Note: This is somewhat off-topic.
My current summer job requires me to do a ton of research for past newspaper articles in an attempt to check the claims made in the script of a documentary that's set to air on PBS sometime in the near future. As such, LexisNexis has basically become my new best friend.
So when the news about Josh Childress defecting to Greece broke today, I immediately wondered whether we've seen this type of thing before. I don't want to take anything away from Henry Abbott's superb piece on True Hoop, because I agree that Childress' defection will cause the NBA to re-evaluate a lot of its practices, customs and regulations. Still, I couldn't help but shake this nagging feeling that perhaps we're jumping the gun here. Josh Childress is just one player who was placed in a perfect-storm type of situation. Not only is Childress in the murky zone of guys just slightly more valuable than the mid-level exception, but his negotiation was occurring with the notoriously idiotic Atlanta Hawks organization that had to deal with someone, Josh Smith, who deserves more attention than Childress.
Vaguely, I remember reading about how Danny Ferry and Brian Shaw ended up on the same Italian League team in early 1989, taking lucrative offers overseas instead of playing for their respective teams. For Ferry, it was because he was drafted by the Clippers, so I guess his situation was different than Childress'. (Brandon Jennings, on the other hand...). Shaw's predicament, however, is similar. He was an underrated cog on a mediocre team (the 88/89 Celtics, without Larry Bird) that was underpaid for his production. Boston low-balled him in the summer, mostly because (IIRC) they had to deal with Reggie Lewis' contract, and Shaw decided a year overseas would be best for him.
So we've seen this before. The question is, was there discussion about challenger leagues then as well? This excerpt is from an October 29, 1989 Los Angeles Times column (the byline is that it was from the AP, but the Nexis search turned up the LA Times as the paper in which it was published) with a Rome dateline. I can't link it because that's impossible in Nexis, so you'll just have to take my word for it
The center of the new basketball fever is Italy, where teams are laying out millions of dollars in a bidding war with the NBA. Once derisively known as the "Spaghetti League," the Italian divisions now include a crop of Americans who could make up a decent NBA team.
Former NBA players have been coming here for years, but the arrival this fall of Ferry and Shaw really put Italy on the basketball map.
Ferry, the Duke All-America and the second player chosen in last June's NBA draft, and Shaw, a starting guard for the Boston Celtics as a rookie last season, were the first big-name Americans to choose Italy in the prime of their careers.
It wasn't the pasta or the monuments that convinced them to join Il Messaggero Roma. It was the $1 million to $2 million a year offered by Raul Gardini, whose giant agribusiness conglomerate, Gruppo Ferruzzi, owns the club.
Those figures have not gone unnoticed by other players in the United States, who see Italy as a lucrative option and a bargaining chip with the NBA.
Center Benoit Benjamin flew to Italy last week ostensibly to sign with Philips Milan only to return to Los Angeles three days later in what was widely regarded as a ploy to get more money from the Clippers. Then Rick Mahorn, in a contract dispute with the Minnesota Timberwolves, traveled to Italy to negotiate with Glaxo Verona.
Veteran NBA stars Alex English and Walter Davis of the Denver Nuggets, who beat Jugoplastika Split for the championship of the McDonald's Open, said they would seriously consider playing in Italy.
"I want to come over here and play a couple of years," said the 35-year-old English. "I could really enjoy it."
Sound familiar? There's nothing in this article about the salary cap, BYC restrictions or the like, but the tone of "the NBA's got competition" remains. Nothing significant really came of it, unless you count Dominique Wilkins winning the 1996 EuroLeague MVP.
I'm not saying Childress isn't significant, and I'm not downplaying the "Euro is stronger than the dollar" argument, nor am I demeaning the Bostjan Nachbar, Carlos Delfino and Juan Carlos Navarro signings in Europe this offseason.
I'm just saying let's step back and consider history before we talk about the Europe problem being some sort of epidemic for David Stern and the NBA. The big story here is the continued incompetence of the Hawks' front-office, not the potential effects of Childress' signing opening up the door for other key NBA rotation players.