Playing abroad might be a tough contest

February, 14, 2011
2/14/11
2:30
AM ET
Stein By Marc Stein
ESPN.com
Archive
Kobe Bryant is the latest big name to let it be known that he likes the sound of playing in a top European league next season in the event of an extended work stoppage, making him the new headliner on a head-turning list that also features Dirk Nowitzki, Brandon Jennings and Andrei Kirilenko.

Kirilenko, though, will be a free agent this summer, which means that Utah’s veteran swingman doesn’t have to get anyone’s permission.

There’s no such clarity when it comes to the likes of Bryant, Nowitzki and Jennings, because all three would remain under contract to their current NBA employers during a lockout. That reality has spawned the widespread belief that the sport’s international governing body (FIBA) -- presumably under pressure from David Stern -- would block any player contracted to an NBA team from playing elsewhere, since Stern has staunchly supported the participation of NBA players in FIBA’s international tournaments for the past two decades despite the frequent protestations of his owners.

Nowitzki himself sounds pessimistic about securing the freedom to sample the ball in Greece or his native Germany if the 2011-12 season doesn’t start on time, as covered in this cyberspace earlier this month.

Sources close to the situation, however, say that the NBA Players Association is quietly convinced that such pessimism is misplaced and that its players actually can’t be blocked from playing overseas during a lockout.

The union, according to one source, believes that NBA teams ultimately will not be able to legally enforce contracts during an NBA shutdown, whether it’s short or long, which would theoretically clear the way for the Lakers’ and Mavericks’ worst nightmare.

Yet I’ve also been strongly advised that the union anticipates having to caution its constituents with two very strong warnings about playing elsewhere during a lockout in the event that labor negotiations drag into the fall and the NBA finds itself unexpectedly powerless to prevent vets from moonlighting abroad:

1. The union will be telling its players that they risk forfeiting any guaranteed money left on their NBA contracts if they suffer serious injury overseas. Bryant, for example, is owed $83.5 million over the next three seasons. Nowitzki is currently in the first season of a new four-year, $80 million deal. The Lakers and Mavericks would almost certainly have the ability to void those deals if Bryant or Nowitzki suffered some sort of catastrophic injury in an overseas gym. And you have to believe -- drastic as the notion of cutting ties with franchise icons sounds in those examples -- that the threat of getting hurt and invalidating a guaranteed contract will deter plenty of people.

2. The union, I’m told, is also realistic about the overseas market and knows that only a limited numbers of players can reasonably expect decent offers. There are likewise very few teams, even in Europe’s biggest leagues, with the budget to come anywhere close to NBA money, which is why we never saw the once-feared exodus of NBA players after Josh Childress left for Greece in the summer of 2008 for two seasons with Olympiacos. So no one in the players' association, even if its legal read proves correct, is prepared to suggest that Europe will be a legitimate option for more than a handful of locked-out NBAers.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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