|Players and coaches for Team USA celebrate after the Olympic medal ceremony Sunday. (Getty Images)|
What an ending this would've been. What a bookend on the 20-year Dream Team era. Grown-man NBA stars jumping up and down like kids, Springsteen's Born in the USA playing in the background, another gold medal secured.
This is how movie scripts are written. And if I could play Quentin Tarantino with this one, this would be the closing montage on a two-decade run of dominance, comeuppance, redemption and then dominance again.
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This is how the era of NBA stars at the Olympics should end. Right here, right now.
With a 107-100, hard-scrabble victory over Spain on Sunday, Team USA secured its second straight Olympic gold medal and left nothing -- absolutely nothing -- to prove about what a thrilling success these 20 years have been. The reinvention of USA Basketball since the bronze-medal embarrassments of the 2004 Athens Olympics and 2006 World Championships has been nothing short of an inspiration.
The Americans sent the best All-Star team ever created to the Barcelona Games in 1992 and changed the global basketball landscape forever. After '04 and '06, their triumphs in the '08 Beijing Games and now in London more than justified a new approach built on multiyear commitments from players whose specific talents and roles were more important than their egos.
It was not easy Sunday; not perfect by any stretch. The Americans, though, did this without the likes of Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. With significant roster turnover a certainty heading into the 2016 games in Brazil, the U.S. could simply keep chugging along with the same concept and some different names and probably a different coach and do this again.
But why? Why not just end it now? Why not quit while you're way ahead?
NBA owners' visions of a basketball World Cup replacing the league's investment in the Olympics almost certainly will have to wait until after the Rio Games. There's simply too much politics involved, too many nations with stakes in the FIBA hierarchy to get everyone on the same page with a 23-and-under tournament in time for Rio.
In fact, FIBA secretary general Patrick Baumann said Saturday in London there are no plans to change the age limit for the Olympic basketball tournament any time soon. And the biggest American stars have been across-the-board against the idea.
Maybe they haven't been fully debriefed. Maybe they haven't yet received the memo about how much money the owners and commissioner David Stern believe a basketball World Cup could generate. Hint: The number begins with a "B," as in "billion."
Despite opposition to the concept floated this summer by Stern, league sources caution that the commissioner's level of determination to make the World Cup the coup de grace of his commissionership should not be underestimated.
Stern has told associates recently that a World Cup tournament with veteran NBA stars "has the potential to generate billions," a person with knowledge of the conversations told CBSSports.com. And the point will be driven home to the players in the coming months that, if billions are generated, "The players will get their share."
"This is something that David really wants to gets done," the person briefed on the conversations said. "He looks at it as a serious revenue maker. Serious money."
Money talks in sports. In the NBA, it almost always has the final say. Sort of like the commissioner.
With the final collective bargaining agreement of his tenure in the rear-view mirror, promising as much as a decade of labor peace, team owners and executives have privately wondered in recent weeks how much longer Stern, who turns 70 next month, will stick around. At one point in the past year, Stern promised his owners that he'd be divulging his retirement timeline and succession plans at a future Board of Governors meeting. He never did.
At the most recent gathering of owners last month in Las Vegas, ownership sources say Stern again avoided the issue of his future and the eventual rise of deputy commissioner Adam Silver to the No. 1 chair. The owners, apparently so giddy over how well the 12 percent reduction in player salaries meshed with an otherwise insignificant drop in revenues resulting from the lockout-shortened season, didn't bother to press. They were too busy admiring the fine china and counting the money that could be generated with sponsorship patches on jerseys.
My guess? Stern isn't going anywhere until he succeeds in withdrawing the best NBA players from the Olympics -- which generate billions that NBA owners never see -- and rerouting them to a World Cup tournament in which NBA owners and players would share the wealth with FIBA. It will be one more test of Stern's iron will, not to mention his more than quarter-century track record of getting the owners what they want.
And despite the transparent arguments for preserving the sanctity of the Olympic Games -- as if the Olympics are the only sporting event in world history not driven by and based on money -- Stern isn't going quietly on this one.
If he erred, Stern waited too long. The Olympic argument should've been on the table at the bargaining sessions last summer and fall, and the potential windfall should've been shared with this summer's basketball Olympians before they left for London. Then again, such talk of so much revenue growth would've been a tough sell at a time when Stern was trying to justify a $3 billion shift from players to owners over the next decade.
Either way, as USA Basketball celebrates another well-deserved gold, don't overlook the quiet negotiation that will occur behind the scenes about how much longer the NBA is going to subsidize the Olympic basketball tournament. Life is a negotiation, as Stern likes to say, but the one that will take place between the NBA and FIBA about the future of the Olympic tournament isn't the only bargaining on the horizon.
In the coming weeks, it is believed that an independent review of the National Basketball Players Association's finances and business practices will be complete. The result of that, and of a probe of union practices by the U.S. Attorney's office, will determine who will be sitting across the table from Stern in these final months -- or dare we say, years? -- of his commissionership.
How strong and unified the players' leadership is -- and who is in charge -- will determine whether the players will be partners with Stern and the owners on this concept or adversaries. Call it a bait-and-switch tactic, but Stern has an enormous card to play at this table. The billions lost in bargaining at this very time a year ago are right there to be recouped by bidding adieu to subsidizing the Olympics -- and by taking your ball and dribbling it all the way to your very own World Cup, where you can share in the riches.
After 20 perfectly choreographed years that ended in the perfect crowning achievement Sunday, it's an idea whose time has come.