CARSON, Calif. – When he faces the most controversial decision of his career over the next few years, Kobe Bryant could find advice and inspiration from an unexpected source.
Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers superstar, has stated his intention to test the waters in Europe at the end of his current deal in 2011 and indicated he may be prepared to walk away from the NBA and seek a lucrative contract across the Atlantic.
NBA players have made the switch to Europe before. Dominique Wilkins did it in the 1990s and 2004 lottery pick Josh Childress left the Atlanta Hawks this summer to play in Greece.
However, if Bryant was to make the same move it would be a truly ground-breaking development, a global icon stepping into the unknown and potentially spawning a seismic change in the established order of North American professional basketball.
The only sporting parallel that can realistically be drawn is with Beckham.
Fifteen months ago, the world's most famous soccer player left arguably the biggest club on the planet, Real Madrid, in order to join the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer. In doing so, Beckham put an entire league on the map, earned himself an astronomical sum of money and generated heated discussion about the pros and cons of his shock relocation.
On the field, things have not worked out as Beckham would have hoped, with injury problems restricting him to five league games last year and the Galaxy languishing outside a playoff berth this year. Even so, he insists he has no regrets about moving to the United States and feels his friend Bryant could benefit hugely by going to Europe.
"People respect and love talented sportsmen and Kobe is obviously very talented," Beckham said. "Without a doubt, you always gain from traveling to different places and different countries in the world and experiencing a new way of living and a new environment.
"I have done that, gone through it with my family which is nice, and I have enjoyed it. I can recommend it.
"Kobe is popular all over the world. He might play in America now but he is popular everywhere and people anywhere would be excited to have him in their country."
Beckham and Bryant met when the basketball star attended the Galaxy's victory over the San Jose Earthquakes on April 3. The pair chatted in the Galaxy locker room while a Galaxy jersey was printed with Bryant's name on the back.
A soccer fanatic after spending much of his young life in Italy where his father Joe played pro ball, Bryant remained in contact with Beckham, who was a regular spectator at Lakers home games with his eldest son Brooklyn.
Beckham's image and popularity around the world has him in position to earn up to $250 million over the five-year span of his MLS contract. Like the English star midfielder, Bryant has seen his popularity spread far beyond the United States. The 30-year-old, however, is far more beloved outside his homeland.
Bryant's decision whether to leave the NBA may be further swayed by the reception he received at the Olympic Games in Beijing. LeBron James and the other stars of the Redeem Team were relegated to a supporting role among the local fans because only one man grabbed the attention of the Chinese public.
"You only had to see how people reacted to Kobe at the Olympics in China," said Beckham, who was in the stands for USA's gold-medal victory over Spain. "And he is very popular in Europe as well, people really love him there."
"I was lucky enough to be at the final and saw the reception he got. If he does go (to Europe), then people will certainly love him wherever. He is a strong character and people like that always find a way to be successful."
Either way, the issue of Europe is guaranteed to provide Bryant with food for thought and generate huge interest. Only he and perhaps a handful of people close to him know for sure how serious he is about playing in Europe, but by bringing the issue out into the open, Bryant has European clubs and their mega-wealthy owners salivating and preparing to crack open their checkbooks.
When decision time comes, he will be fielding contract offers worth tens of millions of dollars. With no salary caps in European basketball leagues, there is potentially no limit to Bryant's earning power. In the NBA, all he can get is the maximum salary.
Bryant wasn't supportive of the salary structure the NBA created during the 1999 collective bargaining agreement negotiations because he knew it could impinge, as it has, on his future earnings. But even though the CBA is again up for review in 2011, it is unlikely to change significantly.
However, Childress got the imagination of Bryant (and James) spinning into overdrive this summer when he inked a $20 million, three-year contract with Olympiakos. If Childress – a solid but unspectacular performer for the Hawks – could command that much, what about a genuine icon of the game?
A contract worth $50 million a year – or Beckham-style earnings – would not be out of the question for Bryant.