by C.Y. Ellis
I used to be Greek. Now I bathe daily and have two eyebrows.
While I may have shed off many of the multifarious national stereotypes in the years since I left Greece, I remain thoroughly Hellenic at heart. I still consider olives to be a food group. I still regard the goat as the noblest of all animals. I still have an indisputably Greek government name (Carolos Yiorgos Athanasakis), and my father – a 5’5’’, moustachioed former farmer – is still in Greece, still Greeker than anyone.
Why do I mention this? Well, mostly to justify running my yap in the paragraphs that follow. Having lived in both Greece and New York City, I feel I have a little more insight than most into the decision that LeBron may have to make two years from now. For those who haven’t heard, the word coming from South Europe is that Athenian powerhouse Olympiakos – they who lured Josh Childress across the pond – are planning to make a run at James in 2010.
Of course, they’re wasting their time trying to steal one of the game’s finest from the L, right? Well, probably. Probably.
I’m normally the first to shoot down such rumors, but this one’s worth examining briefly, if only to confirm that it’s absurd. While until recently it was generally only NBA bench-warmers and has-beens that inked deals in the Euroleague, times are a-changing, and as ever money is the catalyst. Childress was the first to take the bait. While the Hawks couldn’t justify a twenty-mil deal for J-Chill, Olympiakos cut him a check without batting an eyelid, even offering to cover the taxes and set him up with a car and a crib.
If a sixth man on a fringe playoff squad can command that sort of cash, what would a legitimate superstar stand to pull in without salary cap restrictions? That’s the question Olympiakos plan to ask LeBron’s people come the summer of 2010, and it’s understood that they’re prepared to offer more than double what any NBA club would be able to put on the table.
Again, I’d usually doubt that anyone would be prepared to pony up that sort of paper. However, I wouldn’t put anything past the Aggelopoulos brothers, billionaire owners of Olympiakos and two of the biggest hoopheads in Greece, a country where basketball is the national sport and “friendly” discussions thereof regularly lead to felony assaults. For the Aggelopoulos family, a forty-million-dollar deal for LeBron wouldn’t be so much an investment (they certainly wouldn’t turn a profit on the season) as a donation to the fans of Olympiakos.
Ah yes, the fans. What Greece lacks in modern plumbing (in most bathrooms, toilet paper has to be tossed in the trash; flushing it will clog the system), it makes up for with its supporters. It’s difficult to convey the place hoops holds in Greek culture with mere words, but a brief anecdote should give you some idea. Last week, I stayed in the Piraias suburb of Athens at my aunt’s place, a small, square house about five minutes from the “Peace and Friendship Stadium” in which Olympiakos play. Seeing the spotless interior of the house, I asked my aunt why they hadn’t painted over the numerous graffiti that scarred the front of the building. She pointed out that some of the scribblings had, in fact, been covered with whitewash, although the largest one was left untouched. I again asked why that was.
She explained that fans of Panathinaikos, a rival club, had painted their motto on the house, but before they could get rid of it an Olympiakos group had covered it with their own. Being Olympiakos die-hards themselves, they decided to leave the façade as it was. Not only was my fifty-five-year-old aunt fan enough to leave her home adorned with a crudely-drawn Olympiakos logo and several curse-filled exhortations, but she was also able to name Scoonie Penn, Qyntel Woods and Roy Tarpley as former players. Before I could retrieve my jaw from the lemon-scented floor of the cramped kitchen, she went on to detail the various reasons Josh Childress would have difficulties adapting to Euroleague defences. Then she cooked calamari. With six million more like her in the city, it’s no wonder Greek club owners are willing to dig deep to bring big names on board, even knowing that they’ll likely never recoup their investment.
Still, a life away from the U.S. of A. will be a tough sell to a bona fide max-contract guy. The opportunity to make a tax-free $40 million for thirty-odd games may just force LeBron to consider setting up shop in the birthplace of democracy, though. Even in the likely event that James stays at home, it’s only a matter of time before a Euroleague organization with deep pockets and big ideas manages to snap up a member of the NBA’s elite.
I suppose I’ve misled you by detailing the idiosyncrasies of life in Greece as if they might be the primary factor in anyone’s decision. You see, regardless of the physical distance and cultural differences between LBJ and the suits at Olympiakos, both sides can agree on one thing, the most important thing: Money makes the world go around.
All that remains to be seen is if money can make LeBron James go around the world.
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