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For Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman, it could be a European staycation

The Lakers forward and Clippers center are among NBA players who will play in the European Basketball Championship starting this week. And if the lockout doesn't end soon, they may extend their stays.

August 30, 2011|By Ben Bolch
  • Spain's Pau Gasol, left, drives around Darius Songaila of Lithuania during a friendly match on Aug. 18. The Lakers forward could be spending a lot in Europe if NBA labor negotiations fail to lift the lockout before the scheduled start of the season.
Spain's Pau Gasol, left, drives around Darius Songaila of Lithuania… (Valda Kalnina / EPA )

It could be the European getaway that never ended, or at least one that stretched into 2012.

Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman were among a small army of NBA players who arrived in Lithuania this week for the 24-team European Basketball Championship, with no apparent need to hurry back.

The NBA lockout is about to enter a third month and neither side has budged. That means the Lakers' Gasol, the Clippers' Kaman, et al., could be playing in Europe and other far-flung places next week . . . next month . . . next year.

"It's not something that's super exciting to think about," Kaman said in a telephone interview as the 7-footer made his final preparations for Germany's opener Wednesday against Israel. "It's good we're holding our ground and trying to get the best deal possible, but it's also not good because it hurts the product.

"Fans and TV contracts, sponsorships and endorsements — all this stuff gets hurt because [NBA] owners won't move at all" in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.

At least the European Championship will give locked-out players a chance to lock up Olympic berths. The teams that make it to the title game Sept. 18 are guaranteed to advance to the 2012 London Olympics, and the third- through sixth-place teams earn a spot in another qualifying tournament.

Having "Deutschland" stretched across the front of his jersey could compel Kaman to do a double-take. But the pride of Grand Rapids, Mich., will wear the red, white, black and yellow by virtue of his great-grandparents' German heritage.

"I take a little bit of heat for it," Kaman said, "but I don't care. I'm going to do what I want to do."

Kaman wasn't going to do much this summer basketball-wise until the German team received a commitment from Lakers nemesis and newly minted NBA champion Dirk Nowitzki. That was enough to also land a pledge from Kaman.

Of course, having both NBA players on the court guarantees nothing for Germany during the tournament. Nowitzki and Kaman also played for the German team that failed to make it out of pool play during the 2008 Olympics.

Kaman said Germany struggled in Beijing because of poor shooting but also acknowledged that he had difficulty adapting to the physical nature of international play.

"It was like a wrestling match to me," Kaman said. "I was like, Are we playing football or basketball?"

As for Gasol, the tournament offers a chance for a fresh start on the court.

In the playoffs last spring Gasol and the Lakers were run ragged by Nowitzki's Dallas Mavericks. The Lakers power forward was also besieged by unsubstantiated rumors of a rift with his girlfriend, and was the subject of finger-pointing by fans disappointed with his play, and a jab to the chest by coach Phil Jackson during the Western Conference semifinal sweep.

"I do not think there's anything to prove on my side," Gasol said via email when asked if he was eager to put the Lakers' postseason behind him. "Last season we didn't perform during the playoffs as we were supposed to. . . . You cannot win every year; there are a lot of very good teams in the league."

Gasol and younger brother Marc are the centerpieces of a Spanish team that is widely considered the favorite to defend its title from 2009. Spain also features Rudy Fernandez of the Mavericks; Ricky Rubio, a first-round pick of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and Serge Ibaka of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

"I do think we have a great collection of talent, but there are many great teams here," Pau Gasol said. "Whether it is the best collection or not, I am not the one who should judge."

Ibaka's Spanish connection is even more tenuous than Kaman's German roots; the native of the Republic of Congo played for Spanish club teams before coming to the NBA and reportedly owns a residence in Barcelona.

As for Kaman, his great-grandfather Herman Kamen moved his family to the United States from Germany before World War I. When his grandfather was filling out his draft card prior to World War II, he changed the spelling of his last name.

"You didn't want to have a German last name," explained Kaman, who received dual citizenship three years ago.

If the NBA lockout drags on, Kaman could try to sign a contract with a European team. But he's reluctant to make that move.

"I think that's a tough situation to put another team in," Kaman said, "to say, 'Oh, I'm going to play with you and then leave halfway through the year'" if the NBA lockout ends.

Gasol appears far less resistant. He has said he would prefer to play in Spain but has not ruled out China. His ideal destination remains Staples Center.

"I am optimistic there will be an agreement and the lockout could end soon," Gasol said.

Kaman, who will be an unrestricted free agent in 2012, said he was unsure whether he would wear a Clippers jersey again. If the NBA owners and players can't reach a deal by mid-January, Kaman said, the season would likely be unsalvageable.

In the meantime, Kaman plans to embrace his time in Europe. He met German Chancellor Angela Merkel and toured several medieval castles before departing for Lithuania to start a stretch of five games in five days.

Free time might be in abundance again soon enough.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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