The roster for the USA’s Olympic basketball team was announced Saturday.
A squad built around such stars as LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony looks unbeatable, but looks sometimes deceive. Too much talent on a basketball floor can be as much of a detriment as not enough talent, and these guys have less than three weeks to reconcile the fact there is only one ball.
Whatever happens in London, the 2012 Summer Games figure to be historic for a team that has been dependent on an NBA pipeline for 20 years. Momentum is building throughout the league to distance itself from the Olympic Games, which are a physical strain on veteran players and a fiscal strain on the owners who’ve invested in them.
Suggesting an alternative to the system that produced the original 1992 “Dream Team” – and three other USA teams that won gold medals – is not smart politics during an Olympic year, so there’s not a lot of drum-beating for change. Yet.
But one owner, Mark Cuban of the appropriately named Dallas Mavericks, has gone on record about the folly of allowing players under contract to participate in the Olympics, and Cuban doesn’t care if his misgivings are interpreted as unpatriotic.
“I think it’s the biggest mistake the NBA makes,” Cuban said a few months ago. “If you look up ‘stupid’ in the dictionary, you see a picture of the USA Dream Team playing for free for corporate America so the U.S. Olympic Committee can make billions of dollars.”
Cuban’s frustration with the Olympics is reasonable. Last summer, not long after the Mavericks won the NBA championship, All-Star forward Dirk Nowitzki hurt his right knee in a futile attempt to help qualify his native Germany for the London Games. Nowitzki’s knee issues lingered into the season and affected his conditioning, to the point he was forced to sit out four games in late January.
Nowitzki, it should be noted, owns a contract that paid him $19 million in 2012. That his inability to play at full strength was a consequence of international summer competition unrelated to the Mavericks had to grate the man who owns the Mavericks.
The injury potential is always there, of course, even in a casual pickup game at the YMCA. But a schedule requiring elite athletes to compete through a season that begins in October and ends in April, followed by playoffs that linger into late June, followed by a July training camp for an Olympic tournament that concludes in the middle of August, borders on the absurd.
You think LeBron James is excited about donating the bulk of his summer to Team USA? Here’s the thing: He has no choice. Sure, he could excuse himself by citing general fatigue, but how does that play with American sports fans? It only reinforces the perception – the one he’s worked so hard to change – that he’s a self-absorbed cad.
For James (and Durant, and Bryant, and Anthony) the Olympic Games pose a quandary with no agreeable solution: You either compete with maximum effort when your body is screaming for rest, or you rest and endure the storm of controversy that awaits, from sea to shining sea.
NBA commissioner David Stern does not usually endorse Mark Cuban’s opinions, but about the league’s problematic association with the Olympic Games, they are allies.
“I do have some great deal of sympathy for those teams whose players grow up in a way that says, ‘I will play under any circumstances for my country, regardless of the injury to me and the threat to my career,’” Stern said last month. “And I understand that. And maybe those players are put under enormous pressure to play for their homeland, and perhaps an age limitation would remove some of the pressure for them.”
Ah, an age limitation. FIFA, the governing federation for international soccer, limits participation in the Olympics to players who are no older than 23 but places no age restrictions for the World Cup. Stern is familiar with that format, and won’t be ashamed to copy it: Turn the Olympics over to kids who’ll be hungry for the experience and eager for two weeks in the spotlight. As for those veterans still yearning for international stage every four years? They can always sign up for the basketball version of soccer’s World Cup, the FIBA World Cup.
As Mariners fans are realizing, a youth movement entails severe growing pains. The roster of NBA players who represented the USA in the 2004 Summer Games was doomed by its immaturity, which explains how a team boasting James, Anthony and Dwyane Wade was beaten, 92-73, by Puerto Rico. The young Americans took 24 shots beyond the 3-point line in that game, and converted three of them.
Team USA lost two other times in the 2004 Olympics, leaving Athens with a bronze medal. Upon the finish of that disastrous Summer Games tournament, the strangest things happened: The sun came up, and the world kept on turning.
If USA Basketball doesn’t dominate a 23-years-old-and-under format, life will go on. But, c’mon, it’s basketball. The USA will dominate, and the original spirit of the Olympic Games – competing in sports for the sheer joy of competing in sports – will be revived.
As for LeBron James, he’ll be happy if he wins another gold medal in London. But he’ll be happier watching a bunch of kids win one in firstname.lastname@example.org