Europe Provides Players With Lucrative Second Option

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The New York Sun

It has been 33 years since high school, college, and the NBA had a legitimate choice when it came to where they wanted to play professional basketball. In 1975, a high school player could go to college or into the American Basketball Association. A college player could leave school early and have either the NBA or the ABA offer him a huge — by 1975 standards — pro contract. And NBA players could jump over to the ABA, and vice versa. Since the NBA’s absorption of four ABA teams in 1976, players have been limited in their location choices. But that is changing.

Players such as Chicago’s Ben Gordon, who is a restricted free agent, suddenly have a European option. Gordon, the first rookie ever to win the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award in 2004-05, is considering leaving the NBA for Europe if the circumstances are right.

“What has been happening this year, especially with the free agents, you are starting to see guys who are using overseas as another option,” Gordon said in an interview. “To me, personally, I think it is a beautiful thing that people from all over the world and players from all over the world have a chance to play in the NBA, and players over here a chance to play in Europe.

“When you get a guy like Kobe Bryant mentioning or considering playing overseas, if everything was right, I think it totally changes the whole landscape of basketball.”

This summer, nine NBA players have decided that the league isn’t the end-all for them, and have signed with European, Russian, and Israeli teams. No big names have crossed the Atlantic, but Bryant is done with his Lakers contract after this season, and Italy could be calling him. LeBron James might be open to a European team offer when his deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers ends in 2010. Dwyane Wade’s deal with Miami also ends in 2010. In the NBA, there is a salary cap that limits how much money Bryant, James, or Wade can be paid. There is no salary cap in Europe.

If these three leave the NBA, it will be for money. But there could be more than just basketball money involved — there are business considerations.

“I know, growing up, my dream was to play in the NBA, hands down. It wasn’t about the money,” Gordon said. “Once you get to the NBA, things begin to change, it becomes more of a business. When you hear players as big as the Kobes and LeBrons talking about the possibility of playing overseas, it [shows it] is more of a business now. They are just not basketball players — now they are businessmen, so they have to think from a different aspect.”

James and Bryant are corporations and brand names, and that may play into the final decision on where they want to play. Suppose James’s shoe partner, Nike, wants to make him a bigger brand name in Europe than he is today, and whispers in his ear that it makes sense for him to play in Barcelona or Athens. Because of the partners and the strength of the euro against the American dollar or Russian oil money, it is conceivable that James could play in Europe in two years. And Bryant might end up owning a team in Italy.

The commissioner of the NBA, David Stern, has spent the better part of the last 10 years promoting European expansion. Originally, Stern envisioned an NBA European league by 2010. Europe is lagging in building NBA state-of-the-art facilities, but more are coming online. London is ready, Berlin will have an NBA-style arena opening this fall, and Rome may soon follow suit. The other European problem is whether or not local companies will want to pay the price for NBA tickets, and if local cable and satellite TV networks would want to pay a heavy price for the rights to NBA games.

The players who left the NBA this year, for the most part, are Europeans returning home, with the exceptions of Josh Childress, who left the Atlanta Hawks to sign a more lucrative deal with Olympicos in Greece’s basketball league, and Carlos Arroyo, who will play with Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel. Arroyo got a deal that was better than what he would have received with his former team, the Orlando Magic.

The NBA doesn’t seem too concerned that Childress or the others have left, and the league has adopted the position that the best players in the world will want to play in the NBA anyway. But wheelbarrows filled with euros can trump that notion.

Not every elite player can play in the NBA, because of Stern’s desire to keep 18-year-olds out of his league. Ultimately, American college basketball could find itself in the same position as it was when elite high school players skipped college and went into the NBA. Brandon Jennings may be the trailblazer who could upset the applecart.

The Jennings signing with Pallacanestro Virtus Roma of the Italian pro league doesn’t hurt the NBA, but it will have an impact on college basketball. Jennings was supposed to play as an 18-year-old at the University of Arizona on a college scholarship. Instead, he signed a multiyear contract with an escape clause should an NBA team take him in the 2009 draft. Jennings may have been the best point guard in high school in 2007-08, and under the old collective bargaining agreement, he would have been eligible to be selected this year.

If Jennings is able to make a smooth transition from being a high school player to living in Rome while playing pro basketball, that will open up Europe as a pretty good alternative to college basketball in America. Sneaker companies will again be able to sign top American high school basketball players to endorsement deals, and this time, they will be able to showcase the player to a European market.

The Jennings move cannot sit well with the NCAA, though. If Jennings’s experiment works out, it will open the floodgates, and players who want to be paid for their abilities, and are not interested in attending classes, will make the jump, and there is nothing that Stern or the NCAA can do, unless colleges begin to pay the players, which is highly unlikely.

“The landscape is changing and the market and climate is a little different than it has been in the past,” Gordon said. He is correct: The NBA may still be the best basketball league on the planet, but it is not the only league willing to pay big salaries, and players and their agents know it.

The New York Sun

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