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Would NBA players dare to leave US?

JAIME C. HARRIS Special to the AmNews | 7/22/2011, 10:36 a.m.
Would NBA players dare to leave US?

Has Deron Williams' bold and somewhat risky decision to sign a contract with Beikta, a Turkish basketball club based in Istanbul, opened the floodgates for a mass exodus of NBA stars to far way places? Probably not. However, it has fostered deep thought among many high profile players that plying their trade overseas until the NBA lockout is resolved must be seriously considered, even with the possibility of a career-threatening injury.

Foreign-born ballers such as ZaZa Pachulia of the Atlanta Hawks and Williams' New Jersey Nets teammate Sasha Vujacic are more likely to take the leap than their American-born peers. Pachulia also agreed to a deal with Beikta, the Euroleague team for which Allen Iverson briefly played last season. Vujacic, the onetime Los Angeles Laker, has joined Anadolu Efes, also in Turkey.

All three have an opt-out clause that allows them to return to the NBA when the lockout ends. Having a viable alternative at their disposal provides the players' union with added leverage in their stalled negations with the owners and league commissioner David Stern. And with the Chinese Basketball Association looming as another appealing suitor, league executives must be concerned that a widespread defection of the NBA's stars could tarnish the NBA brand.

The impasse is unlikely to be settled by the scheduled start of the season this fall-the 2011-12 schedule was released on Tuesday-and with the two sides firmly dug in, the possibility of the entire season being cancelled is conceivable. The specter of no games being held has the Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard and men of his status keeping at least one eye widely open and private jets on standby.

"I'm not at liberty to talk about it," Howard told the Associated Press on Sunday, "but there's a huge possibility about me going to China or me going overseas to play basketball. If I decide to go overseas, the main thing is for me to continue to get better, not to do the things that I normally do, but do better at the things I'm not good at."

Even if Howard and most stars refrain from leaving the states, the irony is evident: Stern's tireless effort to globalize the NBA has ultimately given the players another weapon in this increasingly contentious labor battle.