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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.

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.