American sports fans have always assumed that the sports world revolves around us. But if the NBA season is lost amid its ongoing labor dispute and enough players go abroad, basketball fans may have to permanently adjust to a multi-polar world where the best basketball players won't always necessarily play in the United States. Although fringe pursuits like soccer or tennis have long faced international competition, our core sports of baseball, football, and basketball (with apologies to hockey — which is more of a regional sport than a national one) have always been dominated by the United States. But while football is a purely North American taste and baseball's international appeal is mostly limited to the Pacific Rim and the Caribbean, basketball has a fan base around the world that's fervent, growing, and eager to provide work for NBA stars.
This means that unlike athletes in other sports, professional basketball players have other options to earn a living if the NBA's season is canceled. So far, they have been taking advantage of them. According to one tally done by ESPN.com, 19 NBA players have already signed contracts overseas next year. While this group does include some journeymen players who might have ended up playing in Europe regardless, it includes some solid NBA players and one bona fide star, Deron Williams of the New Jersey Nets, who has signed a contract with a Turkish team. Although some of these players, like Williams, have signed contracts with opt-out clauses that would enable them to return to the NBA if the lockout ends, not all of them have.
Further, even though the traditional European basketball powerhouses in Italy, Spain, and Greece have all been economically weakened by the financial crisis, there is a non-European alternative emerging for many NBA players. The Chinese Basketball Association has no salary cap and is heavily backed by international corporations like Nike, which sees China as a huge untapped market — since, after all, one billion people need two billion shoes. It was reported today that a Chinese team has offered Dwyane Wade $2 million a month to play in China, and similar contracts have reportedly been discussed with perennial NBA all-stars like Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant.
But not all NBA players will want to play in China. Some big-name players have expressed strong preferences to play in other countries like Amare Stoudemire of the Knicks, who has mused publicly about joining Maccabi Tel Aviv and Ron Artest, who expressed his excitement about playing in the United Kingdom until he discovered that the English Basketball League was only "the 10th or 12th best league in Europe." If the NBA cancels its season, which seems increasingly likely, the result would scatter the best basketball players around the world from St. Petersburg to Sao Paulo to Shanghai.
If the NBA season is cancelled, it would end the league's stranglehold on elite basketball — perhaps forever. The world of basketball would instead resemble that of soccer, where no one nation can definitively be said to offer the highest caliber of competition.
Basketball fans would get used to following their favorite players regardless of whether they played for the Houston Rockets or the Bayi Rockets in China. Further, once NBA players go abroad, it's by no means automatic that they'll come back once the labor issues are settled. If the salaries are competitive, they might find they prefer playing overseas than in the US; the teams that employ them will have even more money to spend from increased fan interest at home and from building a television audience of basketball-starved fans back in the States.
Fans do not just buy tickets to watch a game. After all, anyone can watch as many pickup games as they choose in a public park. Fans are paying to watch competition at its highest level. If the NBA does not resolve its lockout soon, when games do resume the league may not be able to feature the unparalleled level of athletic skill that fans have come to expect. And once the NBA's monopoly is broken, it may be gone for good.
Globe file: New Jersey Nets' Deron Williams, who signed a contract with the Turkish team Besiktas.