The NBA Rookie switched on the light in his apartment and sat down to study the itinerary for his first regular-season road trip.
"Let's see, we land in Rome on Pan Am, November 9th, 9:40 a.m., and don't play 'til the next night," the rookie said to himself. "Give me some time to check out the dol-say-veeda action, provided the jet lag's not too bad. Leave the morning after the game on Alitalia, land an hour later in Milan, play a game that night.
"Head to Madrid on Iberia the next afternoon, arrive two hours later—man, it takes an hour just to get from Sacramento to L.A., and they're in the same state!—and no game 'til the next night. Get some dinner at that Casa Carne, where they cook your steak right on the plate, or maybe some American food at the Hollywood Restaurant the vets talk about. Morning after the Madrid game, an hour hop to Barcelona. We can hook a couple hours of Mediterranean beach time before the game, if we don't have a shootaround.
"After that—yeah, here it is—Air France to Par-ee, baby! Coach is worried we got an off night there, but, hey, you can get in trouble in Salt Lake City if you're looking, right? The thing about Par-ee, you just don't have to look as hard.
November 7, 1988
"Leave Paris the morning after the game on Olympic Airways, change in Athens to El Al, get to Tel Aviv two hours later, game the next night. Vets say the Israeli fans are crazy, like in Boston Garden. But they also say Tel Aviv has the best discos and the best-looking women. And they love basketball players.
"Fly home on TWA the morning following the game. So, that's—what?—12 days? Six games, seven airlines, six cities, four countries. Wouldn't think it could be done. Coach will probably be happy if we get out with three wins. Same as any road trip, I guess. Next year we'll be over here even longer, with London and Vilnius, which is someplace in Lithuania, joining the European Division, and after that it's supposed to be Athens and maybe Munich and Moscow and Belgrade. And I thought we played in some strange places in college."
It wasn't too long ago that the NBA was like a tattered and dispirited army, marching out of step and casting worried glances at the sky for incoming missiles from all directions. At least half a dozen franchises were in financial trouble, drug use among players was widespread, labor unrest between the league and the players' association bubbled near the surface, and TV ratings ranged from disappointing to disappearing. The final game of the 1980 championship series between Julius Erving's 76ers and rookie Magic Johnson's Lakers was shown on tape delay by CBS, a slap in the face that commissioner David Stern would later call "our biggest public relations disaster of the decade."
But eight years later, the picture has changed. Not only has the league stopped retreating, but it's also on the offensive, looking for new places to conquer. Today, Charlotte, Miami, Minnesota and Orlando. Tomorrow? The world. In how many languages can you say Air Jordan?
The NBA has television agreements in 75 countries, on every continent except Antarctica, ranging from the obvious, like Italy, Spain and France, to the esoteric, like Qatar, a small, oil-rich country in the Persian Gulf. As best as the league can figure, 200 million foreign households could receive its games on a regular (60 games per year are broadcast in Italy and Spain) or irregular (14 are shown in Singapore) basis. At the same time, NBA merchandise is being peddled in some 40 countries outside the U.S., so that the wide-eyed Italian lad who watches Magic Johnson on television can run out and buy himself a Laker T-shirt.
And what's the NBA's manifest destiny in all of this? Well, you read the itinerary. European expansion. Believe it. It will happen.
Stern speaks cautiously on the subject, and he refuses to discuss a timetable. But it's a virtual certainty that some kind of target date is free-floating through his agile mind.
So, let us hazard this guess: Before any of the four new expansion teams (the Charlotte Hornets and the Miami Heat begin play this season; the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Orlando Magic will start in 1989-90) challenge for the championship, NBA franchises will be based in at least six European cities. In 1995? No. Turn of the century? Yes.
And extensive intercontinental competition, a prelude to European expansion, is much closer. The NBA's participation in an international tournament called the McDonald's Basketball Open (won by the Milwaukee Bucks at home last year and by the Boston Celtics, in Madrid, two weeks ago) is only the beginning. By the early 1990s, the league champion, according to an NBA executive, is likely to play Europe's best professional teams in round-robin, or, at the very least, single-game competition. "We're always using the term 'world champion,' yet we don't play any of the other champions," says Portland's vice-president for basketball operations, Bucky Buckwalter. "Let's really see if we are."
The dozen or so NBA officials and team executives, foreign players and scouts familiar with the European scene (and for purposes of this story, Tel Aviv, which is in Asia, will be considered European) who were interviewed for this article are in general agreement about the cities that could sustain NBA franchises. All are within about four hours of one another; except for the flight from the U.S. to Europe, player jet lag on European trips should not be a big deal. Milan, Madrid, Barcelona and Tel Aviv are proven basketball hotbeds. Rome and Paris, though not nearly as hoops-crazy as the first four, would have to be included because of what they are; the NBA wouldn't be big league in the U.S. without franchises in New York and Los Angeles, right? London, Munich and Athens are maybes. Knowledgeable fans and excellent homegrown talent make Belgrade, Vilnius and maybe Moscow ripe for NBA franchises, but the difficulty of negotiating contracts with Communist countries will have to be overcome.
Lest our imaginary six-game itinerary for the rookie still seems farfetched, consider what has already happened to suggest that European expansion is a sound idea.
•The pathways between the NBA and Europe are already well-worn. True, the drafting of foreign players by teams such as the Atlanta Hawks and the Portland Trail Blazers has yet to bear fruit, but more to the point of European expansion is the success of American players in Europe: A pipeline of U.S. over-the-hill or borderline pros has been supplying European teams for decades. Consider the city of Bologna, whose basketball teams recently picked up 36 years of NBA experience in the persons of newcomers Artis Gilmore and Gene Banks (who play for Arimo Bologna) and Micheal Ray Richardson and Clemon Johnson (who play for Knorr Bologna). And Knorr's guiding hand is former New York Knicks coach Bob Hill. Richard Kaner, an agent-scout who has been signing Americans for European teams for two decades, estimates that at least 100 former NBA players are playing for teams in more than a dozen European countries this season.
•The U.S. league is already up to its kneepads in European business deals. The NBA could realize as much as $5 million in European revenues by 1989, the bulk of it through television agreements and merchandise sales. That may not seem like much when compared with the $70 million in TV revenues or the $300 million in merchandising it generates domestically, but the European figure will only get larger. Much larger. European TV systems are only now beginning to move toward diversification and privatization, and, thus, a competitive and commercial situation exists in Europe that's roughly analogous to the one involving cable systems in the U.S. Those systems will need programming, and the NBA is already in on the ground floor, competing for European audiences with The Cosby Show, Dallas and other American fare.
And there's no sign that the European appetite for NBA products will get anything but more voracious. One of the top-selling T-shirts in Italy for Spalding Sports Worldwide, a licensee for a wide range of NBA products in Europe, bears a silk-screened photo of the Original Celtics team from the '20s. Why? "Because they're fascinated with American products and fascinated with the NBA," says Scott Creelman, a Spalding vice-president. Spalding expects to realize $10 million in European sales of NBA products by September of 1989, according to Creelman. Says Stern, "The key thing to remember is that we've barely scratched the surface internationally."
•The NBA has made all the proper political moves in Europe, too, by deferring to the existing powers. One of Stern's first moves when he became commissioner on Feb. 1, 1984, was to cultivate the friendship of Boris Stankovic, a Yugoslavian who's secretary-general of FIBA, the worldwide governing body of basketball. "T have no problem with David Stern," says Stankovic. "He has done things very honorably, very professionally. It will be entirely up to him when, and if, he decides to come to Europe." Do not underestimate Stankovic. FIBA has no control over the NBA, of course, but its jurisdiction does include all European basketball, including the pro leagues. If the NBA is to make any foreign inroads, it must run some give-and-go plays with FIBA, even though the idea of courting a guy named Boris whose headquarters are in Munich may rankle some NBA hard-liner types.
•Europe is becoming a much easier place to do business, and that fact greatly enhances any NBA expansion scenario. The 12-nation European Community (EC) has already removed many nontariff barriers and has chosen 1992 as a target for creating a true Common Market. This will eliminate many of the Byzantine problems that have traditionally beset American enterprises, including the NBA, that do business in Europe.
•Basketball is the second-most popular sport, behind soccer, in several European countries. Moreover, the NBA's supremacy is not only recognized but also celebrated in Europe, where there's no real college game to compete with the pro game. NBA stars are lionized in Italy, Spain and France, where glossy magazines with names like Maxi-Basket (published in Le Mans), Nuevo Basket (Barcelona) and Super Basket (Milan) keep almost breathless tabs on every aspect of the NBA. Any former NBA player, star or scrub, is invariably among his team's most popular players. "Fans here know as much about the NBA as they do about basketball in their own country," says Mike D'Antoni, a former NBA guard who's entering his 12th season with Philips Milan (formerly Tracer Milan) in the 32-team Italian League.
Some day, ironically, the European Division of the NBA could face its stiffest competition from other American sports, especially football. The NFL will realize about $3.5 million in revenues this year from television and merchandise sales in Europe, and one NFL official called Europe "a major growth area, already yielding five times what it was three years ago." Still, football, baseball, hockey, whatever, do not begin to approach basketball as a "live" sport in Europe.
"Clearly there's a high awareness of the NFL in Europe," says Creelman. "The difference is that Europeans see the NFL as more of a spectacle, entertainment, not necessarily something they can participate in. The NBA is seen as spectacle and participation."
The European Division would immediately cash in on that dual perception. It would not function as a junior varsity to the NBA; its rosters would be manned by U.S.-caliber pros, not homegrown players selected to appease the ticket-buying constituency. Oh, Stankovic believes that European teams will need European players to succeed, and he's not alone in that opinion, but that notion underestimates the European fan's sophistication, not to mention his prejudice in favor of American players. And, anyway, by the time the European Division is in place, today's strong 10-year-old kid in Spain may have blossomed into a center along the lines of that celebrated Nigerian expatriate, Akeem Olajuwon.
Franchise ownership in the European Division would not necessarily be a problem, though most European professional teams bear corporate names that simply would not wash in the NBA. Peel away the corporate skin of most European teams and you'll find in almost every case a millionaire businessman at the core, just as you do in the NBA. At any rate, NBA observers feel that there will be no shortage of interest in the league among deep-pocketed European businessmen, not to mention Americans or American companies with multinational inclinations.
What are the drawbacks? Obviously, any expansion dilutes the talent pool, and the movement into Europe would create an entire division of weak-sister expansion teams. New arenas would have to be built in several of the cities to meet minimum NBA capacities. And, even though the NBA has already seduced the European fan, it's impossible to assess the degree of resentment that the executives, coaches and players of the established European teams would feel toward NBA intrusion, and what impact that resentment would have. There will be cries of Yankee colonialism, creeping imperialism, call it what you will.
But, then, there are always such cries, and over matters more important than basketball, no? And there are always complaints about diluted talent pools and subpar arenas whenever a pro league expands. European expansion will make these problems more acute but not insurmountable.
How strange would the thought of franchises in Madrid and Milan seem to the NBA pioneers whose teams played in cities like Fort Wayne, Providence, Rochester, Sheboygan and Waterloo. But there were lots of things they couldn't have imagined then, things like multimillion-dollar contracts, 360-degree dunks and the Laker Girls. They never imagined that the players would get so big, either—or that the world would get so small.