Besiktas has been a major player in the lockout already. The Turkish club already has signed Deron Williams to play for them for the duration of the lockout and the team has flirted with Kobe Bryant, reportedly meeting with him Thursday. Even if the meeting ends with Bryant saying, “No way will I play there” this middling Turkish club team has made its mark in this apparent frenzy of NBA stars going to Europe.
Many teams all over the world have been inquiring about locked out NBA players. Very few full-time NBA players have signed with teams overseas — mostly because they are waiting to see if any part of the season will be saved and trying to negotiate opt-out clauses — but as the lockout drags on, expect more and more players to more seriously explore the overseas option.
David Stern and the owners are going to test the actual resolve of these players to risk their health and comfort to play during the lockout. The NBA seems fairly certain that no player is going to elect to stay in Europe once the NBA returns from lockout. Not even Josh Childress did that.
For European teams, and for the expansion of the international game, this could be a turning point for them. This could be the moment they can get to the forefront of the sports world in their countries and try to challenge the nation’s most popular sports and activities.
The NBA has been spearheading a campaign to expand the game throughout the world. The league has offices in China and Kobe Bryant is arguably the most popular player in the ever-growing nation. The sport has grown immensely in Europe too. Several teams have taken training camp in Europe including playing exhibition games with some of the best teams the Euroleague has to offer.
But now those European (and Chinese) teams and those countries have the chance to make the NBA’s best players their own. And that can be a transformational shift.
That is typically seen as one of the many things holding soccer, the world’s most popular sport, back in the United States. The best players in the world do not come to the U.S. Instead, great players like Thierry Henry and David Beckham come to MLS to retire and enjoy the twilights of their careers.
The only time soccer was supremely successful was when Pele signed with the New York Cosmos in 1975, setting off a national soccer hysteria. Soccer was played on national television and in front of sold out crowds for really the first time in modern U.S. history. It is a peak the U.S. soccer federation has been desperately trying to copy again and again.
In American, though, one truth reigns over all. People will only come out to see the best.
In places like Turkey, Italy, Greece and Spain, where basketball teams are firmly established with soccer-like fan followings, adding premier players will increase interest anywhere they go.
Imagine for a second, though, what would happen if more players follow Ron Artest’s crazy idea of playing in England. England barely qualified for the 2012 Olympics… and they had an automatic berth as the host nation. This is not a basketball country.
The NBA played its first regular season games in England last year when the Nets took on the Raptors. The two teams sold out the O2 Arena for a pair of games in March. The Nets are scheduled to host the Magic in London next year.
Clearly in a country that is not quite a home for basketball yet does have an apetite for seeing the best players in the world — and most would agree, the Nets and Raptors are not anywhere near the best the NBA has to offer.
That seems to make you believe if Dwight Howard or Kobe Bryant do decide to play overseas during the lockout, a large crowd will follow and it will gain interest wherever they decide to play.
It will take more for basketball to uproot soccer in any nation. Likely it would take several of the league’s best players heading over to the same league and showcasing their talents. And that is not going to happen unless the infrastructure of European teams improves. Even Besiktas is not the best of teams in taking care of players despite the interest they have shown toward and from NBA players.
More than anything, the players just want to play and are trying to make it clear they will do so at whatever cost. The flirtation with playing in Europe during the lockout is as much a posturing ploy to show the owners they are willing to play for someone and somewhere else if the owners continue to lock them out as it is about simply playing the game. Each statement is calculated in this lockout (mostly).
David Stern would love to see interest in the NBA grow from having players spread the gospel in Europe. If fans take to players as much as the Cosmos and soccer fans in America took to Pele, Stern might win this battle in spreading the game overseas without creating a competitor to his league (that might be the great fear for the owners in all this… multiple superstars staying in Europe and making the NBA compete for the top talent).
There likely will not be much of a shift. There is not enough concert action from the best players in their prime to revolutionize the world.