- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Dirk Nowitzki is serious about wanting to play in Europe next season if a work stoppage shuts down the NBA, but the Mavericks' star forward acknowledges that the prospect of actually doing so is a long shot.
Reiterating comments he recently made to German newspaper Bild, Nowitzki told ESPNDallas.com that he will explore every avenue to play abroad in 2011-12 in the event of a lockout.
"Before I sit around for a year," Nowitzki said, "I would want to play somewhere."
Nowitzki, though, was also quick to add that he's well aware that any NBA player under contract would face significant legal hurdles to play abroad, even if NBA owners impose a lockout starting July 1 as widely feared. The prevalent assumption throughout the league is that NBA players interested in playing in other countries during a work stoppage will have to go to court to win the right to do so -- even when they're not getting paid during a lockout -- because the sport's international governing body (FIBA) would otherwise not allow its teams to sign players contracted to NBA clubs without a letter of clearance from USA Basketball or the player's respective national federation.
Utah Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko and Milwaukee Bucks guard Brandon Jennings (who played for a season in Italy before starting his NBA career) are among the prominent players who have voiced the same desire as Nowitzki to play in Europe next season if the NBA and the NBA Players Association can't reach agreement on a new labor pact this summer. The players' union is expected to make the case in court that NBA contracts aren't valid during a work stoppage, thus creating the requisite freedom for its constituents to play wherever they wish.
But one source close to the situation told ESPN.com that the NBA intends to exert as much pressure on FIBA as it can muster to prevent a flood of NBA players to Europe, since its bargaining position in labor talks would be severely weakened if NBA players have the ability to earn money elsewhere during a work stoppage.
"It's all a lot of speculation at this point," Nowitzki said after Monday's win over Washington. "I don't even know if it's going to be legally possible [to play elsewhere during a lockout]. I have a contract here. I didn't have a contract when I played over there during the last lockout."
NBA players who become free agents July 1 are not subject to the same restrictions regarding playing overseas during a lockout.
The first work stoppage in NBA history that wiped out regular-season games coincided with Nowitzki's rookie season in 1998-99. The league ultimately staged a 50-game season after finally striking a new labor agreement with its players in January, but Nowitzki kept playing with his German club team in his hometown of Wurzburg in Bavaria after being selected with the ninth pick in the 1998 draft because the lockout prevented the Mavericks from actually signing him.
Bild reported that three teams in Germany are already angling to sign him: Alba Berlin, Bayern Munich and Brose Baskets Bamburg. But Nowitzki, noting that traveling overseas has always been one of his favorite offseason hobbies, told ESPNDallas.com that he would not limit himself to considering offers in his native country if NBA players ultimately did secure the legal freedom to play elsewhere during a workout stoppage.
Greece, for example, is a frequent vacation spot for Nowitzki's family and would thus hold strong appeal given that its league has always been one of Europe's strongest.
But Nowitzki ultimately downplayed the whole concept, saying he's still hopeful that a deal can be struck to keep the NBA in business next season and insisting that the only reason he's thought about playing abroad is because he's fearful of the rust that would accumulate if he lost an entire season at age 33.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been one of the league's most outspoken critics when it comes to NBA players representing their national teams in summer competition because of the risk of serious injury and his belief that NBA teams needlessly shoulder the bulk of that risk.
But Cuban scoffed Monday at the possibility of Nowitzki playing in Europe during a work stoppage, saying: "[There's] nothing stupider than discussing hypotheticals about hypotheticals."
When reminded that Nowitzki and longtime adviser Holger Geschwindner had actually addressed the subject publicly and that it wasn't mere media speculation, Cuban added: "It's still hypothetical. I understand that [Nowitzki discussed it in the German media]. Some hypotheticals are presented as hypotheticals in the media so other people can hypothesize about where the hypotheticals might go, but I'd rather not play that game."
Nowitzki, meanwhile, says he won't even try to return to the German national team next summer -- as much as he wants to make another trip to the Olympics in 2012 -- until he can gauge his physical condition after the season.
To appease Cuban, Nowitzki took the last two summers off from national-team duty after helping Germany reach the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, where he realized his lifelong dream of playing for his country on the biggest international stage. Germany has to do well in this summer's European Championship to qualify for London, but Nowitzki admitted last week that his recent sprained knee -- which resulted in the longest injury absence (nine games) of his NBA career -- will factor into his thinking when it comes to playing for Germany at the EuroBasket tournament during August and September in Lithuania.
NBA teams can't force their players to sit out international competition as part of its agreement with FIBA, but Nowitzki and Cuban have always made the decision mutually about when and when not for Nowitzki to play for Germany.
"The team is first," Nowitzki said over the weekend. "That's why I was always allowed to play [for Germany], because I was never really hurt. I never missed major time during the season, so definitely that was a plus for me. I have to get back on track with the Mavs first."
On Monday night, Nowitzki added: "Right now, we're trying to make a run at a championship. That's all I'm really focused on."
Marc Stein covers the NBA for ESPN.com and is a frequent contributor to ESPNDallas.com.
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