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Lebron James: NBA ambassador to international game

Basketball's 2010 season begins in the US, but needs a little help from overseas.

Lebron James
Forward LeBron James of the Miami Heat poses on Sept. 27, 2010 in Miami, Fla. (Marc Serota/Getty Images)

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.)