|Kobe Bryant is one of the NBA stars to ridicule the commissioner's World Cup idea. (Getty Images)|
David Stern and his owners have tried to sell a World Cup of basketball as an alternative to the Olympics in the most practical, follow-the-money sort of way. Their argument makes sense: Why should a for-profit sports league lend its players to the International Olympic Committee every four years for free?
It's a sound argument. Just not now, at a time when basketball fans just endured a 12-month period that involved six months of actual basketball and six months of owners and players bickering about money. Now the wheels are in motion for sponsorship patches on game-day jerseys and the threat has been leveled to pull NBA stars out of the Olympics -- all in the name of making more money.
Now is not the time for Stern and the owners to win this debate. That time will come, because a good case can be made that this 20-year window for NBA stars at the Olympics has reached its inevitable conclusion. Dream Teams, like grunge rock, have run their course.
|More on under-23 decision|
In 1992, Stern and his minions had to beg NBA stars to compete in the Barcelona Games, and the international shot in the arm was exactly what the league needed. The Dream Team was an unmitigated success both on and off the court, planting the seeds for two decades of global growth for the American game. The NBA needed the Olympics back then, but this is no longer true. In fact, a case can be made that it's quite the opposite.
It's just that Stern and his owners -- led by Mark Cuban, who is dead-on accurate about this issue from a business perspective -- have framed the argument in a way that turns a slam-dunk case into a dead-ball turnover. The chutzpah of these titans of industry to nakedly proclaim their simple motivation -- the almighty dollar -- before the ink is even dry on a collective bargaining agreement that moved $3 billion in future player salaries into the owners' pockets. And oh, did we mention? We can make another $100 million a year by turning the players into walking, dunking billboards. Dunkin' Donuts, anyone?
It's too much. Too much capitalism and too much greed for one calendar year, even if business owners getting their way is far more American than apple pie or even the Olympics.
There's another problem with this seemingly sudden fixation on making the Olympic basketball tournament a 23-and-under affair and creating a basketball World Cup for the big boys -- one that the NBA and FIBA would partner in and share the revenues. Stern, Cuban and the rest of the owners are late to the party, proving that you can be right, but at the wrong time and with the wrong argument.
If this, the 20th anniversary of the Dream Team's gold medal in Barcelona, is the end of the road for NBA stars at the Olympics, wouldn't it have been nice to know that going in? Wouldn't NBC and the IOC have wanted to squeeze a little extra dough and social media engagement out of the event by promoting it as the end of an era? Wouldn't a 20-year bookend event commemorating the Dream Team have given a little meaning to the inevitable plundering of Tunisia and Nigeria? Wouldn't Nike, the biggest beneficiary of turning NBA stars into Olympians, have wanted to crank out a line of commemorative jerseys and shoes?
Instead of just another excessive display of basketball muscle from the descendants of the Dream Team, wouldn't it have actually meant something if everyone knew this was the end of the line -- the last time the world would ever see America's basketball rock stars on the Olympic stage?
The answer is yes to all of that. Twenty years is a nice, round number, and doing the Dream Team anniversary right would've given the NBA the graceful, meaningful exit from the Olympics that it needed.
Stern is fond of saying that life is a negotiation, but this negotiation began far too late. Predictably, stars like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Chris Paul have ridiculed Stern's World Cup idea. Nike clients all, they've benefited handsomely from displaying their talents and selling their brands to the world. Also, being well beyond the proposed Olympic age cutoff of 23, these stars are pushing back against the notion of being shoved off the Olympic stage against their will. Having just surrendered $3 billion to the owners in a knock-down, drag-out labor fight, can you blame them?
The quote from Bryant that generated the most headlines and page views was when the five-time champion called Stern's Olympic age limit a "stupid idea." But that wasn't the most meaningful blowback from the loudest, most respected voice among this generation of America's basketball Olympians.
"It should be a choice," Bryant said, and that's the real money quote here.
Even more than their birthright to beat up on Angola, what this generation of American basketball stars has inherited from the Dream Team is an affinity for doing things on their own terms. Even while they accessorize in red, white, blue and gold, these American basketball players value something called free agency above all else. Just look at how the labor fight ended. They gave up money, but fought until the bitter end to retain rules that allow them the freedom to dribble and shoot in virtually any NBA city of their choosing, with whatever teammates they desire.
So the idea that Stern, Cuban and the rest of the owners are going to bully the players off the Olympic stage just because they can is a flawed premise -- especially when the premise is framed by dollar signs.
Which NBA star in his prime earning years is going to voluntarily give up his place in the global buffet line to compete in some BRI Invitational? The Dream Teamers had to be talked into the Olympics in '92, but now the NBA's stars want to be there because that's where history was made. Winning Olympic gold carries meaning and significance that some money-making World Cup tournament would lack.
So what the NBA needed here to motivate its stars to exit stage left in London was the kind of diplomacy that Stern and USA Basketball used to get the Dream Team to go to Barcelona in the first place. The players needed an end game, needed some incentive other than making more money for the owners (and, since they'd split the eventual World Cup revenues 50-50, for themselves).
It was a missed opportunity, because the players could've been sold on this if it had been done right. The honor of being a member of the last team of veteran NBA stars to compete in the Olympics would've meant something. It would've been historic; perhaps not as significant as being a member of the original Dream Team in '92, but as close as you could ever get.
Instead, Kobe, LeBron and their Nike brethren have been handed the flawed alternative of being the first NBA stars to follow the money to some new tournament with no historical value. No wonder they're resisting. Simply put, they want a choice. So if the Stern and the owners want to extricate themselves from the Olympics and make a few bucks while they're at it, then a choice is what they better give the players. Simply, they need to reframe their argument.
This World Cup idea is a long way from reality anyway, given that the rest of the world needs to agree to the age limit and timetable, or it won't work. But assuming the rest of FIBA will be on board, and Nike and Adidas can be appeased, the final link is the NBA players themselves. Remember, David: Life is a negotiation. The players won't be forced to play in your tournament. They have to choose to be there; if they don't, your tournament will fail. Players want choice, so you better give it to them in a way that makes them choose your alternative on their terms.
In the same way Barcelona was a new Olympic frontier for the Dream Team, a basketball World Cup needs to be presented that way to the NBA's current generation. No U.S. Olympic team will ever measure up to the Dream Team, and the players need to understand that there's nothing more for them to accomplish at the Olympics -- not in Brazil in 2016 or anywhere else under the sun or under the IOC's five rings. The only way anyone henceforth will care about NBA All-Stars competing in the Olympics is when they lose. So after 20 years, it's time to quit while you're ahead.
The way the Dream Team made the Olympics their own, today's NBA stars could take ownership anew of the world basketball stage at a World Cup tournament. They need to be sold on being the generation of American basketball players who neatly and triumphantly closed the 20-year window that was opened by the Dream Team in '92. And instead of forever trying to live up to the Dream Team's formidable legacy, they'd be in the unique position of forging their own.
Even with another gold medal, Kobe, LeBron, Carmelo and the rest will forever be history's warmup band for the original Dream Team. Blazing a new trail is the only way Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin and Kyrie Irving will ever avoid the same fate.
Thus, the Olympics in basketball could go back to being what it is for gymnastics and swimming and the rest. New names every four years – Michael Phelps and Nastia Liukin in Beijing, Ryan Lochte and Gabrielle Douglas in London, instead of just Kobe and LeBron forever. And the biggest American stars of the Olympics, the NBA stars, would choose to move on and conquer their own Mount Olympus in a basketball-only event that would give them top billing around the world.
If given a choice, and a reason besides money, the NBA's stars would do the right thing. But they won't be forced, won't be shoved off the Olympic stage for expedience or profit. Stern and the owners have the right idea, but the wrong argument. They created this monster with the Dream Team 20 years ago, and if they want to end it, they have to inspire the players to do it themselves.