury black Mercedes — with its supposedly bulletproof glass — she admits she was initially ignorant to the dangers of her new lifestyle.
“I was uneducated and naive,” she says. But soon she became alarmed by the uncontrollable tact her life was taking.
“Soon I was in a real space of torment,” she says. “I loved him but I was tormented.”
Von Kalmanovic started to refuse to deal with Jackson’s agents when it came to contract negotiations.
Then there were also some unnerving moments like the time Von Kalmanovic’s security detail started tailing her and other Spartak players through a local mall after a game.
“He was even wearing a trench coat,” Jackson says. “Shabtai said it was for our own protection.”
It could no longer be ignored that Jackson was playing for a man who once spent 5 and 1/2 years in prison in Israel after he was convicted for spying for the Soviet Union.
On a visit home to Australia Jackson told a friend she was worried by the loss of control over her own life.
So Jackson started asking herself hard questions.
“I wanted to understand why I was swept away with that, I felt I had no power,” Jackson says. “And that is ultimately sent me to university to study gender inequality.”
“There is no doubt that he changed my life for the better.
“My experience with Shabtai made me really reflect on role of power in our society.”
In November 2009 Jackson was on a break from Spartak and back in Canberra recovering from injury when she received the phone call that Von Kalmonvic had been assassinated in the centre of Moscow.
Two men had driven up beside Von Kalmonvic luxury Mercedes and with a volley of 20 rounds punctured through the bulletproof glass filled his body with 10 bullets. The contract killing occurred just a few hundred metres from Vladimir Putin’s office.
Jackson was devastated and was on a flight to Israel within hours for Von Kalmonvic’s funeral. The loss rattled Jackson on many levels.
While her experience with Shabtai ultimately moved her to study, it also made her realise she really wanted her mellow, country life back.
Today we find the 33 year old in the quiet countryside at her beautiful house. She sits on her deck overlooking the Hume weir.
“All I want to do is sit in my house have a glass of wine and listen to Triple J,” Jackson says, laughing after reflecting on her Russian experience. “It is the only place in the world I feel completely whole”
You have to snake around rolling hills and quiet countryside to find Jackson’s escape in a tiny community outside of Albury. She decided to build the house soon after she left Russia and she adores every corner of it.
There’s a dedicated basketball shoe room piled to the roof with Nikes and Converses, three custom-sized bench tops and showers for her height then there’s the beautiful views capturing the shimmering weir.
On the walls are pictures of John Lennon and Jackson’s own artwork.
When you look around there is nothing in Jackson’s house that shows off the fact she is the world’s best female basketballer.
This shows just how humble Jackson has become and home embarrassed she is when her rise to fame is mentioned.
A framed letter of congratulations from Barack Obama, the three shiny WNBA MVP trophies, four Olympic medals and copious other trophies; they are all kept some five hours away, proudly displayed at her parent’s house.
The letter from President of the United States of America, she confesses she hasn’t re-read in detail. She doesn’t mean any disrespect to the 44th President of the United States, she can feel quite overwhelmed by things like this.
It’s the Lauren Jackson of 2015. A girl, smothered with fame at a young age, that has grown up into an icon for many Australians. A woman who wants to be known as the girl next door not as a sporting superstar.
“Looking back at all of it, it doesn’t really feel real,” Jackson says. “None of it feels real. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would win an MVP — to win three.”
“I get really emotional when I look it at all [pictures, trophies]. So, I don’t like looking at that stuff, my home is my escape.”
Here Jackson finds quiet joy in cutting up the front lawn on her ride-on mower.
On the court she is imposing, aggressive and brutally strong, off the court, her personality is kind and overwhelmingly humble. Ask her about the fact the local Albury basketball stadium is now named after her and she shakes her head in wonder.
“It is insane,” Jackson says. “I mean I grew up there, to have it named after me now … when I was baby I would sleep in a bassinette under the bleachers while my mum played basketball … it’s a great honour.”
Today she admits to waking up and feeling a bit “miserable” which is understandable considering she just last week had her sixth knee operation in the last 12 months. Her body has been letting her down recently. But it something that is not new to her. “Knees, hip, back,” she lists off the problem parts of her.
Where is she at?
“Everyday lately I have been waking up and thinking about retirement,” Jackson says. “Worrying about where I go from here, who am I letting down? That is the hardest part about being so injured after such a successful career. But my closest friends and family are here every step of the way.”
She won’t give up without a fight. She never has. It is just not in her DNA. “I don’t want to go out in a ball of injury flames,” Jackson says.
The love she has for her teammates in Canberra in the WNBL, her contract with Seattle and wanting to have one more shot at Olympic gold and glory is driving her towards her fifth games in Rio next year.
“All I can say is that when I am ready to train and play I am going to be on top of the world,” she says.
“But if I can’t, I can’t.”
If Jackson never takes the court again, there is no doubt what she will put her energy into.
Off the court the passion for equality she found after Russia is growing. Her lecturers have inspired a desire her to make a difference. She has become more vocal and confident.
Jackson is now advocating for women who have been victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. She holds roles with NSW Rape Crisis Centre and is a champion for the United Nations Women’s National Committee Australia.
One thing for sure that she has shown in her career is that she’ll be back, as you just can’t keep the resilient Jackson down for long. If it doesn’t mean a fifth Olympic campaign then she will still be happy with her life.
“Since Russia I have become more educated and it has ultimately made me a better person,” Jackson says.
Before she can finish her sentence, she adds “Shabtai made me a better person.”
This story first appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on 7 March 2015, titled ‘Lauren Jackson: The ex-KGB spy that bought her diamonds and why she’s happy to be a country girl again‘.