Travis Hansen isn't the Ugly American in Russia.
Playing basketball for Moscow's Dynamo, one of the top teams in the European League, Hansen, his wife, LaRee, and 5-year-old son, Ryder, have made a significant impact in the part of the world that was once considered enemy territory, a place where spies seemingly lurked at every turn in a country deemed the "evil empire" during the Cold War.
No, Hansen is representing his American heritage very well. So respected is Hansen that, in a rare act that usually takes years, Russian President Vladimir Putin personally signed papers establishing the former Mountain View High and BYU star as a nationalized Russian citizen, granting him a Russian passport.
Along with former Bucknell point guard J.R. Holden, Hansen is only the third American basketball player to be given dual citizenship status by the former Soviet Republic.
This opens the door for Hansen to play alongside Jazzman Andrei Kirilenko on the Russian Olympic team in China this summer if he chooses to or is invited. Hansen has already had talks with the Russian Olympic coach, who told him he might have to give up his short off-season, cut his vacation trip to Lake Powell and Utah short, and be prepared to train for the China Olympics.
"It's a lifetime dream of every basketball player to be an Olympian," said Hansen, whose Dynamo team just finished in the top three of the 54-team European League championships in Italy. "It's exciting. We'll have to see what happens."
Hansen was the 37th pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, a second-rounder to Atlanta, 14 picks before New Jersey drafted current Utah Jazz shooting guard Kyle Korver out of Creighton University.
Hansen and Houston Rockets rookie Luis Scola were teammates in Spain a few years ago. Scola's wife and daughter will stay with LaRee who just returned from Russia on Sunday when the Rockets come to Utah for Games 3 and 4 in their first-round playoff series against the Jazz.
That Hansen formerly played in the NBA and was drafted has made a huge difference in how he's been treated and paid in Europe with stops in Spain before settling in Moscow and he has always played in the top leagues. His agent, Bill Duffy, with BDA Sports Management, also represents Steve Nash, Carmelo Anthony and Yao Ming. Hansen just signed a three-year, multimillion-dollar pact to stay with Dynamo.
Russia loves their American players. Hansen has rock-star status in Moscow, where he's playing shooting guard. The American on Russia's Olympic roster will either be Holden, a point guard who's playing for Cska, the chief rival of Dynamo, or Hansen. They won't take both.
Asked via an Internet phone hookup from Moscow how it feels to be "red," the color worn by BYU's hated rival Utah, Hansen said with a laugh, "I knew that was coming."
"Actually, the Russian people are great. I love it here. We live in an English-speaking settlement with a great LDS branch. Our neighbors are lawyers and executives of oil companies and people who work at the U.S. Embassy. We have our own grocery store, and the basketball here is just awesome. My son plays on a team every Saturday."
The Dynamo take care of players like Hansen. Euroleague teams are restricted in how many Americans they can put on their roster at a time and how many foreigners they can have on the floor at the same time. Hansen was getting about 24 minutes a game. Now that he has Russian citizenship, his minutes may increase significantly.
Of course, the competitors don't like the move. In a courtesy vote taken of the 54 Euroleague teams asking if Hansen should be given Russian citizenship, 53 voted no.
The Dynamo have provided Hansen with a beautiful house, two cars, a professional driver, and a full-time cook and nanny to care for his son. He gets a dozen first-class tickets a year to use how he wants to for his family to travel from America to Russia, or the reverse. He also has some great tax breaks, an advantage to what he'd pay if he lived in the States.
More than a year ago, Hansen ruptured his Achilles tendon and underwent surgery. Fortunately, the repair took. And now he believes he is playing the best basketball of his life.
"I honestly think I play better now. I feel better. I move slower, but I think I play smarter and shoot better. I'm not bouncing around all the time," he said.
Hansen was a versatile player at Mountain View and BYU, where he earned MWC defensive player-of-the-year and all-MWC honors under coach Steve Cleveland. He can play point guard, small forward, shooting guard and power forward if called upon. He has an explosive move to the basket and is a great finisher off the dribble.
If Hansen is invited to play on the Russian Olympic team, his summer will be full. He also has The Elevate Youth Foundation, a charity basketball camp at Open Court in Utah (July 9-11) partnered up with Little Heroes, a charitable foundation for Russian orphans that was established by LaRee.
With former Cougar and Jazzman Andy Toolson, Jim Hanchett (Oregon State), Allan Pollard (BYU) and Jared Miller (BYU), camp proceeds go toward helping students with learning disabilities through home-based grants and Little Heroes orphans.
Travis and his wife have made a significant impact in Moscow, which the Russian media have noted.
LaRee established Little Heroes (Littleheroesfoundation.org) to offer assistance to a growing number of Russian orphans. The charity just finished its first project, renovation of the second floor of an old hospital in Lyubertsy, just outside Moscow. A few Russian doctors have come aboard to help, and LaRee has partnered up with a Utah company, Nature's Sunshine, in raising money and acquiring donated goods, including diapers, lotions, soap, clothing and blankets.
"You hold these babies in your arms and it brings tears to your eyes," said Travis. "My wife has really dug into this, and I believe we are helping."
With a nurse ratio of one nurse for each 10 children, LaRee Hansen's efforts to get people to the orphanage to simply hold the babies is making a difference. The Russian orphans need people to just walk them around, talk to them, give them some warm, human contact and love.
"That contact is important. These early months of their lives is when they develop and feel love and nurture. Their entire future may be determined on how they are loved and accepted," said Travis.
"The Russian people are good people. But many have had hard lives. They've been through a lot with the change in their nation. There has been a lot of poverty and drinking, and people have been declared unfit to be parents, and these children are cast off in these orphanages. It's sad."
In 1997, a UNICEF report declared 600,000 Russian children were lacking parental care and nearly 350,000 lived in state-run institutions, many abandoned or taken away from parents who were criminals, addicts or mentally incapable of parenting.
"Every culture is different," said Hansen. "They are great people. Ten years ago, the economy was in a recession, banks were broke, people were losing everything they had. Now the economy is booming and doing very well. ... They've been through much with the Cold War and the fall of communism in the '90s," said Travis.
When LaRee first visited the hospital in Lyubertsy, she saw dilapidated rooms with broken doors and windows, wires hanging from the ceilings and toilet facilities that were simply substandard.
Fixing up an entire floor took a big effort, but it was finished this winter.56 comments on this story
The work by the Hansen family with these charitable causes hasn't gone unnoticed by the Russians perhaps one reason why Putin may have sped up paperwork to make life easier for Travis and his family in the country and to help Russian basketball.Hansen could still be playing here in the States. His agent could have gotten him on a roster somewhere, probably sitting the bench. But the money in Russia is bankable, the life is lofty and, for the Hansen family, they are making a difference in a land that is counting on them.