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Italian club says deal for Bryant ‘95 percent’ set

- Associated Press - Friday, September 30, 2011

ROME (AP) - The president of Virtus Bologna said he has an agreement with Kobe Bryant that's "95 percent done" for the Los Angeles Lakers star to play in Italy during the NBA lockout.

Bryant will be paid $3 million for the opening 40 days of the Italian league season, a person with knowledge of the negotiations told The Associated Press on Friday. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the deal has not been signed.

"We have reached an economic deal," Virtus President Claudio Sabatini told a local radio station. "There's still some things to arrange, but at this point I'm very optimistic. I would say it's 95 percent done."

The deal should last about 10 games and would allow Bryant to return to the Lakers immediately if the lockout ends.

Bryant, who spent much of his childhood in Italy, was in the country for sponsor appearances the past two days. He was to be in New York for NBA labor talks Friday and is expected to get a work visa and return to Italy next week.

"Kobe should be in Bologna by Wednesday or Thursday with his visa in hand for medical visits and then we can deposit the contract with the league," Sabatini said. "I want to make clear that right now there are still no signatures. We've got to write the contract, which will then be read over and over again."

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.

"This is an important investment and a unique chance for the city of Bologna and all of Italian basketball," Sabatini said. "I'm hoping everyone wants to collaborate."

Bologna has requested to play five of its opening 10 games at home, but the club was running into problems Friday with a couple of teams that didn't want to alter schedules just to accommodate Bryant.

A statement on Bologna's website said the problems with the other clubs were putting the economic deal behind the Bryant negotiations "in serious" doubt.

The 33-year-old Bryant has three years and $83.5 million left on his contract with the Lakers.

Between ages 6 and 13, Bryant lived in Italy when his father Joe Bryant played with Rieti, Reggio Calabria, Pistoia and Reggiana from 1984-91. 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 fairly 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."

On Wednesday, Bryant mingled with fans in Milan. He also received a warm welcome in Rome on Thursday, where he was brought to the Campidoglio museum to receive a commemorative medal from the 1960 Rome Olympics.

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.

Former USC guard Daniel Hackett, a dual citizen who plays for Pesaro in Italy, knows how he would play Bryant if he faced the former NBA MVP.

"The only way to stop a player that good is with a hard foul and he knows that," Hackett said. "I've got five fouls to commit and they're going to be the hardest five fouls I've ever committed."

Hackett also criticized speculation that Bologna will ask opposing clubs hosting Bryant's away games to chip in a portion of ticket sales to help pay Bryant's salary.

"I really hope Kobe doesn't lower himself to this level for economic and commercial motives," Hackett said, according to the Gazzetta. "To me, it would be a big disappointment to see him here under these circumstances, and a loss of respect for a player who is too big to dirty his hands in this league."

Sabatini replied, "Fortunately not all Italian players think like Hackett."

Turkish club Besiktas and at least one team in China had also expressed interest in Bryant, who has won five NBA championships and been an All-Star 13 times.

Bologna also recently approached Spurs swingman Manu Ginobili, who played with the club before joining San Antonio in 2002. Denver Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari rejoined his former Italian club Olimpia Milano last week.

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 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.

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