Deron Williams revives NBA players' interest in Europe
WEDNESDAY, 13 JULY 2011 10:23
BY EVAN WEINER
THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
It has been 36 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.
The NBA lockout wants to tighten player movement in free agency and bring down salaries and owners expenses. But the locked players may be looking elsewhere to work if you believe Deron Williams. The New Jersey Nets player is thinking of playing professional ball in Turkey if the National Basketball Association lockout lasts an extended time. But Williams is not the first player in recent time who is considering European basketball.
In 2008, just before the global financial meltdown, some players such as Ben Gordon, who was a restricted free agent, suddenly thought they had a European option. Gordon, the first rookie ever to win the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year Award in 2004-05, considered leaving the NBA for Europe if the circumstances were right.
Gordon ultimately signed a five year contract with Detroit in 2009 foregoing Europe. But the NBA has locked out the players and the hostility between the two sides is evident on individual team websites. Current players have vanished from team sites and are apparently free to play in any other league in the world. It seems that the players are free to go elsewhere like National Hockey League players did in 2004 when NHL owners shut the doors on the players.
"What has been happening this year (2008), 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."
In 2008, 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 crossed the Atlantic but Bryant sent out a message that once he was done with his Lakers contract after the 2009 campaign he thought Italy could be calling him. LeBron James said at that time that he 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 ended 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.
None of the three players left the NBA.
"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 could have played into the final decision on where they want to play. What if James's shoe partner, Nike, wanted to make him a bigger brand name in Europe 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 it was conceivable that James could have played in Europe. And Bryant might have ended up owning a team in Italy.
Nothing happened after 2008 but with the NBA out of business it could be a different story. Big name Americans may jump across the pond.
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 has an NBA-style arena opening 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 in 2008 (the last major migration of NBA players to Europe), for the most part, were 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 eventually 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 could have been the trailblazer who could upset the applecart.
Jennings didn't play much in Europe but when he came back to the United States after a year overseas, he became a star with Milwaukee. A few other players tried to go Jennings' route but didn’t succeed.
The Jennings signing with Pallacanestro Virtus Roma of the Italian pro league didn’t hurt the NBA and had virtually no 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 that year.
Had Jennings been able to make a smooth transition from being a high school player to living in Rome while playing pro basketball that would have opened 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. But Jennings didn’t get much playing time and very few followed him overseas.
The timing may be better for a jump across the pond now that the NBA is on hiatus.
"The landscape is changing and the market and climate is a little different than it has been in the past," Gordon said in 2008. He was correct three years ago and is right today: The NBA may still be the best basketball league on the planet, but it has been closed down and it is not the only league willing to pay big salaries, and players and their agents know it.
The NBA lockout may revive an idea that some players were thinking of pursuing in 2008. Go to Europe and play.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy's 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business." His book, "The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition" is available at bickley.com, Barnes and Noble or amazonkindle.