Stern hears European pitch from Real Madrid, Divac

BARCELONA, Spain -- An all-Europe division of the NBA -- with teams in cities such as Madrid, London, Moscow, Berlin and Cologne -- has been a fantasy for basketball fans on this side of the Atlantic for a number of years.

That fantasy may have taken the first step toward reality in Barcelona this week when NBA Commissioner David Stern received an informal proposal from a delegation of mighty Spanish sporting club Real Madrid that could lead to five NBA expansion franchises one day being placed in Europe.

Stern on Thursday met Real vice president Jose Sanchez and former NBA All-Star Vlade Divac, Real's new head of basketball operations, before he attended the Philadelphia 76ers' exhibition game against host Winterthur Barcelona at the Palau Sant Jordi, part of the NBA's Europe Live preseason tour.

Sanchez and Divac floated the idea of returning with a formal proposition for five ownership groups in five European cities to join the NBA simultaneously at an unspecified future date.

"Our response to that was we would be happy to talk about that and that we look forward to receiving a proposal from you," said Stern, who confessed that such expansion into Europe has long been a dream.

Such a development, unprecedented in the sporting world, had seemed to have become more distant in recent months, especially after NBA research into the possibility determined that a lack of suitable arenas made such expansion currently impossible.

The topic, however, came to the fore again in Spain this week when Ramon Calderon, president of the Real Madrid sporting club that encompasses the world's most valuable soccer team, featuring Englishman David Beckham, as well as basketball and teams in other sports, claimed Real was building a new basketball facility. The new venue is scheduled to be ready in 2008, with consultation provided by the NBA -- presumably to allow for the possibility of an expansion team moving to the Spanish capital.

Stern quickly denied that claim but did make a revelation in its stead.

"While here I had a meeting with Mr. Sanchez, accompanied by Vlade Divac," Stern said. "They suggested we should stay in touch concerning an idea they have about the possibility of, over time, as many as five European teams being considered for the NBA -- if there was ownership and if there were NBA buildings, and if they were prepared to pay the expansion fee owners would ask for.

"There is absolutely no time frame. You tell me. At what point will there be five teams with five buildings with five ownership groups with something in excess of $400 million appearing on the scene?

"But it would be a great conversation to have and if we do have it, I would feel duty bound to report the offer to my owners.

"It is a dream of mine, but we did our research and the research said there were no buildings, no public support for such buildings and no ownership groups at the present time.

"But at some time, the research said that new buildings would be in place for family and business entertainment, which is not done now in Europe. Football [soccer] is not used for family and business entertainment. The family and business entertainment can go to the opera or theater or other such places, but not sporting events.

"There is a need for that if buildings get built. A building is opening in London in 2007, there is one on the board in Berlin, CSKA Moscow has plans for a building, there are plans by Real Madrid.

"You are talking about a conversation which could be a decade away, or never, but it's a nice topic for discussion and I don't think those discussions would go forward without a good information exchange between the EuroLeague and the NBA."

The lack of suitable venues -- not travel or scheduling problems -- remains the biggest single obstacle to possible European development.

The 19,000-capacity KolnArena in Cologne, Germany, where the Sixers, Phoenix Suns, Maccabi Tel Aviv and CSKA Moscow play over two nights next Tuesday and Wednesday, is the only venue currently considered "NBA ready." Smaller venues, lagging behind their American equivalents in features such as suites, concessions and parking, would not generate the necessary income over a 41-game NBA home season.

Stern also revealed that tentative conversations with interested groups in the United Kingdom over the possibility of launching an NBA development-style league in that country had been shelved.

Ian Whittell covers the NBA for the London Times and BSkyB.