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NBA's rep could take hit if U.S. isn't golden

The big theater that serves as the main hall for press conferences was packed, and when the 12 tall men in Team USA jackets walked on stage, there were smatterings of forbidden applause and the sounds of suppressed gasps from the back of the room.

The source of the noise was the scores of Chinese volunteers who had sneaked away from whatever they were supposed to be doing to see these god-men with their own eyes. There are many things that people here do well, and one of them is coloring between the lines — obeying the rules. But the orders not to cheer and to stay at one’s post and not to wriggle into groups of working media to take pictures and ask for autographs were too much to ask when Carmelo and LeBron and Kobe and D-Wade and the rest of what is being called the Redeem Team arrived for a pre-tournament media session.

Thanks to the work of David Stern in spreading the NBA brand and local hero Yao Ming in making it relevant to a nation that is home to one-fifth of the world’s population, they are huge stars, known even here as one-name celebrities.

The NBA commissioner, wherever he was, had to be smiling at his product’s popularity; basketball is second only to soccer as an international sport. But the smile had to be accompanied by the uneasy realization that he may have done his job too well.

The taste for the NBA game has driven an international thirst for NBA talent. European teams that for years have been happy to see their brightest stars cross the Atlantic for fame and fortune while bolstering their rosters with Americans who aren’t quite good enough for prime time have recently decided what's good for David Stern can be good for them. And the $30-million, three-year contract a Greek team gave to American NBA player Josh Childress to play in Europe opened a lot of eyes.

This week, a story’s been flying around the world about clubs in Greece and Russia that may be willing to pay LeBron James $50 million a year — more than double what the NBA’s salary cap would allow him to make — when he becomes a free agent in 2010. The inevitable “people close to LeBron” have said he’d seriously consider such an offer. He’d be nuts not to, especially if the money was offered tax-free, as is rumored, which would triple what he could net in the NBA.

It turns out that a lot of other NBA stars — maybe all of them — would also listen to big offers to go abroad to play. To a fan, that may sound like apostasy. How could anyone want to play anywhere but in the NBA? But to a player, the game is a business, and the object of business is to make as much money as you can. If you can do that while doing something you love to do, so much the better.

“If somebody threw a $40- or $50-million contract on the table, I gotta look into it,” said Denver Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony. “David Stern did a tremendous job spreading the NBA and basketball, and now it’s coming back.”

“From a business standpoint, you have to at least listen to every offer,” said Toronto forward Chris Bosh, who mentioned the money that Childress is getting.

“As a businessman, I would have to consider it,” offered Carlos Boozer, who said he’d go to Europe to play, “If my wife was down and the money was right.”

You keep hearing that “business” refrain from the players, who have enough money to have to pay attention to its future well-being. They make a lot, but their careers are over in 10 or 15 years. They have to maximize their earnings while they can.

And it’s obvious from the reaction of the Chinese, who know every player on sight and stand by the thousands behind fences outside their practice gym just to cheer them as they get on a bus, that these guys are seriously popular.

Jerry Colangelo, the founding father of the Phoenix Suns and one of the architects of this team that has come to reclaim its crown as the ruler of world basketball, said the thought that there would be major defections from the NBA to Europe is not realistic. He recited a litany of reasons why it wouldn’t work, including inadequate arenas and marketing agreements and TV contracts. His bottom line is that European teams can’t afford to throw money around like that.

“Things would have to change dramatically,” he said. “They’re a long way off.”

That’s probably what the NFL owners said back in the 1960s when a start-up operation called the American Football League started outbidding NFL teams for talent. The ensuing bidding war ended only when the leagues merged.

The NBA has its own history with rival leagues, and, like the NFL, it solved the challenge of the American Basketball Association by absorbing it.

So history tells us that simply because it can’t be done is no reason to think that it won’t be done. Once rich people get it in their heads that they can be sports barons, all bets are off, and Colangelo has to know that.

It would be a jolt to the NBA to see some of its biggest names hop the pond to play fewer games against lesser competition for three times the money. But it would probably be the best thing that could happen to basketball and the NBA, because it could only end in another merger and the global league that Stern has been working toward all along.

The popularity is there. You can see it just by watching how the Chinese respond to these heroes in red, white and blue.

Chris Paul, a first-time Olympian and a young man of 23, has been mobbed like this everywhere he’s gone in China. Asked to describe what it’s like, there was but one analogy that seemed to him to convey the excitement that’s swirled around the team like wind and rain around the eye of a hurricane.

“We’re like the Beatles,” Paul said.

He can be forgiven for the hyperbole. He’s just 23 and he’d have to go back to his grandparents to get a first-hand account of what Beatlemania was like, and, take my word for it, even Britney and Brangelina never saw anything like it.

On the other hand, the stir the team creates by just stepping into a room is real. No other international team or athlete, not Michael Phelps, not the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team, brings volunteers scurrying from everywhere with their cameras. No one else drives a rules-abiding citizen of Beijing to break protocol by thrusting a scrap of paper at a player and asking for an autograph.

So, yeah, says Paul, he’d absolutely listen to offers from Europe or anywhere else. “You have to do what’s best for you and your family,” he said. “We’re international stars. Basketball is not America’s game. It’s the world’s game.”