Europe and other destinations of global basketball, in the minds of most U.S.-born NBA players, might be handy for contract leverage. They’re valuable as back-up plans and certainly they can provide a source of much-needed funds at the front or back end of a career, whether we’re talking traction and survival early on or a few lingering paydays later.
But Europe, Asia or other foreign lands as a preference, as an active choice? That is, and figures to remain, uncharted terrirtory as far as the All-Stars or the Hall of Fame-bound elite are concerned.
Unless Kobe Bryant makes good on his daydream. And — this is the tricky part — opts to leave the last remaining bits of his game on the courts and in the record books of a non-NBA league.
Bryant, the Lakers’ star shooting guard, told Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports in London that a victory lap in Europe holds real appeal for him.
“It would be natural for me to go do it. It wouldn’t be a stretch at all. I grew up here.”
Bryant plans to play out the final two years of his Lakers contract and reassess everything. He’s still performing on an All-Star level, and his knees are holding up with his 34th birthday approaching this month. As the son of Italian League star Joe Bryant, he lived in Italy for several years as a child. His memories of Italy’s pro league plush, Bryant still gushes over witnessing the scoring genius of Brazilian star Oscar Schmidt in Italy.
There’s so much sentimentality about Italy and so much more of a business acumen about his ability to push product in Europe. He’ll be selling Nikes forever here.
If Bryant ever wanted to make this leap at the end of his career, his decision on where to play would be an intriguing one.
Bryant speaks both Italian and Spanish fluently, and ranks atop all active NBA stars as a marketing icon and in overall popularity. He even had a deal lined up to play in China for $2 million a month had the lockout dragged on, Wojnarowksi writes, until “the China Basketball Association passed a rule forbidding its teams to sign NBA players with existing contracts.”
Who among us wouldn’t welcome a chance to do a job we love, at premium pay, in an exotic locale near the end of our career? Even cubicle work takes on a special zest if you’re motoring to and from the office on a Vespa, enjoying the scenery, taking espresso breaks in cafes and booking weekend getaways to the Alps or to Tuscany.
Bryant, compared to most American NBA players, is cosmopolitan enough to not just survive but thrive in that environment. He knows all about the possibilities there:
“You’d have to look at the market and what’s going on in terms of the level of basketball being played,” Bryant said. “I understand there’s a high level of competitive basketball in Turkey now. They might have the best league in Europe. Spain has obviously been one of the top leagues for a long time.
“And Italy is a place that’s dear in my heart, I grew up there, but the level is not where it used to be. When I was growing up over there, that was the best league in Europe.”
There is, however, the issue of Bryant’s legacy and his place in NBA history. Assuming he still has enough game left to participate — and do his reputation justice in front of adoring international crowds — when his Lakers contract runs out in two seasons, he probably would have something left in the tank for this league, too. Does Bryant want to leave points, assorted other stats, highlights and possibly a final championship overseas, rather than counting them against other NBA legends?
With 29,484 points, Bryant currently ranks fifth all-time in NBA scoring. He trails No. 3 Michael Jordan, his most obvious inspiration and target, by 2,808 on the scoring list. That means Bryant, if he plays in 140 of L.A.’s 164 games over the next two seasons, would need to average about 20 ppg to catch him. At ages 34 and 35, given Bryant’s performance in 2011-12, that seems very doable. But what if he only gets close?
The same holds for other marks or achievements Bryant has left for his NBA portfolio. He’s fourth all-time in free throws made. Only nine men have scored more field goals. Are 14 All-Star Game appearances enough? (Probably yes, if it means another broken nose.)
And even as a citizen of the world, might he feel a little neglected if his final, final farewells were played out far away in grainy streaming video rather than in high-def NBA TV and SportsCenter coverage? The idea of being an ex-pat hoops legend may be appealing, but Bryant’s famous competitive fire suggests he might want to save his best and last for basketball’s best and brightest.