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Players union trying to keep the “play in Europe” dream alive for lockout

Feb 14, 2011, 9:48 AM EST

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It’s another negotiating tactic.

Kobe Bryant followed in the footsteps of Dirk Nowitzki and Brandon Jennings in saying he might play in Europe — Italy, in this case — if there is a lockout.

Except there is a massive hurdle — they are all under contract to an NBA team. Any player under an NBA contract that wants to sign in Europe would have to get FIBA to sign a Letter of Clearance. FIBA has hinted if the entire season were cancelled they might consider this, but now we’re into January already, and that’s not counting the time from the lawsuit to block the move the league would inevitably file.

(If a free agent wants to go overseas — for example if Carmelo Anthony opts out then signs with Barcelona — that is completely legal. It’s the guys under contract we’re talking about.)

Union sources told ESPN’s Marc Stein they don’t think the Letter of Clearance issue is really an issue and players could go overseas. Of course they did. This is a negotiation and it’s about leverage. Realty has little place in this kind of rhetoric.

But the Stein article did have two interesting tidbits about what the union is telling the players about Europe. And it doesn’t paint a rosy picture as a realistic option.

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 is prepared to suggest that Europe, even if its legal read proves correct, will be a legitimate option for more than a handful of locked-out NBAers.

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