The only aspect of the current NBA labor dispute more curious than the owners' insistence on a save-us-from-our-own-stupidity system is the growing number of players talking about playing overseas as though it's a logical alternative should the 2011-12 season be truncated or aborted.
I can appreciate a player wanting to defy commissioner David Stern telling him he can't ply his craft, but for the vast majority of NBA players the thought of playing in Europe is reckless at best and closer to outright illogical.
For Sonny Weems
, the 25-year-old Toronto Raptors forward who made $850,000 last season, locking in a similar deal in Lithuania rather than risking a year making nothing is shrewd. Same with 33-year-old Philadelphia 76ers free agent Darius Songaila
signing with Turkey's Galatasaray for $1.5 million.
For Kobe Bryant
, Ron Artest
, Rudy Gay
, Amare Stoudemire
, Deron Williams
or any other star risking his current NBA contract and future earning power, to play for a significantly smaller, non-guaranteed contract? Hardly.
But don't take my word for it. Phoenix Suns swingman Josh Childress
returned to the NBA this season after spending the previous two playing for the Grecian version of the Boston Celtics
, Olympiacos. Now that he's back in the NBA, I asked if he'd consider returning to Europe to play during the lockout and jeopardize the last four years of his five-year, $33 million deal.
"No, I wouldn't," he says. "And I don't know why guys would. I understand that guys really want to play. But you sometimes have to look at what you have and treat this as a business. The only way I could see it making sense is if you're a player from a particular country going back. But for an American player with a good-sized guaranteed deal here, I can't see why you'd do it."
One great misnomer is that a player is just as at risk of a contract-voiding injury playing at Pauley Pavilion or in some other offseason pick-up game as playing overseas.
"Couldn't be further from the truth," says agent Mark Bartlestein, whose agency, Priority Sports & Entertainment, has nearly 40 NBA clients and two dozen players overseas, including Songaila. "Every NBA player contract that I'm aware of has language in it that allows them to play pick-up basketball. But you're not protected if you're playing in a summer league, charity game or for a team in Europe. For a player who is in a big-time lucrative contract, there's tremendous risk."
It's known as the "For the Love of the Game" clause, or Exhibit 5, and it's the part in every standard NBA contract in which protected activities are listed. Bartlestein says it's routine to list informal offseason training sessions under it, including even summer pro-am leagues. But unless Kobe Bryant had the foresight to stipulate in his Exhibit 5 that he has the right to barnstorm China or play in Italy, should he injure that balky knee and be impaired upon his return, the Los Angeles Lakers would have grounds to take some or all of the $83.5 million they owe him over the next three years. Same goes for Williams and the $33 million the New Jersey Nets owe him over the next two years if he's hurt playing for Turkey's Besiktas.
Bill Duffy, head of BDA Sports Management, suggested there could be strong legal grounds to prevent an NBA team from voiding an existing contract, seeing as the lockout is forcing players to play elsewhere to earn income. But that still wouldn't protect a star, such as Williams, who could suffer an injury that isn't career-ending but simply value-diminishing. Several agents gave the same example: Shaun Livingston
. A potential franchise-cornerstone point guard, Livingston was building toward a maximum-salary deal or close to it before shredding his knee on a fast break four years ago. He's back playing but the chances of him signing an eight-figure deal are gone.
"For the NBA player with a market value of $2 million or more, Asia and Europe present very little in the way of legitimate playing options," says Mark Termini, whose agency has been placing clients with European teams for the past 25 years.
One report had Williams' contract with Turkey's Besiktas worth $5 million, but sources say that figure is inflated by incentives as lofty as Williams being the league MVP and Besiktas reaching the Turkish Finals, which it has done twice in its 108-year history, most recently in 2005.
Childress, comparatively, signed a three-year, $20 million deal with Olympiacos, but that's when its owners were trying to make a splash and Childress had to agree to stay at least one full season. With Greece's economy in ruins, both Olympiacos and Panathanaikos are now up for sale, leaving the number of teams able and willing to offer a deal comparable to Williams' at "less than 10," according to multiple sources.
Several teams from the Turkish League are spending lavishly because the country's economy is booming, but it is the exception thanks to, in part, not being a full member of the European Union. Not only are the days of the Greek government arranging tax-free concessions for its sports franchises over, but the cost of bailing out Greece has prompted other governments in the European Union to close tax loopholes for their country's teams as well.
NBA players are aghast at the thought of not having guaranteed contracts, but that's what they'd be signing with any European club. Childress doesn't see anything in Europe worth risking the $27 million remaining on the contract he signed with the Hawks as part of a sign-and-trade deal that landed him in Phoenix.
"One of the biggest things guys will have to realize is that whatever offer you get, there's no guarantee you'll actually get all that money," Childress says. "If a guy isn't playing well or a team is out of the playoffs, they'll just stop paying you. I know tons and tons of players who just walked away because they didn't want to go through the hassle of going to court to get their money."
And while Besiktas gave Williams an option to leave whenever the NBA lockout ends, the best teams in Europe are not inclined to do that.
"They want to build a team, not just get guys for a few months of entertainment," Childress says.
"Those teams don't look at themselves as a younger brother to the NBA or a feeder system or inferior level of competition," says one agent, who requested anonymity.
"Their perception and pride is not what it was 10 years ago."
Star players, no matter how big, should not expect star treatment, either. By anyone.
"Here the stars run the show," Childress says. "Over there it's the coach, and the coach only. You really have to buy into the system. The style of play is slower, a lot closer to a college style. It's a lot less reliant on talent and more on tactics and execution. They definitely have a high opinion of how they play the game and view NBA basketball as street ball. You go over there, you're playing against everyone -- other players, fans, referees, everyone. You don't get calls because you're stronger, faster and more athletic, so they think you should be able to take it."
The chance of injury, or falling out of favor, is heightened by travel and training that is considerably more spartan as well.
"I played for one of the biggest clubs in Europe," Childress says. "But there were still six- and seven-hour bus rides, we didn't stay at the best hotels and we flew commercial nine out of 10 times. And not all coaches care about your body. It's more military style. There's no getting tired. I'll be interested to see how guys' bodies respond."
Childress says he believes there may be a couple of select opportunities still available overseas and doesn't begrudge anyone from looking into them. But he had a word of advice:
"Do your research. Look into who the coaches are and the teams that don't pay. The worst thing is going over to play for however many months and then having to fight to get your money. I welcome guys to ask me questions. I can help them out. They play by different rules over there."
Ric Bucher is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.