By Jeff McDonald
Danny Green didn’t grow up with a green and white replica Union Olimpija jersey on his back. He did not have posters of Slovenian basketball greats such as Jure Zdovc and Rasho Nesterovic adorning the walls of his childhood bedroom in Long Island.
His hoops dreams have always been, and still are, as American as apple pie and monster trucks.
“I always wanted to play in the NBA,” Green said.
Green accomplished that goal in 2009-10, appearing in 20 games with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He played in 12, including four playoff games, last season with the Spurs.
Yet earlier this month, Green found himself with bag in hand at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, about to board a flight ultimately bound for Slovenia, his new, foreign basketball home for the time being.
While the NBA lockout limps along, threatening to cancel all or part of the 2011-12 season, Green found a soft landing in Ljubljana, Slovenia, playing for the same team — Union Olimpija — as 2011 Spurs draft pick Davis Bertrans.
In doing so, Green, a 24-year-old swingman, has joined the slowly swelling rolls of out-of-work NBA players who have signed on to study abroad, for promise of a modest payday, until the league’s owners and players association settle their differences.
“I didn’t want to jeopardize what I had here,” said Green, who secured an opt-out clause in his Slovenian contract that would allow him to return to the Spurs at lockout’s end. “At the same time, I just needed to play somewhere.”
A EUROPEAN INVASION?
So far, 30 players who ended last season on an NBA roster have agreed to open next season abroad, with that number growing weekly. So have eight members of the league’s ? June draft class, who have been unable to sign rookie contracts in the NBA for lack of a collective bargaining agreement.
Like Green, most have negotiated opt-out clauses that would free them to honor existing NBA contracts, or to sign a new one, once the labor impasse is over.
“Pretty soon, the whole NBA might be in Europe,” said Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins, who says he’s examining overseas options as well.
That was the vision National Basketball Players Union chief Billy Hunter was hoping to sell earlier this summer, when he gave his membership blessing to pursue opportunities outside the NBA. It is also the message being sent by a powerful cadre of player agents, who can’t draw a paycheck unless their clients do.
As in any labor tug-of-war, leverage is everything.
“This is the way players make a living,” said agent Mark Bartelstein, who has funneled a handful of his clients overseas already. “The NBA has locked the players out. If a good opportunity comes along (overseas), at some point maybe they go that way, instead of waiting around on something they can’t control.”
Two months into the lockout, the U.S.-to-Europe pipeline isn’t gushing yet.
Though numerous All-Stars have publicly pondered earning their next paycheck overseas — among them the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, Orlando’s Dwight Howard, Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, Miami’s Dwyane Wade and the Spurs’ Tony Parker — only one has actually signed his name on an international dotted line.
The foreign floodgates that were supposed to open after Nets guard Deron Williams signed with Turkish team Besiktas in July remain only slightly ajar. The recent decision by the Chinese Basketball Association to ban contracted NBA players from joining that league only served to shrink the foreign labor market.
So the basic profile of the Euro-bound NBA player — young, relatively low-paid, preferably a free agent — isn’t likely to cause league owners to blink at the bargaining table.
Aside from Williams, the most notable NBA players already to have signed overseas are Portland’s Nicolas Batum (France), Toronto’s Leandro Barbosa (Brazil) and Boston’s Nenad Krstic (Russia). Chris Quinn, the Spurs’ third-string point guard last season, accepted a contract in Russia with no opt-out clause.
“There are a lot of variables, a lot of question marks you have to weigh when that situation comes into play,” said Spurs guard Gary Neal, who split three seasons between Italy and Spain before joining the NBA last year. “It depends on the person, their financial status, their family situation. All those variables come into play when you’re talking about moving thousands and thousands of miles away to work.”
NOT FOR EVERYONE
With European training camps set to start at the end of September, and rosters filling up fast, time is running out for a mass exodus.
Money is one issue. According to research at InsideHoops.com, the highest-paid player in Europe last season was Theo Papaloukas, who earned $5.1 million playing for Olympiacos in Greece. That figure is slightly less than the NBA’s mid-level exception.
For the more highly paid NBA players, the cost of securing insurance to protect their American contracts against injury while abroad could prove prohibitive.
“Each situation is different,” Bartelstein said. “A player under a lucrative, long-term (NBA) contract — for that player it doesn’t make a lot of sense to go overseas.
“For players that are free agents, young players who want playing time or veterans who can come close to the amount of money they’re making now, it makes more sense.”
The differences between the NBA and overseas leagues are more than monetary. Americans playing abroad can often experience acute culture shock, especially if they’ve become accustomed to the creature comforts of the NBA.
Most every NBA player who has ever ventured overseas returns with a cautionary tale involving unruly crowds and security trouble, a concern underscored recently when the Georgetown University men’s team had an exhibition in China ended by full-scale brawl.
Milwaukee Bucks guard Brandon Jennings, who played a year in Italy straight out of high school in 2008, says he has no plans to go back, even in the midst of a work stoppage.
“It’s nothing like the NBA, of course,” Jennings said. “That’s not to say it’s bad. It’s still basketball. It’s just a different way of living and a different way of doing things.”
DREAMS ON HOLD
Even if the NBA-infused European leagues turn out to be more like Euro Disney — a low-rent facsimile of the original — players are hopeful the specter of an expanded job market might ramp up pressure on the owners during labor negotiations.
Packing up and heading overseas wasn’t a viable option for players during the league’s last lockout in 1999.
“The world’s a lot smaller than it was in 1999,” Bartelstein said. “There’s a lot less fear of the unknown. The level of basketball over there has skyrocketed. The whole dynamics of the world have changed.”
That’s what Green was counting on earlier this month, when he loaded what would fit into a pair of oversized suitcases, printed his boarding pass to Slovenia’s consonant-heavy capital city by way of Munich, and prepared to journey into unfamiliar territory.
It isn’t the career path Green would have chosen for himself. With his NBA dreams on hiatus, it’s the best one available to him.
“I’ve heard horror stories about playing overseas, and I’ve heard good stories,” said Green, who is under contract with the Spurs for next season if there is one.
“I don’t know what to expect.”
No matter how things go in Slovenia, Green’s goal remains the same: Get back on American soil, and an NBA court, as soon as possible.
A glance at some notable names among the 30 NBA players who have signed with teams overseas while the league tries to figure out its labor dispute:
*: denotes no opt-out clause