Jacob Eisenberg explains why the NBA can’t afford to let the Euroleague grow…
In 1986, National Basketball Association (NBA) Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo pioneered a new blueprint for a professional basketball career. After 14 years of high-level play in the NBA, including key contributions for two Los Angeles Lakers championship teams, McAdoo passed up the generic route of toiling away as a benchwarmer.
Instead, McAdoo envisioned a much greater opportunity to rejuvenate his legacy and extend his career: travel overseas to play basketball in Europe. In his mind, it would only be a short-term experience; soon enough, he would be back in the NBA contributing to championship-caliber teams again.
However, within his first month playing for Olimpia Milano of Lega Basket Serie A, the highest level of club competition in Italian professional basketball, McAdoo had a realization: playing in Europe was the perfect way to finish a career. The level of competition was higher than anticipated, making game day still meaningful, and the weight of his name carried over to every city and country to which his team traveled.
All of a sudden, McAdoo, a steady All-Star who never cracked the “superstar” echelon in the NBA, was the poster boy of basketball for an entire continent. He tripled his endorsement money with Adidas and was given countless benefits from his team. In Europe, McAdoo was not only a basketball player; he was a basketball ambassador.
Soon after word spilled over to the states about McAdoo’s smooth transition to Europe, other Hall of Famers in the twilight of their careers followed McAdoo’s lead. Dominique Wilkins, George Gervin, Adrian Dantley, Dennis Rodman and most notably Magic Johnson took their talents overseas to extend their careers, making millions in endorsements and becoming global icons in the process. As recently as last season, the list of former All-Stars taking their games to Europe and Asia expanded to include Scottie Pippen, Allen Iverson, Steve Francis and Stephon Marbury.
All of a sudden, playing in Europe was no longer a backup option for the players who couldn’t quite make it in the NBA — it was an attractive alternative for everyone.
During the 2008 offseason, when former Atlanta Hawk, Josh Childress, spurned a mid-level contract offer and a guaranteed rotation spot from the Hawks in favor of signing a lucrative contract with the Euroleague powerhouse Olympiacos Piraeus in Greece, the eastern migration was rejuvenated. The once farfetched idea of NBA contributors ditching the league for “greener” pastures in Europe was now on the verge on becoming a reality.
Also in 2008, Brandon Jennings pioneered a new blueprint for the beginnings of a basketball career. Jennings, the highest rated recruit on ESPN’s ESPNU 150, found a loophole in the NBA’s 19-year-old age minimum. Instead of taking summer courses to meet NCAA regulations so he could play at the University of Arizona, Jennings signed a one-year contract with Lottomatica Roma of Lega Basket Serie A for $1.65 million net guaranteed income. On top of the guaranteed money from his team, Jennings also signed a $2 million endorsement deal with Under Armor. For a high school graduate from Compton, the guaranteed money was too good to pass up.
Although Jennings took his lumps in his one year in Rome learning how to be a professional, his decision ended up paying dividends when he became an instant star in the NBA upon scoring 55 points in only his seventh game. And in 2009, Jeremy Tyler, a top-10 recruit, took Jennings’ approach one step further, forgoing his senior year of high school to sign a $140,000 contract with Maccabi Haifa of the Israeli Super League.
Now, with the NBA in a lockout, players from all ranges in the talent spectrum are exploring their options for playing basketball overseas. The first domino has already fallen with Deron Williams signing a one-year contract to play in Turkey with Besiktas of the Turkish Basketball League — the same club that employed Allen Iverson last season. Although Williams has made clear his intention to opt out of the European contract once the NBA lockout is resolved, it is yet to be seen whether Williams changes his mind when (not if) he experiences a similar sort of idolization from the fans that McAdoo experienced 25 years earlier.
Fear among NBA owners lies in the mind of superstar Kobe Bryant. Bryant, the son of a former Italian League star Joe Bryant, has always openly expressed interest in returning to Italy, where he was raised, and expanding his legacy globally as well as his revenue exponentially with endorsements.
With Williams, his former Olympic teammate, already in Europe, there has never been a better time for Bryant to migrate than now. Bryant, always regarded as the most respected player in the NBA among his peers, would be able to immediately shift the dynamic between players and owners in the labor negotiations upon departure. If Bryant went to Europe, he would presumably attract other NBA superstars.
It would only take Kobe Bryant on top of Deron Williams to give the NBA Player’s Association substantial leverage in negotiations with the owners. If a different competitive league for players to choose from were to fully materialize, the NBA owners would find themselves in a disadvantageous position. The owners shouldn’t give Williams the opportunity to love Europe like McAdoo did. If they do, it could end up being very costly this time.
Originally Published in The Emory Wheel on 8/29/2011