Should I stay or should I go?
With the scheduled start of the NBA season in serious doubt, this is the question facing Kobe Bryant, now that he's holding a firm offer from Virtus Bologna in Italy to play during the lockout. According to the report, Kobe has a variety of options available to him, from a full-year contract worth $6.7 million to two- and one-month deals, or even a per-game option, paying him pocket change under $740,000 per run. In any scenario, Bryant would have an out to return Stateside should the NBA season start.
There aren't yet signs indicating whether Bryant will actually accept the offer. Perhaps he's mulling it over. If so, here's a handy guide to whether donning the black and white of Virtus Bologna is worth it:
5 Reasons to Take the Offer
The Experience. Kobe grew up in Italy, where his father played professionally. He loves the country, speaks the language and has talked about playing there before he hangs up the sneaks for good. Few, if any, NBA pros have as well honed a sense of basketball history as Kobe. Presumably, it encompasses not just the deeds of hoops legends, but his family history as well. The opportunity to suit up in Italy and connect to his roots while still an elite player would have understandable appeal.
Virtus Bologna is a Legitimate Team. While they're not Euroleague qualifiers, Virtus is a legit squad in Serie A, one of the better leagues in Europe. He could hang with Chris Douglas-Roberts, formerly of the Bucks. The quality of competition would certainly be better than what he would have seen with, say, Besiktas.
Players Play. If Kobe passes on this and other offers that come, it's not like he's going to be sitting around. He'll be playing somewhere, because that's what these guys do. If he's going to get a run one way or another, why not take advantage of the cultural opportunity for him and his family, in a league with excellent structure?
The Money Ain't Bad. Setting aside for the moment questions about whether he "needs" it, $740K per home game is real cash. Put in perspective, Kobe earned $302,515 per game last season with the Lakers. They wouldn't be wasting his time, at least under the short-term, per-home game contract structure. Plus, the money would be sponsor-provided by Canadian Solar, ensuring he would actually collect (often a problem in European league contracts).
Flexibility. Virtus Bologna is basically allowing Bryant to tailor his desired experience nearly exactly. He could get everything he wants out of it, and nothing he doesn't. Rarely in any profession are opportunities constructed this way.
5 Reasons to Pass on the Offer
Risk, Risk, Risk. Even if he's properly insured against financial loss due to a hypothetical injury on an Italian court -- and there's no way Rob Pelinka would allow him to take the floor if he wasn't -- substantial risk still exists. With only a handful of truly elite seasons left in him, why gamble with his health in a league that will do nothing for his legacy? The man lives to win NBA titles, not a few games in an Italian League. The cultural pull to play there might understandably be strong ... but strong enough to outweigh this?
Is the Money Worth It? Kobe Bryant has earned nearly $200 million over the course of his NBA career and is owed over $80 million more before his current deal with the Lakers expires. This doesn't include endorsements. Presumably, like financial bunny rabbits, his money has bred more money. Presumably, this would not be a financially driven decision. Plus, once his NBA career is over, he will still almost surely be able to play in Italy if he wants. For less money? Sure. But the aforementioned risk disappears, and he would still glean all the cultural benefits.
Obligations, 1.0. A couple weeks back, I saw what seemed like half of Philadelphia's roster running together in pickup ball at UCLA. Pacers players have organized workouts, as have other squads. At some point, it would be nice for the Lakers to follow suit, something Derek Fisher had indicated could happen earlier this summer. Presumably, Kobe would be helping lead that effort, or at least participating, both of which are tough to do from Bologna.
Obligations, 2.0. Players are free to sign whatever deals they can during the lockout and have the public blessing of the league. That doesn't mean all of them should. There are limited and quickly disappearing opportunities for American players overseas, and they're drying up fast. For Bryant to head over, gobbling up a roster spot and bunch of the sponsorship dollars in the process, the squeeze will be put on guys deeper down the union's economic ladder. Kobe has quietly done very good work standing with the Players Association, speaking to his colleagues and even reportedly offering to float loans to those in need. To some degree, hopping over to Italy undercuts that work. (This isn't a standard simply for Bryant, but all of the league's big stars. It's important to avoid looking like the rich are getting richer while more rank-and-file talent is left out in the cold, both for aesthetic reasons, and for union strength.)
What's the Point? If Kobe plays a season's worth of games for Bologna, he increases his risk for something bad happening. If he plays for a month, or even on a game-to-game deal, he's barely over there long enough to make an impact. Bologna plays once or twice a week in European leagues. What does he gain from, say, six Serie A games? If he plays just a game or two, Bryant gets some cash, but does he really engage the culture of European basketball? He would be better off organizing a family vacation to Italy, instead.
Put it all together, and while signing with Virtus Bologna makes more sense than accepting the flirtations of Besiktas, it still doesn't comprise a compelling enough package to outweigh the downside. Not unless Kobe's financial needs are different than we all suspect, or he just values the Italian experience that much. Should he accept, I suspect he'll do so on a game-to-game basis, or something similarly short-term. In the end, though, my guess is he turns down the offer.
Lakers fans should hope that's the case.