OKLAHOMA CITY — I caught up with NBA commissioner David Stern today at an NBA Cares event held at the Oklahoma City rescue mission to press him on the proposal being discussed to limit the Olympic men’s basketball competition to players 23 and under — an item I first wrote about last week with a similar headline.
Here’s the gist of what he said:
_ A big part of the reason why the NBA is pushing this discussion is because they want to increase the visibility and importance of the World Cup of basketball (formerly known as the World Championship). The NBA and FIBA want the World Cup to be as big of an international event as the World Cup of Soccer, and the 23-and-under rule would not apply to the World Cup, which will be held next in Spain in 2014.
My reaction: You can’t kill a good thing to try to fix a not-so-good thing. Men’s basketball is one of the most important events at the Olympics. A vast majority of players, both American and international, are passionate about playing for their national teams. If you make the Olympics less competitive, that will not automatically translate into the World Cup being a compelling event. Americans love the Olympics. Americans ignore the World Championship. If you ruin one, that does not guarantee that you fix the other.
_ Stern said it’s probably a 50-50 proposition that the 23-and-under rule gets implemented, and I am hearing from USA Basketball sources that foreign federations are complaining to FIBA that the United States is trying to gain a competitive advantage because America’s younger players are more seasoned than foreign under-23 players.
My reaction: If you go and tell Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola that they can’t play for Argentina, or if you tell Pau and Marc Gasol that they cannot play for Spain, or Tony Parker that he cannot play for France, they will be apoplectic. Those four players are more loyal (in their hearts, not their wallets) to their national teams than they are to their NBA teams. If this rule gets put into place, there will be a backlash that will be monumental.
_ Stern plans to discuss the 23-and-under rule with FIBA chief Patrick Baumann following the conclusion of the London Olympics. I know for a fact that Baumann wants to do something to make the World Cup a bigger and more prestigious event, because he told me so in Istanbul two summers ago. Baumann complained that many top European players decided to sit out the 2010 Worlds because they were more interested in playing in the 2011 Eurobasket in order to qualify for the 12-team Olympic field.
My reaction: Baumann has to deal with more than 100 Olympic federations, and as good of a relationship as he has with Stern, he does not want to be dictated to by the NBA’s dictator. as I said above, the backlash from other countries (and perhaps from Americans, too) will be so strong that the idea will be tabled for another four years, and the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016 will continue to feature he best of the best, irrespective of age.
_Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been the most vocal about keeping star players out of the Olympics, arguing that it is idiotic for NBA teams to cede control of their most valuable assets to foreign federations, then have those players report to training camp running on fumes because they have been practicing and playing for their national teams for the entire summer. At his news conference on the eve of Game 1, Stern said that although he usually disagrees with nearly everything Cuban says and does, on this issue he is in agreement with Cuban.
My reaction: Cuban would feel differently if he attended an Olympics or spent some extended time with Team USA when they are in training camp or competing in a worldwide event. Twenty years ago the decision was made that we’ll send our best, y’all can sent your best, and we’ll see who’s the best. Olympic games are unbelievably intense, incredibly physical and extraordinarily quick (most last about an hour and 45 minutes). Americans have been through too many Olympic letdowns — 1972 Munich, 1988 Seoul, 2004 Athens — to put themselves at a competitive disadvantage with an arbitrary rule that will decrease the level of competition. Yes, a way needs to be found to make the World Cup of Basketball more compelling. Gutting the Olympics is not the answer.
Chris Sheridan is founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of SheridanHoops.com. He has covered Team USA at every Olympics since 1996, and every World Championship since 2002.