BEIJING -- The hoops proselytizer in commissioner
He never imagined his backyard could be poached from afar. But overseas tycoons -- with the kind of wealth Russian oilmen have used to gobble up art at Christie's of New York, with the kind of strong euro currency foreigners have flashed to land Manhattan's prime real estate -- are looking for new baubles in the United States: like
As the men's Redeem Team barrels toward a gold medal, and as the women's Dream Team continues to dominate the Beijing Games, it's obvious that while the players of the NBA and WNBA are nobly playing for country, they are also auditioning for a world of cash.
James, of LeBron Inc., is openly using the Olympic stage as a catwalk for his global brand, letting it be known to any European suitors that, yes, 'Bron is for sale when he becomes a free agent in 2010. "I like that rumor," he said. Bryant, who owns enough rings to satiate his NBA ambitions, speaks Italian as the second language of his childhood and enjoys the unconditional love of foreign fans undisturbed by his diva ways, is even more likely to jump.
A few giant leaps would devastate the NBA, not in its bottom line, but in its superiority complex. It's hard to proclaim you're No. 1 if top-shelf players migrate across the pond. But this was coming, wasn't it? By globalizing to expand its financial empire, the league unwittingly sabotaged itself by exposing the world to a game it then co-opted for its own.
By assembling Dream Teams as a marketing tool for the past 16 years, the NBA set itself up for the inevitable paradox: Once the
Now look who's impressed with whom? "If someone hands $40 million a year to you over there," pondered
Already, nearly a dozen NBA bit players have taken the bait this offseason.
"I don't think we've seen the last of this," Team USA sharpshooter
The women have been hip to this overseas biz for years, often supplementing their $50,000-level WNBA incomes with Euro League money, but even they are being feted with unthinkable new deals.
"As an athlete, you want to win," U.S. women's assistant coach
This international free trade wasn't part of the NBA plan. The strategy was to eventually establish a franchise in, say, London, where owners would pay an entry fee to the NBA. The Euros are going solo, though. What happened to the NBA being the be-all, end-all? Who would have believed the Dream Team would, over a six-year stretch of underperforming, be one root of the league's lost cachet?
For this reason, the Redeem Team's success this time around is more important than ever to the NBA. So far, it looks back and better than its predecessors against much heartier Olympic competition than the U.S. faced amid the Angola blowouts of the '92 Barcelona Games. A gold medal in Beijing would reverse some of the image erosion, and restore the league's marquee billing. No. 1, once again.
But has the damage already been done? If a player like LeBron or Kobe ends up in Europe, the map of basketball will be re-drawn, with the NBA nudged from the center of the hoops universe. If so, the NBA's global outreach -- which enriched the league with so many