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August 21, 2008 at 8:55 AM

Stepanova: From Russia to Seattle?

StepOly.jpgNow that the Becky Hammon drama is over, Russia losing to Team USA this morning, it’s time to ask if you could cheer for a Russian on the Storm squad. So far it’s just a rumor, but one that has circulated around the Olympics in Beijing.
With star Lauren Jackson opting to have right ankle surgery after the Games, Storm coach Brian Agler said he’s going to go global to find a replacement. Another name that has popped up is Russian center Maria Stepanova, who’s a 6-foot-8 post averaging 8.6 points and 6.1 rebounds in 19.6 minutes for Russia in China.
“There’s a lot of rumors floating around,” said Bird when asked this morning via cellphone about Stepanova’s chances of ending up in Seattle. “I’ve heard she might go to San Antonio or she might not come back. Who knows, we’ll see what happens. It’s tough because all of the players out there are already on teams. It’s a matter of finding the right person and hopefully making it work.”
Stepanova last played for Phoenix in 2005 after missing three seasons as she gave birth to her first child in 2002. The Russians prevented their national team players from playing in the WNBA in order to train for the Olympics, but that ban could be lifted after the Games.
Teams lose their rights to players once the athlete fulfills their contract, according to the wording in the new collective-bargaining agreement. As a free agent, Stepanova is able to sign with any team.
Regardless of a potential Stepanova signing or someone else, Bird still believes the Storm will advance to the playoffs and make it out of the first round for the first time since winning the title in 2004. She said she returns on Aug. 24 – “hopefully with gold medal in hand” – after playing Jackson and the Aussies in the gold-medal match Saturday morning on NBC.
“I’m definitely still confident,” said Bird, whose belief was echoed by teammate Swin Cash during her call of the Australia-China semifinal matchup today. “The brighter side of it all is that we got to play those last five games without Lauren and went 3-2 with four of those games being on the road. Lauren is an amazing player and you can’t fill those shoes with one or two players. Collectively as a group, we’re a good team. We have to just keep playing and I think we can still do a lot of great things.”
Jackson had a face-to-face talk with Bird in Beijing about her decision before the official announcement.
The Storm is off today and will be joined by forward Kelly Santos when practice resumes Friday. Santos competed for Brazil in Beijing, but was unable to help the young team advance beyond pool play.



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