Grande! Italian Team Says They Have Verbal Deal With Kobe Bryant

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ROME—Italian club Virtus Bologna said it has reached a verbal agreement with Kobe Bryant(notes) for the Los Angeles Lakers star to play in Italy during the NBA lockout.

“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.”

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A person with knowledge of the negotiations told The Associated Press on Friday that the sides have settled on a $3 million (?2.2 million) contract for the opening 40 days of the Italian league season. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the deal has still not been signed.

Bryant, who spent much of his childhood in Italy, was in the country for sponsor appearances over the past two days but was flying back to the United States for labor talks with the NBA on Friday.

Bryant 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 due to open the season against Roma on Oct. 9, but schedules now need to be redone after Venezia was added as a 17th team.

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

Sabatini wants to create a special schedule to accommodate Bryant, by assigning his 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.”

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

Between the ages of 6 and 13, Bryant lived in Italy when his father, Joe “Jellybean” 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.

The younger Bryant still speaks Italian fairly well, and discussed his memories of that period 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 again “would be a dream for me.”

Bryant has been bothered in recent seasons by an arthritic joint in his right knee, which has required several minor operations. He sat out a majority of the Lakers’ practices last season and saw his scoring, shooting percentage and minutes decrease in his 15th NBA season.

Former USC guard Daniel Hackett, a dual citizen who plays for Pesaro in Italy, said he would give Bryant a hostile reception 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.”

Bologna president 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 sounded out Manu Ginobili(notes), who played with the club before joining the San Antonio Spurs in 2002. Denver Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari(notes) 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 two sides are at odds over how to divide the league’s revenue, a salary cap structure and the length of guaranteed contracts.

Last week, NBA officials announced the postponement of training camp and the cancellation of 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, although the team has big ambitions after signing former Clemson University point guard Terrell McIntyre, who led Siena to four consecutive Italian titles before transferring to Malaga in Spain for last season.

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

Bologna has been posting fan messages supporting its campaign for Bryant on the club’s website.

“A whole town is holding its breath,” one fan wrote, in English. “But for once this is happening not because of troubles or worries, it’s all about a dream. Thousands of Italian people dream of being able to say one day, ‘I was there, I saw the legendary Black Mamba. … Right here.”’

Another fan, writing in Italian, said he would bring Bryant “to eat tortellini”—one of Bologna’s most famous dishes.

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