OREM Former BYU basketball player Travis Hansen hopes to be wearing red, white and blue at the Olympics this summer for Russia.
The U.S. has the same colors as Russia, where Hansen has been embraced for his basketball skills and humanitarian efforts. He is so well liked in Russia that he has been given citizenship and an invitation to the national team's Olympic training camp.
If he makes the team, he could wind up facing the Americans later this summer. For Hansen, it is an opportunity to play on the biggest stage in sports, albeit for a different country than he could have ever imagined while growing up in Utah.
Hansen said he is an American first, but that the U.S. roster was already stocked with names like Kobe and LeBron, and USA Basketball wasn't going to consider a 30-year-old who had played one season in the NBA and the rest in Europe.
"I'd love to play for Team USA but they didn't invite me," he said.
Nor did he expect them to. In the era of "Dream Teams," Hansen has never really been on the U.S. Olympic radar. The Russians, on the other hand, were interested.
Hansen only gave the OK to continue with the naturalization after being assured that it would in no way affect his U.S. citizenship. He will also miss the first part of the Russian camp to be home for the Fourth of July.
"Every athlete dreams about playing in the Olympics," Hansen said. "The Cold War ended a long time ago, so I figured why not. For a country to come to you and say 'Hey, we want you to represent our country in the Olympics,' that's pretty nice."
While his shooting touch and versatility would make him a welcome addition on the Russian national team, his good deeds have made him welcome most everywhere in the country.
Hansen and his wife, LaRee, have tackled one of the most troubling issues in Russia the care of orphans. In just two years, the Hansens' Little Heroes foundation has grown into something big and given Hansen a reputation as an American player with a genuine heart.
"We had to convince them 'We want to help,"' Hansen said. "We don't want to have our name on the hospital or anything. We just want to help."
The initial wariness the Hansens ran into as foreigners trying to lend a hand eventually diminished. Hansen said he doesn't think Little Heroes necessarily sped up the citizenship process, but it didn't hurt either. After an extensive background check, Hansen said he was approached by the head of Russia's Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB.
"He shook my hand and said 'Thanks for all you do for Russia,"' Hansen said.
Hansen said that was an honor because it had nothing to do with him as a basketball player. It was because of Little Heroes, which was formed after LaRee began looking into adopting a child during her husband's first season with Dynamo Moscow. She knew Russia's reputation for having an arduous adoption process. She didn't know about the grim conditions faced by more than 250,000 orphans living in institutions.
LaRee said the surroundings in the understaffed hospitals where the youngest orphans stayed were especially disturbing.
"The conditions were just really bad and it made my heart just ache. I wanted to see if we could do something," she said. "Here, the buildings would probably be condemned or closed."
Travis said nothing he saw as a Mormon missionary in Chile compared to what he saw at the baby hospital in Lyubertsy, about 45 minutes outside of Moscow. Cracked or broken windows let the cold air flow freely, so sometimes the cribs were moved out of the bedrooms to the hallway. He said electrical wiring hung from the walls, the plumbing in the bathrooms didn't work and the hospital lacked medical equipment that is standard in the West.
LaRee said the ratio of children to nurses is overwhelming, leaving only time to change diapers, dispense bottles and maybe give a bath or two before the cycle starts all over again. The children are confined to their cribs most of the time and when they are picked up, the reaction is quite different from what the couple saw when son Ryder, born Travis' senior season at BYU, was that age.
"When you go to hold them, they have this glazed look over their eyes and it just makes you so sad," Travis said. "I mean, you have to do something."
It was LaRee's idea to start a foundation and she saw right off the marketing power of her husband's name.
Hansen was an automatic story as an American playing for Dynamo Moscow, the powerhouse Russian sports club. He was the subject of a nice spread in a Russian sports magazine, which featured Russia native and Utah Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko on the cover.
Hansen didn't get that kind of star treatment when he was an all-Mountain West player at BYU. Several pictures accompanied the story, including one of Hansen in a borrowed fur coat leaning against a Lotus sports car, which also wasn't his, though he's a car nut and would take it.
Hansen said he mentioned the foundation and the writer was touched that an American was making that much of an effort to help in Russia. The headline was "Missionary," spelled in Cyrillic.
A sports newspaper followed up on the story as Little Heroes was completing renovations on part of the hospital in Lyubertsy. Hansen said that story caught the eye of two Russian doctors, who are now part of Little Heroes. Word also got back to Utah, where nutritional supplement company Nature's Sunshine got on board.
Hansen said he expected the foundation to provide blankets, diapers and maybe some books for orphans or other Russians in need. This spring, Little Heroes helped a 2-year-old boy get a liver transplant.
"We were just trying to help out that one hospital," Travis Hansen said. "It kind of just kept getting bigger and bigger."
During a brief visit to Utah, Hansen ran a children's basketball camp with the proceeds going to Little Heroes.
Then he was headed back to Russia to train with the national team, although he wasn't sure he would be part of the final Olympic roster. Teams can have one naturalized citizen and Hansen said it's more likely to go to American point guard J.R. Holden, a veteran of the Russian league and national team.
If Russian officials can somehow change Holden's status, which they are trying to do, there could be room for Hansen and he said he would gladly accept the invitation to Beijing.
"We really have taken to Russia," he said. "They've treated us very, very well."