Asked whether he plans to solicit overseas offers before signing an extension, Bryant flatly said yes.
It's possible Bryant could leave the NBA for Europe – perhaps in a dual role of owner and player – as early as next summer. Bryant is signed with the Lakers through the 2010-11 season, but can opt out after next season.
Suddenly, the best player in the world seems determined to pair the changing global economics with his unparalleled popularity to create an international bidding war. A day earlier, Bryant told the Boston Globe that he would consider a $50 million offer to play in Europe.
"As players, the business of the game (is) evolving," Bryant said before a Team USA practice at Beijing Normal University. "I think free agency now is becoming a global thing …. When players become free agents, the team they're currently with – their competition is no longer the rest of the teams in the NBA. But it's global. So, the market's opened up. So we'll just have to see how the league responds to it."
Bryant spent several years of his childhood in Italy and loves it there. Seven years ago, he bought an ownership stake in Olimpia Milano of the Italian league for his father Joe to run. When Bryant was asked whether he held intrigue with owning and playing on a team together, he said, "Absolutely."
Some basketball executives believe Bryant's ultimate ambition might be to have a majority ownership with a powerhouse Italian team while serving as its superstar. What's more, Bryant, 29, insists that it wouldn't be such a leap of faith for him to leave the NBA.
"I think people kind of make it out to be a little more than what it is," he said.
With the Lakers' resurgence and Bryant having won his first most valuable player award last season, it was believed that he would sign a long-term, maximum contract without pursuing unrestricted free agency. Now, Bryant is suggesting that the possibility of a monumental European offer – perhaps paired with ownership – has armed him with fresh leverage.
This summer, the movement of players to Europe – as well as a belief that several European teams are gearing up to lure NBA superstars with contracts worth $30- to $40 million annually – has made him believe that this could be an option for him. Josh Childress of the Atlanta Hawks signed a three-year, $20 million deal with Olympiakos of Greece. Several other good NBA players, including Carlos Delfino and Juan Carlos Navarro, left the NBA for multi-million dollar European offers.
"Childress, Delfino, and all these other offers start coming up and all of a sudden you start hearing the talk circulating from teams over there and what they're willing to do," Bryant said. "As athletes, you have to listen to that. That's the least you can do."
Even so, Bryant conceded that it would be "Almost impossible … very difficult …" to leave the Lakers, who are primed to make a run at multiple championships over the next several years.
"But," he said cryptically, "it is what it is."