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Basketball: Bologna cash in on NBA lock-out

ENGLAND'S Michael Olowokandi will begin his professional career in Italy with Kinder Bologna instead of the United States because of the ongoing labour dispute which is threatening to force the cancellation of the National Basketball Association (NBA) season.

Olowokandi, born in Nigeria but who moved to England at a young age, was the No 1 pick in last summer's NBA draft and was set to sign a multi- million pound contract with the Los Angeles Clippers before NBA bosses shut down the league to try to renegotiate the money- sharing agreement with players.

The dispute, known as the NBA lock-out, has already forced the cancellation of half of this year's games. The campaign faces a complete collapse this week with owners and players admitting they are at a dead end in negotiations.

"If the NBA season is resumed, he'll be able to return and play. If the season is cancelled, he'll stay in Italy," said Billy Duffy, Olowokandi's agent. Duffy, who also fixed a three-year deal for the England reserve centre, Andy Betts, with another Italian side, Teamsystem Bologna, added: "It'll be his option to stay with Kinder for the rest of the season."

Olowokandi will reportedly earn pounds 650,000 up to 15 February and if he finishes the season with the Italians he will receive another pounds 1.3m.

Olowokandi, despite his size and athleticism, failed to draw any interest in England several years ago. He had a trial with the Budweiser League's Thames Valley Tigers but was not offered a contract and, after randomly choosing Pacific University in the United States, was invited to the team.

The 7ft 1in shot-blocking centre, who is still wanted by the England coach, Laszlo Nemeth, for the national team, developed into one of the most dominating big men at collegiate level.

If he joins Kinder Bologna, the reigning European and Italian League champions, his contract stipulates he can return to America if the NBA lock-out ends, but no later than 15 February.

"We're betting the NBA season won't start," a Kinder team spokesman, Marco Angrisani, said. "We have reached a tentative agreement with Olowokandi's agent and now we're just waiting for him to get here."

Olowokandi could make his debut in a Euro League second-round game on Thursday at PAOK Salonica in Greece. Yesterday was the deadline for registering players for Euro League play.