The question of whether Kobe will or won’t play in Italy is becoming almost as confusing as the NBA lockout itself. Â There have been many conflicting reports. Â At first we were told the deal was practically done, then it was reported that a conflict in scheduling could cause the entire deal to collapse. Â Now the president of Virtus Bologna is optimisticÂ Kobe Bryant will sign with the Italian club during the NBA lockout despite scheduling problems posed by other teams. Â Read more after the jump.
Claudio Sabatini told The Associated Press on Friday that Bryant’s agent, Rob Pelinka, agreed to an arrangement for 35 to 40 days worth more than $3 million — for about 10 games.
“We’re very confident the deal can be completed,” Sabatini said. “We’re prepared to make a big investment.”
Sabatini said a Bologna-based food company is prepared to provide the cash.
“Kobe and his agent have been very professional throughout the dealings and it’s been a pleasure to work with them,” Sabatini said. “I have a huge amount of respect for Kobe not just as a player, but also as a person.”
The league said in a statement Saturday it is “working to allow Virtus Bologna to arrange a deal to sign Kobe Bryant,” adding it is “convinced this deal could be of key importance for the greater awareness of Italian basketball.”
Italian league president Valentino Renzi told the ANSA news agency Saturday that he was “moderately optimistic” a deal could be made, adding “the situation is definitely complicated.”
A source close to Bryant told ESPN The Magazine’s Ric Bucher that Bryant is adamant that revenue from his presence in Italy benefit all 17 teams in the league’s Series A division and not just Virtus.
Bryant, the source said, is aware that the entire Italian League has suffered under the current economic downturn in Europe. Part of the attraction to playing in Italy, as opposed to another foreign country, is the chance to resuscitate Italian professional basketball “as a whole,” the source said.
Bryant grew up in Italy and speaks the language. He was 6 when Joe, his father and former NBA power forward, moved the family there to continue his basketball career, playing for four teams over a seven-year stretch.
Negotiations between Bryant and Virtus hit a snag when two smaller teams — Cremona and Varese — declined to adjust their schedules so that Virtus could play its first 10 games in the biggest available arenas, thereby maximizing ticket sales during Bryant’s time in a Virtus uniform.
One means of making sure every team shares in the windfall of Bryant playing for Virtus would be to renegotiate recently signed TV deals with state-owned Radiotelevisione Italiana (Rai) and Telecom Italia Media’s La7. The two networks both negotiated two-year deals to broadcast Series A games in mid-July.
“We’ve got a chance to bring Bryant here … and the nearsightedness of other clubs is making it impossible,” Sabatini told Italy’s Sky TV Friday. “If we were at the end of the season, with clubs fighting to avoid relegation or for the playoffs, I would understand. But now nobody has anything on the line.”
Bryant was in Italy for sponsor appearances the past two days.
Virtus had been set to open the season Oct. 9 against Roma, but schedules need to be reworked after Venezia was added to the league as a 17th team. Sabatini wants to create a special schedule that assigns Bryant’s games to Italy’s biggest arenas.
The deal would allow Bryant to return to the Lakers immediately if the lockout ends. The 33-year-old Bryant has three years and $83.5 million left on his contract with the Lakers, who could void the deal if Bryant is injured playing abroad.
Bologna would need to have the deal signed by the end of next week to register Bryant with the Italian league before the season starts.
Between ages 6 and 13, Bryant lived in Italy when his father played with Rieti, Reggio Calabria, Pistoia and Reggiana from 1984 to 1991. The elder Bryant also once owned a small part of Olimpia Milano. He now coaches the Los Angeles Sparks in the WNBA.
Kobe Bryant, who still speaks Italian well, discussed his memories of his time in the country during an interview with the Gazzetta dello Sport two days ago.
“Italy is my home. It’s where my dream of playing in the NBA started. This is where I learned the fundamentals, learned to shoot, to pass and to (move) without the ball,” Bryant told the Italian newspaper. “All things that when I came back to America the players my age didn’t know how to do because they were only thinking about jumping and dunking.”
Bryant added that playing in Italy would be “a dream for me.”
Bryant has been bothered in recent seasons by an arthritic joint in his right knee that required several minor operations. He sat out most of the Lakers’ practices last season, and his scoring, shooting percentage and minutes decreased in his 15th NBA season.
The NBA season is scheduled to open Nov. 1 but owners and players have failed to agree on a new labor deal. The sides are at odds over how to divide the league’s revenue, a salary-cap structure and the length of guaranteed contracts. Last week, the NBA postponed training camps and canceled 43 preseason games.
Virtus has won 15 Italian league titles but none since 2001, when it also won the Euroleague for the second time.
Bologna did not qualify for this season’s Euroleague. The team has big ambitions, though, after signing former Clemson point guard Terrell McIntyre, who led Siena to four consecutive Italian titles before transferring to Malaga in Spain before last season.