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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Players leverage? Try a breakaway league with NBA's All-Stars


More news is expected this week on NBA players signing deals to play overseas during the lockout, including what one source described Monday as "half a dozen All-Stars."

Go ahead, Skype me and I'll yawn for you.

A few NBA players are toying with the idea of playing overseas, including Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant. (AP)  
A few NBA players are toying with the idea of playing overseas, including Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant. (AP)  
Several deals are expected to go down in China, though the kind of money needed to lure the biggest stars isn't there unless it's Kobe Bryant, said a person familiar with ongoing negotiations among NBA agents and Chinese basketball authorities. For example, Dwyane Wade -- who joined Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul on a recent Jordan Brand tour of China -- isn't expected to be one of the top-shelf NBA players getting paid in China because "no one is going to pay him the kind of money he wants."

As we've discussed several times, this notion of thwarting the owners' demands in collective bargaining with a few overseas signings is little more than short-term leverage calisthenics. Even at $1.5 million a month in China or somewhere else, players like Bryant would race back to the NBA as soon as the lockout ended because that's a far cry from what they make here.

But there is something that would make owners nervous, an idea that would require a level of commitment and financing that goes well beyond the best players dabbling in foreign lands.

What if the top 25 or 30 players in the NBA -- All-Stars and others deserving of that status -- announced their intention to form a rival league? On many levels, it's even more of a pie-in-the-sky dream for the players than getting a few million dollars from overseas teams. But short of a legal shock to the labor negotiations -- for example, the issuing of a complaint against the NBA by the National Labor Relations Board in the next 60 days -- it's difficult to imagine a more effective leverage play than a breakaway league featuring the biggest stars in successful markets.

If someone could pull it off, it would beat the hell out of Sonny Weems signing in Lithuania as far as leverage goes.

How would Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan react if, say, Amar'e Stoudemire, Anthony and Paul joined forces on a team based in the New York metropolitan area and went on a mini barnstorming tour against such teams as an L.A.-based squad featuring Kobe Bryant, Blake Griffin and UCLA's Russell Westbrook? How about instead of tearing up Rucker Park in his free time, Kevin Durant went back to Texas to play with Dirk Nowitzki, facing a Midwestern-based team starring Chicago natives Derrick Rose and Wade?

If you went with my theme of capitalizing on players' college or hometown fan bases, someone might actually pay to watch a pro basketball game in North Carolina if native son Paul were on a team with Duke's Grant Hill and Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough. A team in Memphis featuring Rose and Tyreke Evans might draw better than the Grizzlies. How about a John Wall-DeMarcus Cousins-Eric Bledsoe reunion in Kentucky?

Before we get too carried away, the logistical challenges would be enormous. For starters, no investor would be willing to put up the needed cash knowing that if the ploy worked, the owners would be at the bargaining table getting a new collective bargaining agreement done. Poof, there goes the rival league. The expense of forming teams, insuring players, leasing arena time, plus hiring coaches and trainers would be a sunk cost once the NBA got back to business. If someone was so eager to blow $100 million, they might as well just put it in the stock market.

"Imagine all of a sudden the owners say, 'Holy crap, we've got to settle this,'" a prominent agent said. "Then you wind up like the USFL."

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However, if the two sides got deep into the fall -- maybe all the way to Christmas -- without a new CBA, the canceling of the season would open a window from, say, February to June for such an idea to work without the threat of the NBA resuming. The focus would then shift away from the failed efforts to save the season and toward the filling of a void in the marketplace for pro basketball. And there is a small pile of money to start with -- the $188 million the league owes the players from last season's escrow. What a kick in the pants that would be.

Matt Tolnick, a sports attorney who has written extensively on the business side of the NBA for Hoopshype.com is one of the voices in the wilderness espousing this idea. Tolnick envisions 8-10 teams in healthy markets with 2-3 All Stars per team and the rest of the rosters filled out with better supporting casts than stars currently have in the 30-team NBA. To further incentivize players, you could have a model where they received a small percentage of the profits in addition to their salaries.

"When a system is broken in the American economy," Tolnick said, "typically something comes along to replace it."

The thoughtful Michael Tillery of the Starting Five blog envisions an eight-team league in which the top three players on each squad have an ownership stake. He even goes so far as to name his league -- the National Players Association -- and offers such intriguing possibilities as a squad in Las Vegas starring Dwight Howard, Deron Williams and Love and one in Pittsburgh featuring Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo. (He loses me when he puts Miami's Big Three on a team in Tampa. I'd break them up just for the sheer joy of it and also put the Celtics' stars closer to home, like Springfield, Mass., or Providence, R.I. But it's a conversation starter, nonetheless.)

We will not -- I repeat, not -- have a team featuring Michael Beasley and Matt Barnes coming off the bench to shove hecklers or sucker-punch opponents.

Who would pay for travel and game-related expenses, what role would the shoe companies have, how this would affect the players' relationship with the NBPA in its ongoing negotiations on their behalf with the NBA ... these are some of the smaller logistical impediments. (And by smaller, I still mean huge.) Who coaches these teams, who provides top-of-the-line training and medical support, and who officiates the games ... these are some of the even more daunting impediments that may be impossible to overcome. As for coaches and trainers, good luck to any and all of them becoming gainfully employed with the NBA ever again once the league returned. But when it comes to referees, don't forget that they're not exactly pleased with how things are going in the NBA, given that they, too, have an unfair labor practices charge pending against the league with the NLRB.

Only the most wide-eyed dreamer could envision a world where such a rival league would put the NBA out of business and replace it. Initially, owners who claim they're losing $300 million a year running basketball franchises would scoff at the new cadre of player-owners, and wish them luck paying all the expenses currently encumbering them.

As for who televises this new league -- even if it only lasted a few months -- that shouldn't be a problem. There are currently three major networks not currently under contract with the NBA that are more than capable -- CBS, where I work, as well as NBC/Comcast and FOX -- and two of them have televised the NBA in the past.

A commissioner? That's easy. In a league of player-owners, what public figure in the basketball world would be able to command their respect and get them to buy into his grand vision? My first choice would be Jerry Colangelo, but he's too entrenched in NBA politics and relies on support from the NBA for his work with USA Basketball. Plus, his ongoing involvement with the Suns would disqualify him from committing mutiny.

So who does that leave? Admit that you've already thought of this name before I mention it. Admit that you already know the one man in the sport for whom the players, to a man, pick up their phones when his number pops up on their caller IDs: William Wesley. That's right, the man the players refer to as "Uncle Wes" has the money, the charisma, the connections and the clout to give this idea legitimacy and momentum.

Let me assure you that I am in no way in cahoots with Mr. "Worldwide" Wesley -- he wouldn't even return my call when I offered to discuss my idea with him, and we don't exactly get along. OK, given that the last time we spoke, he spent 20 minutes berating me after a game at Las Vegas Summer League, we don't get along at all. Given his lack of return phone call, I can't even tell you if Mr. Wesley would be interested in this; probably not, since he wouldn’t have the small fortune he's amassed if not for the NBA. But I'm looking for solutions here, and I won't let my personal relationships get in the way of a potentially viable one.

Have I lost it? Has the lockout, only in its second month, already deprived my brain of the oxygen it needs to function properly? Maybe. But there are a lot of people in the world with money and entrepreneurial vigor; these traits are not limited to the 30 people or investment groups that currently own NBA teams. (That lists seems to change on a weekly basis, anyway. There's no shortage of rich people eager to join the exclusive club of basketball ownership.)

If the 30 NBA owners can't figure out how to turn $4 billion a year in revenues into a profitable business model, maybe someone else deserves a chance. At least for a while.

Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com

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