SITTING SIDE by side after a recent USA basketball workout, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade couldn't help but ponder the possibility. "What do you think, D-Wade, $50 million over two?" asked Bryant. Wade bobbed his head in affirmation. "That's it," said Bryant. "Here's your backcourt. Give us $50 million for two years, and we're going to Milan."
Bryant and Wade were making light of what has evolved into a potentially serious situation for the NBA: the defection of its talent overseas. Over the last month several notable players have accepted lucrative offers from international teams, including two Raptors who signed with a Russian team—forward Jorge Garbajosa (two years, $16 million) and guard Carlos Delfino (three years, $13.5 million)—and Grizzlies guard Juan Carlos Navarro (five years, $24 million from F.C. Barcelona). Last week Europe claimed its most prominent American-born player when Hawks forward Josh Childress signed a three-year, $32.5 million deal with Greek club Olympiakos.
Why this is happening is no mystery. "European teams see signing NBA players as a way to show quick improvement," says Hornets general manager Jeff Bower. "And certain players can make more money over there than they ever would here."
Indeed, with the Euro clobbering the dollar (one Euro is worth $1.59, up 37% from five years ago), foreign teams are able to offer significantly higher salaries. Childress, 25, will earn $4.2 million more per season than he would had he re-signed with Atlanta. And with many international owners having deep pockets, teams can afford additional perks. Olympiakos is covering Childress's taxes and all his living expenses.
For the most part, the NBA professes not to be concerned. Commissioner David Stern has even said that the trend could help popularize basketball around the globe. And Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni says, "We may lose the 10th or 11th guys, but I don't think there will be a mass exodus."
Still, one G.M. told SI that he thinks overseas players will be tempted to play closer to home, singling out Italian forward Danilo Gallinari, the Knicks' 2008 first-round pick. "That's the biggest threat," said the G.M. "[Losing] high-end players with international backgrounds."
After Childress signed, several NBA players told SI they weren't sure they would want to live in a foreign country. But their reluctance could vanish if things work out for Childress. "If he says he had a great experience, that information is going to get around," says Pistons forward Tayshaun Prince. "There are American players already thinking about [going]. What happens to him could open some eyes."