NBA stars face roadblock to play in China

Adrian Wojnarowski
Kobe Bryant has strong ties to China, and would consider playing there if he could return to the NBA after the lockout

The Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant(notes) has offers north of $1.5 million a month to play in China, and sources say he'd be inclined to accept a contract except for the one immense hurdle standing in his way: Chinese Basketball Association officials will likely pass a rule in the middle of this week forbidding the signing of players with NBA opt-out clauses.

Bryant is the biggest star deep in negotiations with China, but he isn't alone. San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker(notes) has been engaged in serious talks, too, sources tell Yahoo! Sports, but it won't matter if China lays down legislation that could be crippling to the signing of NBA stars.

Chinese officials want to derail the prospect of rent-a-players for the lockout. That would leave a far smaller pool of NBA free agents available to sign, and those players will have to commit to playing a full season in the Far East. If the lockout ends, they can't return to the NBA until the Chinese season ends in mid-March.

The NBA has a cozy relationship with China, a partnership worth a great deal of money for both sides. Privately, some agents and officials wonder how much the NBA could be influencing China to steer clear of players under contract. With the European market so lean, China offers NBA stars the best chance, the most leverage, to recoup a fraction of the money they'll lose once the checks stop coming in November. For all the mistrust of NBA commissioner David Stern and the owners, there are still people who say the Chinese Basketball Association isn't fond of Stern, and wouldn't let itself be pressured, or swayed, by him.

No one knows for sure. Through it all, agents are confused over how rigid the ruling could be, because some Chinese owners have privately insisted they could find ways to creatively structure contracts to get around it. Even amid the murkiness, everyone is still in holding patterns with Chinese teams until the meeting this week.

"There's a wild West quality to that league," one prominent agent said. "It's still hard to rule anything out yet."

Shanxi has been the most aggressive Chinese team in pursuing NBA talent, sources said, and has made players offers of well over $1 million per month. As one agent who recently visited officials in China told Yahoo! Sports, "I think there are five or six $750,000-plus jobs left right now, and most teams will offer between $40,000 and $100,000 a month to NBA players. Every team will sign a U.S. center, and half of them a point guard, and half a wing player."

Bryant's stature and popularity make him unique, and teams have shown a willingness to meet his demands to play in China. Nike is motivated to get him on the floor, too. Bryant pushes product in the Far East, perhaps unlike any of his peers. Bryant believes he can be patient, wait for these Chinese and European markets to unfold, and make a decision about playing overseas on his own timetable.

Several agents told Yahoo! Sports quality unrestricted and restricted free agents are asking them to find jobs in China. Several players who could command free-agent deals north of $20 million, even $30 million, when the lockout ends are privately telling agents they're willing to sign in China without opt-out clauses. That's a high-risk move, especially when an injury playing for $1 million, or less, could cost a player tens of millions later.

The primary reason why is simple: Despite the years of union warnings, there are still players largely living paycheck to paycheck. And now, there's a genuine fear within the player ranks that the season will be wiped out completely, and they might be better jumping overseas sooner than later.

Even so, there aren't enough good jobs available to truly give the players a great deal of leverage in talks with the NBA. The owners believe they can get the players to crack in November and December when the checks stop coming, and that's why they won't make many, if any, concessions in the one-sided collective bargaining agreement that the league has offered players. Yet the NBA loves that China and Europe are pushing hard for Kobe Bryant and the NBA's biggest stars to make the lockout leap overseas. There isn't much the players can do to create leverage in this lockout, and after that meeting later this week in China, there could be even less.

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