If the locked-out NBA players choose to take their talents overseas, they will do so with the spirited support of their union's leadership.
In a letter sent to 450 players this week, Billy Hunter, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, said that playing abroad would keep the pressure on owners while allowing union members to continue making a living.
"This lockout is intended to economically pressure our players to agree to an unfavorable collective bargaining agreement," Hunter said in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times. "It is important for owners to understand that there may be significant consequences to their decision to put their own players in these difficult economic circumstances."
Hunter said, "If the owners will not give our players a forum in which to play basketball here in the United States, they risk losing the greatest players in the world to the international basketball federations that are more than willing to employ them."
Most players received Hunter's letter Tuesday, five days after reports surfaced that Deron Williams, the New Jersey Nets' star point guard, had committed to play for a Turkish club, Besiktas. Under the terms of his contract, Williams is free to return to the NBA when the lockout ends.
A handful of other players — mostly reserves and fringe rotation players — have signed deals to play abroad. Others are entertaining the possibility, although so far it has not become a trend.
There are some concerns for players like Williams who have lucrative contracts with NBA teams. In theory, their deals could be voided if they are injured while playing abroad. Salaries are much lower in Europe and Asia, and teams sometimes fail to pay their players.
Commissioner David Stern has indicated that the league would not stand in the way of players who want to work overseas. However, the sport's international federation, FIBA, has yet to say whether it will clear players who are under contract to NBA teams. A statement is expected soon.
In his letter, Hunter said he believed there was no impediment to NBA players working abroad during the lockout, while contracts are suspended. He said he also believed that neither the NBA nor FIBA would block such a move.
Hunter did advise that foreign contracts should contain a clause that would allow players to return after the lockout was lifted. He also advised players to "secure appropriate protection" — i.e., insurance — "to guard against any injury or unforeseen circumstances."
The NBA locked out its players on July 1, after two years of failed talks. The parties have not met since June 30.
Williams is by far the biggest star to commit to playing overseas, and his decision is of great interest to both sides in the labor dispute. In his letter, Hunter commended Williams "for the wisdom and courage he has demonstrated" and for showing that the players "will not be intimidated by the league's hard-line tactics."
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Not all players were enthusiastic about the overseas option. Josh Childress, who returned to the NBA last season after two years in Greece, told ESPN.com he would not do it again.
"And I don't know why guys would," Childress said, citing the low pay, injury risk, tough travel schedule and teams' unreliability in paying players.
"If a guy isn't playing well or a team is out of the playoffs, they'll just stop paying you," Childress told ESPN.com. "I know tons and tons of players who just walked away because they didn't want to go through the hassle of going to court to get their money."