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Could Real Madrid really join the NBA?


American sports are often ridiculed for the “world champions” banners that hang from the rafters. How can you be world champions when you only play in one country? Hell, we even call our baseball championship the World Series. But if one Spanish club has its way, the title could hold far more weight in the future; at least in the NBA.

Last week in an interview on La Cadena SER (Spain’s premier radio station) Real Madrid president Florentino Perez was somewhat bullish about the chances that the team – founded in 1931 as a division of the football club – could one day join the biggest basketball league in the world.

In October, Real Madrid are set to play against the Boston Celtics, and it’s then that Perez reportedly plans to make his proposal to NBA commissioner Adam Silver. In what seems to be careening towards a Godfather-esque scenario, Perez, who’s been known for his ruthless maneuvering in the European soccer market, likely thinks he can make an offer that Silver can’t refuse.

Despite the mere formality of the meeting, and the improbability of Real Madrid really joining the NBA, it’s an intriguing prospect; one that gives credence to the prospect of the NBA as a truly global league, a position that it’s been inching towards for decades now.

The NBA’s fascination with global basketball is no secret. Former commissioner David Stern was outspoken in his desire to see an NBA as global entity, and under his tenure – through increased outreach and the plethora of international players who’ve made their mark in the league — the international draw of the NBA has grown leaps and bounds. Ahead of the 2005 finals, a matchup between the Detroit Pistons and the San Antonio Spurs that featured seven international players, Stern was buoyant.

“Our push on globality continues,” Stern said, “and in some ways the Spurs are sort of a United Nations team, which has demonstrated the impact of globality.”

Of course, much of the NBA’s international growth in the past two decades can be tethered directly impact of the 1992 Olympic Dream team. That year, as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and co ventured into the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, they were elevated to godly status, cheered on at every juncture by adoring fans. Their coach, the late Chuck Daly, even referred to them as the Beatles for the hysteria they created everywhere they went. Always forward thinking; Daly could already see the long-term effects in action.

“Finally there will come a day – I’m not saying it will happen any time soon, mind you, but it’s inevitable that it will happen – that they will be able to compete with us on even terms. And they’ll look back on the Dream Team as a landmark event in that process,” he said.

China and India have potential for growth, but logistics mean it’s difficult to see the NBA establishing any roots there, leaving Europe as the potential goldmine. Some of the continent’s countries are already basketball fanatics, and the addition of a legitimate, NBA-caliber team could be all that’s needed to take the sport to new heights.

But Perez’s machinations aside, that team is unlikely to be Real Madrid.

The ACB (Asociación de Clubs de Baloncesto) and the Euroleague are not going to be happy with the prospect of their biggest draw leaving the Spanish League to be a bottom feeder in the NBA. It severely damages their talent pool and fanbase. The European owners could lose money while the NBA gains an entirely new demographic.

If the NBA ever does expand to Europe it will likely be in the form of expansion teams created in major European cities: think “the Madrid Royals” or something of the sort. It would also have to happen all at once, because there is no logical way the NBA would create a singular European franchise. Instead the expansion will more likely resemble four teams in four major cities – Paris, London, Berlin and Madrid.

But how does this work? Do these teams just join the existing conferences or is there an “NBA Europe” division? Of course, flight times would be another major obstacle but not necessarily a death knell. Currently a flight from Los Angeles to Madrid is about 11 hours, but this could be circumvented easily – American teams could go to Europe once or twice all year and play all the Euro teams over a 10-day stretch, for example.And these long road trips aren’t necessarily far-fetched. The San Antonio Spurs already have their annual “Rodeo Road Trip” that’s actually become a major part of their season. Since 2003, the annual rodeo at the Spurs’ AT&T Arena leaves the team with no option but to undertake a lengthy road trip which also includes the All-Star break. Coach Gregg Popovich usually uses the time on the road to fine-tune his team and get them mentally prepared for the post-season.

While the prospect is enticing, however, the drawbacks are plentiful. The Toronto Raptors have often found it difficult to lure any major free agents, especially Americans, to their team, their biggest coup in their history so far being Hedo Turkoglu.

Now take the unfamiliarity with a place like Toronto, add in a different language, cultural barriers and place it thousands of miles away. A minor annoyance now becomes a massive issue. Madrid may certainly seem like a more intriguing place to live than Milwaukee, but how many 19-year-old kids really want to uproot everything and jet off to Spain; far away from their family, friends and everything they know? The culture shock could be a massive deterrent. There’s also a flipside to this, as many of the NBA’s top European talents may prefer to make an NBA-level salary while living in their home country.

Perhaps in this scenario the Gasol brothers jump at the chance to move back to Spain, thus the league could run the risk of segregation with a bevy of Eurocentric teams.

There’s also the worry of talent dilution as a by-product of expansion. The NBA’s mid-90s expansion is often pointed to as the watering down of the league. One of the biggest selling points of the NBA is its consolidation of talent: no other global sport hoards as much of the world’s talent as the NBA. A Euro NBA would eventually raise its level, but at the beginning it would certainly be a couple tiers below.

If you are a betting man, however, forget Madrid. London would likely be the best option. The British Basketball league is nowhere near as established nor as culturally ingrained as the ACB. There would hardly be any real pushback and the NBA has already spread its roots there through the regular season games that have been played in the O2 arena for the past five seasons.

In the interim what we’ll be most likely to see in the near future is some sort of Champions League for basketball. It’s not hard to foresee a basketball equivalent, where some of the best NBA teams face off against their European counterparts in some sort of single-elimination matchup. That will be the starting point and from there, in my best Kevin Garnett impression, anything is possible.