Lebron James: NBA ambassador to international game

BOSTON — The whole basketball world was apparently watching Tuesday — there were record TV ratings, up 75 percent from last year’s opener — as the NBA launched its 2010 season with the new incarnation of superstar LeBron James.

James, the league’s self-proclaimed “King,” is now cast as the leading light of the star-studded Miami Heat and, for the first time in his celebrated career, as a villain for the cavalier manner — a televised special celebrating all things LeBron — in which he announced his departure from his “hometown” of Cleveland for Miami sunshine.

James’ decision to join another superstar Dwyane Wade and lure a third all-star, Chris Bosh, to form a “Big Three” in Miami has certainly ratcheted up the early interest in the NBA. And the Heat’s opening game loss to the Boston Celtics won’t do much to dim the luster of a “Dream Team” that — uniquely — was orchestrated by the players themselves rather than management.

But this initial excitement does little to mask league concerns that, as other top talents talk about replicating these superstar clusters in other NBA capitals, competitive balance in the league could be thrown way out of whack. No matter how entertaining these “Big Three” teams may prove to be, they do little to invigorate the league in the markets that are being deserted or where superstars would never congregate.

The leagues’ contract with its players expires after this season and Commissioner David Stern is already talking about a possibility he has never before discussed publicly — except to debunk rumors — in his 26-year tenure at the NBA helm: contraction.

The league has long pursued expansion rather than contraction, growing by 25 percent to 30 teams over the past two decades. But in an era where stars write their own ticket and are now booking group travel, teams like New Orleans, Charlotte, Memphis, Sacramento and Indianapolis—by dint of some combination of market size and facilities— may find it hard to compete on the court and on the bottom line. And the problem of selling non-competitive teams with a glamour deficit is compounded by the tortured economic climate.

Oklahoma City, which fits neatly into that group, lucked into the league’s number one rising star, Kevin Durant, and already has sewed him contractually for the foreseeable future. But while veteran stars with expiring contracts have flirted with mimicking James with teams like New York and Chicago, none have suggested they would like to cast their lot with Durant down in Oklahoma.

Amid the strange mix of excitement over the teams with starry lineups and the gloomy assessment of the future of those without, the NBA did get some good news this week. The opening-day lineups of the 20 teams boasted more foreign players from more countries than ever before: 84 players from 38 nations or territories. (France with 11 players leads the charge followed by Turkey with five, then Spain and Serbia with four each.)

The NBA has been a pioneer in spreading the gospel of its game, sending its emissaries all over the world as early as three decades ago. And today it is bearing the fruits of that mission. The talent explosion, most conspicuous in the recent struggles of the U.S. teams in international competition, has — with standouts like Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili, Yao Ming, Tony Parker and others — clearly bolstered the NBA game.

But every bit as important, as new countries send players to the NBA, they become fertile ground for all aspects of the NBA marketing machine — from game broadcasts and video highlight packages to merchandising to internet with heavily localized content. (NBA efforts are hardly restricted to countries that can already boast NBA players; India, with no NBA-caliber talent even on the horizon, has been the target of a league full-court press.)

Burgeoning foreign revenues have proved a significant hedge against domestic declines during what threatens to be a prolonged economic slump in this country. At the same time, international economic woes have stilled a trend that had European teams luring high-school stars with lucrative offers, tempting them to use Europe rather than a year of college as a staging ground for their NBA careers.

Still, European basketball has become more than just an option for players that can’t muster NBA-level talent. There was a poignant example this week, as Allen Iverson signed a two-year contract to play in Turkey. There’s no doubt that Iverson, even at 35, still has the skills to coax another season out of the NBA. Indeed, he will be remembered as one of the most gifted offensive gifted players in league history.

However, now that his talents have diminished, off-court issues and attitude problems that plagued his career were likely fatal to his hopes of one last NBA gig. Iverson, who, at 26.7 points per game has the sixth highest scoring average in league history, would be the biggest NBA star ever to ply his trade in Europe. And with family and financial problems, he may find $2 million a year sufficient incentive to embrace the Turkish game.

If so, one of the most controversial figures in NBA history could, at career’s end, find himself cast in the unlikely and critical role of league emissary to the international game. Even amid the glittery new era of LeBron and company in Miami, mining those foreign markets has never seemed more essential for the long-term health of the NBA.