Stern speaks cautiously on the subject, and he refuses to discuss a timetable. But it's a virtual certainty that some kind of target date is free-floating through his agile mind.
So, let us hazard this guess: Before any of the four new expansion teams (the Charlotte Hornets and the Miami Heat begin play this season; the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Orlando Magic will start in 1989-90) challenge for the championship, NBA franchises will be based in at least six European cities. In 1995? No. Turn of the century? Yes.
And extensive intercontinental competition, a prelude to European expansion, is much closer. The NBA's participation in an international tournament called the McDonald's Basketball Open (won by the Milwaukee Bucks at home last year and by the Boston Celtics, in Madrid, two weeks ago) is only the beginning. By the early 1990s, the league champion, according to an NBA executive, is likely to play Europe's best professional teams in round-robin, or, at the very least, single-game competition. "We're always using the term 'world champion,' yet we don't play any of the other champions," says Portland's vice-president for basketball operations, Bucky Buckwalter. "Let's really see if we are."
The dozen or so NBA officials and team executives, foreign players and scouts familiar with the European scene (and for purposes of this story, Tel Aviv, which is in Asia, will be considered European) who were interviewed for this article are in general agreement about the cities that could sustain NBA franchises. All are within about four hours of one another; except for the flight from the U.S. to Europe, player jet lag on European trips should not be a big deal. Milan, Madrid, Barcelona and Tel Aviv are proven basketball hotbeds. Rome and Paris, though not nearly as hoops-crazy as the first four, would have to be included because of what they are; the NBA wouldn't be big league in the U.S. without franchises in New York and Los Angeles, right? London, Munich and Athens are maybes. Knowledgeable fans and excellent homegrown talent make Belgrade, Vilnius and maybe Moscow ripe for NBA franchises, but the difficulty of negotiating contracts with Communist countries will have to be overcome.
Lest our imaginary six-game itinerary for the rookie still seems farfetched, consider what has already happened to suggest that European expansion is a sound idea.
•The pathways between the NBA and Europe are already well-worn. True, the drafting of foreign players by teams such as the Atlanta Hawks and the Portland Trail Blazers has yet to bear fruit, but more to the point of European expansion is the success of American players in Europe: A pipeline of U.S. over-the-hill or borderline pros has been supplying European teams for decades. Consider the city of Bologna, whose basketball teams recently picked up 36 years of NBA experience in the persons of newcomers Artis Gilmore and Gene Banks (who play for Arimo Bologna) and Micheal Ray Richardson and Clemon Johnson (who play for Knorr Bologna). And Knorr's guiding hand is former New York Knicks coach Bob Hill. Richard Kaner, an agent-scout who has been signing Americans for European teams for two decades, estimates that at least 100 former NBA players are playing for teams in more than a dozen European countries this season.
•The U.S. league is already up to its kneepads in European business deals. The NBA could realize as much as $5 million in European revenues by 1989, the bulk of it through television agreements and merchandise sales. That may not seem like much when compared with the $70 million in TV revenues or the $300 million in merchandising it generates domestically, but the European figure will only get larger. Much larger. European TV systems are only now beginning to move toward diversification and privatization, and, thus, a competitive and commercial situation exists in Europe that's roughly analogous to the one involving cable systems in the U.S. Those systems will need programming, and the NBA is already in on the ground floor, competing for European audiences with The Cosby Show, Dallas and other American fare.
And there's no sign that the European appetite for NBA products will get anything but more voracious. One of the top-selling T-shirts in Italy for Spalding Sports Worldwide, a licensee for a wide range of NBA products in Europe, bears a silk-screened photo of the Original Celtics team from the '20s. Why? "Because they're fascinated with American products and fascinated with the NBA," says Scott Creelman, a Spalding vice-president. Spalding expects to realize $10 million in European sales of NBA products by September of 1989, according to Creelman. Says Stern, "The key thing to remember is that we've barely scratched the surface internationally."
•The NBA has made all the proper political moves in Europe, too, by deferring to the existing powers. One of Stern's first moves when he became commissioner on Feb. 1, 1984, was to cultivate the friendship of Boris Stankovic, a Yugoslavian who's secretary-general of FIBA, the worldwide governing body of basketball. "T have no problem with David Stern," says Stankovic. "He has done things very honorably, very professionally. It will be entirely up to him when, and if, he decides to come to Europe." Do not underestimate Stankovic. FIBA has no control over the NBA, of course, but its jurisdiction does include all European basketball, including the pro leagues. If the NBA is to make any foreign inroads, it must run some give-and-go plays with FIBA, even though the idea of courting a guy named Boris whose headquarters are in Munich may rankle some NBA hard-liner types.
•Europe is becoming a much easier place to do business, and that fact greatly enhances any NBA expansion scenario. The 12-nation European Community (EC) has already removed many nontariff barriers and has chosen 1992 as a target for creating a true Common Market. This will eliminate many of the Byzantine problems that have traditionally beset American enterprises, including the NBA, that do business in Europe.