For years, David Stern has looked overseas, to Europe in particular, as a way to build the NBA brand. He has pushed hard for it. After years of sending teams to Europe to play preseason games (including the Celtics in Rome to start the Big 3 era), the NBA staged its first ever regular season games in Europe this past season.
"I think we'll have a division and I think the Heat will play in Boston one night and then they'll go to Paris and spend a couple days on the Champs-Elysses shopping and relaxing," Stern said. "And then they'll go and play five teams. And when they finish that, they'll play them again. Then they'll come home, having had a nice trip to Europe and they'll be finished with their European obligations."
The NBA in Europe is a dream of his that really started when the 1992 "Dream Team" stormed through Barcelona. That team didn't just reclaim the gold for American basketball, it was a sort of "Johnny Appleseed" that planted hoops and blacktop throughout Europe. With newly inspired youth taking up the sport, leagues found an influx of talent. The best of the best mostly came to the NBA, but there has been enough talent to create a market now that Stern feels can support NBA expansion.
But, Stern's European vision may have also created a downside for him.
The goal of a lockout is to break the will of the players… specifically the players who make the least and can't afford to go without a paycheck for an extended period of time. There's also a group of new millionaires who have gone on spending binges and really need to make some cash to keep up with their extravagant lifestyles. In the past, those guys could all do nothing more than sit around and get antsy.
But now, David Stern's push into Europe has created a place where these players can land. With a trickle of NBA guys starting to sign overseas already, No, it's not NBA money, but its money. And they're playing basketball against decent competition. With money coming in and a place to play basketball, what leverage do the owners truly have over players?
What effect will that have on the lockout?
Who knows? If enough of these guys do go play ball overseas during the lockout, will the owners realize the lessened impact of the lockout and come to the bargaining table with a more palatable offer that will end it quickly? Will the owners take a tougher stance to test the mettle of the players who stayed home for the summer? Or will the players, knowing their most vulnerable guys are ok, dig in their heels and try to break the owners, who have nowhere to turn as they continue to make financing payments for their teams?
Europe was David Stern's vision. And it could become his undoing as he tries to radically change the NBA's financial system.