Wednesday, February 11, 2004

The Olympic Debate

It started a couple of days ago when I commented on the Rasheed Wallace trade, and it will continue now. I'm gonna try and post on general NBA news as well as keeping it Bulls-centric. This is mainly because the Bulls are simply bad and uninteresting now, the other because I got things to say!!

Anyway, the past week has been filled with debate regarding the NBA's place in Olympic basketball. It was started by Pistons Coach Larry Brown (good to see him focuses while his team has lost 5 straight). He basically was moaning about Mavericks owner Mark Cuban's earlier comments openly questioning his players playing this summer.  Cuban had some snappy words in response:

"If things don't work out, a player gets injured or he doesn't like the way things are going, he can do what he has done everywhere else, just leave," Cuban wrote. "As the owner of the team, I can't do that. I am responsible to everyone in the organization, particularly the fans, who much prefer watching our best players, playing at the top of their game.

"Larry is a great coach, and that is exactly what he should stick to," Cuban said. "When he is responsible for a hundred million dollars or more in contracts, then I will respect his opinion on the subject."

This story has been beaten to death already by the painfully boring ESPN writers bloc,  but I'm going to weigh in on this.

This may be surprising to some (or not), but I wholeheartedly agree with Mark Cuban. I just find his arguments to carry much more practical implications than Brown's. Cuban's argument on the other hand is simple to grasp:  he doesn't want his multi-million dollar investments to get hurt, American or otherwise. Cuban's team is especially vulnerable since a player like Dirk Nowitzki or Steve Nash are the focal points of their respective national teams and can get worn down before the NBA training camp even starts.  The argument I hear from Brown's side is grasping at  intangible emotional arguments like patriotism ( to represent your country), or duty to (showcase the game globally). Being the cold-hearted man that I am, let me answer these:

  • Nobody cares about the Olympics. Oh, you may think you do, but do you honestly care who wins? If the USA wins with stars, ho-hum. If they lose with less than stars like in the 2002 world championships, ho-hum they didn't have their best players. Some pundits claimed to be outraged after the American loss, but I found it to be a vocal minority. And the US team didn't lose because they weren't talented, they simply didn't have the time together that these international teams do. Now a complete all-star team with Shaq, KG, Duncan, et. al would have to practice for about 3 hours before they were ready, but say they do so and whomp up in Athens this summer. Would this cause celebration in the streets? I doubt it.


  • There's no debate where the best basketball is played, its the NBA. Even if you do like watching international teams play to check out the foreign talent, the best are in or are soon to be coming to the league. The NBA title means more to a basketball fan than any international medal. There has been similar debate about a baseball world cup, with one of the common soundbytes reading "a true world series". This is total crap. Like baseball, the best players in basketball come to America to play in the NBA. That's where the best talent is, that's where the best teams are. The team that wins is the best in the world.


  • There are better ways to promote the game. You say the dream team transformed international interest in basketball? Well I tend to agree with that, but its not as bad as Larry Brown's assertions that without the dream team the young ballers would be kicking a soccer ball instead. If you want to simply promote the game, make international competition promotional. Do a world tour with U.S. stars versus international stars. Little practice would be needed, and the games would be exhibition. International players wouldn't have to carry the physical load with star players by their side. And a tour that played in several cities instead of 1 Olympic tournament would do an even better job of promoting the game. Hell, bring the And1 mixtape guy to be on the microphone the whole time. ("OH BABY! PROFESSOR!")


  • What to do with the Olympics then? I'm not saying that NBA players should be completely banned from competing. But if an owner wants to put a clause in a contract to forbid them from playing, the player can either sign the contract or not. It would be left up to the team and the player. If such a system were in place I feel that many players would choose guaranteed millions over playing in the Olympics. As stated earlier, what American basketball really needs is a team who practices together. Cuban's idea for a college-age squad of professionals is worth thinking about. I'm sure there are kids willing to play and make some money instead of being forced to go to communications and geography classes they don't care about. Perhaps it would be possible to have the best college prospects in the country join the squad as well (which would require some arm twisting of the NCAA). Its easy to forget that America still has the best overall talent pool in the world, so if they had enough time together they should match up with any in the world. And the Olympics could go back to featuring young talent in an amateurish setting, which isn't such a bad thing.

I assume that no changes will be made by 2004, so I will sit back and watch another true dream team dominate. And make no mistake, it will be fun to watch. But Mark Cuban has an argument that the league and USA basketball should truly consider. While its a fun idea to think of an American all-star squad being greased up and ready to dominate the world every 4 years, the practical consequences on the players' employers isn't worth the emotional benefits of cheering the red, white and blue.