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Tess Vigeland: We talked up at the top of the show about who’s getting hurt in the European debt crisis. Well, here’s one unexpected victim, if you will: big-time basketball players. Many of them — the top talent particularly — used to head to Greece for high salaries and handsome tax breaks. But that country’s financial woes are far from rebounding, and the days of slam dunk living for the hoops heroes could be numbered.
From Athens, Joanna Kakissis reports.
Sound of bouncing basketball
Joanna Kakissis: Mike Batiste watches as a teammate shoots baskets before practice. Batiste is from Long Beach, Calif., and he plays for Panathinaikos. It’s the most successful basketball team in Greece and one of the best in Europe. Batiste played a season in 2002 with the Memphis Grizzlies. The following year, Panathinaikos came calling. They offered him $3 million and said they would pay his income taxes. The NBA never did that.
Mike Batiste: They give you an apartment, a car, so in the end, it kind of makes sense for a player of my caliber to be here, and play basketball.
But other top foreign players are leaving the country. Greece’s other major basketball team is Olympiakos from the city of Piraeus. It lost two of its big foreign stars to the NBA this summer. Josh Childress joined the Phoenix Suns and Linas Kleiza went to the Toronto Raptors.
The teams don’t have the cash to make big offers, says George Georgakopoulos, a sports writer at the Greek newspaper Kathimerini.
George Georgakopoulos: They have decided not to go after major names in the market, as opposed to what they used to do until last summer.
Since then, Greece has fallen into a deep recession caused by a massive debt crisis. The government has raised taxes. The rate for athletes making more than about $130,000 has shot up from 21 percent to 45. Most teams can no long cover those taxes, says Alex Politis, a player agent in Athens. He says average salaries for foreign players have dropped by as much as 70 percent.
Alex Politis: And I suppose if it won’t stay the same, it will go even lower next season. And I can’t really predict what will happen after that.
The bigger clubs like Panathinaikos and Olympiakos are bankrolled by wealthy owners. Smaller clubs are in the most trouble, says Georgakopoulos, the sports writer.
Georgakopoulos: It looks like it’s not going to get any better in the next few months.
Sounds of fans cheering
It’s a Monday night home game for Ikaros, a small suburban Athens team. American up-and-comer Patrick Carroll started with the team this summer. The Pittsburgh native played with the NBA Development League but wasn’t picked up by a U.S. team. Carroll is playing his first game tonight. Fans in buzz cuts and black jeans sing fight songs.
Before he came to Greece, Carroll says he worried what would happen to the team.
Patrick Carroll: Yeah, before I signed here, it does cross your mind. I wanted to continue my basketball career and Greece seemed like a place I haven’t been, and it seemed like a good opportunity to play in this league.
Ikaros gave Carroll an apartment and a car, though not the big salary that a star like Mike Batiste gets. But Carroll’s not complaining. So far, Ikaros is surviving Greece’s economic storm. And tonight at least, his team wins.
Sound of buzzer, fans cheering
In Athens, I’m Joanna Kakissis for Marketplace.
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