If you're a fan of international basketball, you better savor every minute of the 2012 London Olympics. Because if NBA commissioner David Stern gets his way, that's the last time you'll see NBA stars in the Olympic hoops tournament.
Twenty years after NBA players debuted at the 1992 Barcelona games, Stern has indicated that he will try to limit Olympic participation to players younger than 23. This would also apply to participation in the FIBA World Cup, the quadrennial tournament formerly known as the FIBA World Championship.
Stern is employed by the league and his sole job is to act in the best interest of the league's owners. So it should come as no surprise that he wants to keep the NBA out of the Olympics. The owners want to protect their investments — the players — and don't profit when they suit up for Team USA. They would rather see them rest over the summer than risk injury by playing in major tournaments every two summers.
In this respect, Stern does have a point. Blake Griffin — who just signed a five year, $95 million extension — was forced to leave Team USA on Thursday after sustaining a torn meniscus in his left knee in practice. And the man who stepped into the squad to replace him, Anthony Davis, sprained an ankle during Team USA tryouts earlier this summer.
Stern cannot be faulted for the stance he's taken, but that does not change the fact that it's completely wrong.
The main reason that Stern's proposal is a bad idea is because it would eliminate any chance of declaring an official world champion in basketball. American fans have a tendency to overvalue their domestic leagues. The Miami Heat may refer to themselves as "world champions," but that's not really true. There are many other professional leagues across the globe, as well as the Olympics and World Cup. Winning one's domestic league should not automatically allow a team to call itself the world champion.
Fortunately, we have the Olympics, where, for the past 20 years, every country has sent its strongest team to determine the true world champions. Yes, the United States has won four of the five gold medals during that time, but the level of play has improved drastically since 1992.
The U.S. won the first two gold medal games by an average of 29 points. But Team USA won by an average of just 10.5 points in the gold medal games in 2000 and 2008, and only managed to take the bronze medal in 2004 despite a roster that included Tim Duncan, LeBron James and Allen Iverson. And that doesn't even include a sixth-place showing at the 2002 World Cup or a third-place finish at the 2006 World Cup — both with rosters full of NBA stars.
There are other reasons why NBA players should continue to play in the Olympics, however. If Stern were to block NBA players from the Olympics, he would have used the International Olympic Committee in a manner similar to how a normal person might use a paper towel — he got what he wanted from them, and then threw them away. Stern wanted to use the Olympics as a means to grow the NBA internationally, and once the Dream Team won the gold medal in 1992, basketball did indeed explode overseas.
The NBA has felt the effects with international stars such as Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, and now that the league is strong enough to support itself in overseas markets, Stern has no reason to send players to the Olympics to market his stars. While it's hard to feel sorry for the IOC — an organization that knows a thing or two about exploiting people — withdrawing his players just 20 years after they debuted wouldn't be a very classy move on Stern's part.
The USA is probably the best team in the world right now, but the outcome of the Olympic basketball tournament is not a foregone conclusion. Every other nation sends its strongest team but without American pros, the tournament would lose its legitimacy. What Stern is proposing would turn Olympic basketball into the equivalent of Olympic soccer. And no one, not even diehard soccer fans, cares about the Olympic soccer tournament.
The Olympics and World Cup are basketball's only chance to crown an official world champion. Why would anyone want to lose that?