Both of Lara Sanders parents were in the Army, and she was born in Germany while they were serving there before settling in Fayetteville – a truly American story. So it would have been totally understandable if she or her family had been conflicted about her playing for another country.
Not for a second. The opportunity to play for Turkey was too good to pass up. Not only is it a financial boon to play basketball in Turkey with a Turkish passport, it got her all the way to the Olympics.
“Everybody makes it seem like it’s a big deal because we’re Americans, we’re a military family,” Sanders said. “My mom was like, ‘Whatever, good job. Go for it. Whatever makes you happy, and is good for you financially, do it.’ They gave me all that praise. My mom said she wasn’t here to cheer on the U.S., she was here to cheer on Turkey. She loves it.”
Sanders, who was LaToya Pringle when she graduated from UNC in 2008 – the new first name is a concession to the Turkish language, the new surname from her husband Byron, a former UNC basketball player himself – has played in Turkey since 2009 and first played for her new country in 2012.
With international basketball teams allowed to use one naturalized player, she’s one of three Americans playing under other flags at the Olympics, along with her old rival Lindsey Harding, the first Duke women’s basketball player to appear in the Olympics, albeit for Belarus.
“We have an adopted country, and we’re proud of that, both of us,” Harding said. “We’re more proud that fans in our adopted country have embraced us.”
Harding seemed destined for the U.S. team coming out of Duke in 2007, winning both the ACC and Naismith player of the year awards before being picked first overall in the WNBA draft. Part of the U.S. national-team program, she was passed over for the 2010 world championships and 2012 Olympics. In 2015, at age 31, she accepted an invitation to play for Belarus instead.
“My grandmother is from Belarus,” Harding joked, but her decision was very serious and difficult.
“At the time I was part of USA Basketball, too, and that team is extremely hard to make,” she said. “I knew that I could get on this team and it wasn’t going to be a for-sure make it to the Olympics, but it was going to be a chance. So I think it feels really good because we really worked to get here. Not that the U.S. doesn’t work, but the talent level is so high. We really worked and fought to get here.”
We have an adopted country, and we’re proud of that, both of us. We’re more proud that fans in our adopted country have embraced us.
While it’s not uncommon to see naturalized citizens competing for their new countries at the Olympics, it’s becoming increasingly common in women’s basketball as American players obtain overseas passports for financial reasons. Becky Hammon, now the NBA’s first assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs, was really the first WNBA star to not only obtain a foreign passport but join a foreign national team, with Russia in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
At this Olympics, in addition to Harding and Sanders, there’s also Danielle Page, who grew up outside Colorado Springs, went to Nebraska and played professionally in France where Serbia’s national coach, Marina Maljkovic, was working. She had long ago given up any hope of playing for the United States, so her invitation to play for Serbia came as a welcome surprise.
“When you’re a little kid and you watch the Olympics, that’s the dream, that’s the pinnacle of athletic achievement,” Page said. “At some point, right around high school, you figure out you’re not in that top 1 percent of the 1 percent. When coach Maljkovic called me and dangled the dream in front of me, it was a dream I never knew I had.”
While Harding and Sanders will only face the United States if they advance out of group play, Page will play her homeland on Wednesday. A day later, Harding and Sanders will renew an old rivalry of a different kind when Turkey and Belarus play Thursday.
“You can’t be a Tar Heel and not hate Duke,” Sanders said.
“Duke is better,” Harding said. “You can tell her that.”
The flags may change, but the shades of blue do not.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock