Mark Wiedmer: NBA's best veterans should remain a part the Olympic experience

Mark Wiedmer: NBA's best veterans should remain a part the Olympic experience

July 16th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

If NBA commissioner David Stern had his way, only two of the 12 players who will suit up for the USA Olympic team tonight in its exhibition game against Brazil (8 p.m., ESPN2) would be eligible to play for the Red, White and Blue.

That's because Stern wants to limit all future Olympians with NBA contracts to players under 23 years of age. That means only Oklahoma City Thunder guard James Harden - who won't turn 23 until Aug. 26 - and recent overall No. 1 draft pick Anthony Davis, 19, would meet the commissioner's preferred guidelines.

And one need only look to the late addition of the former University of Kentucky star Anthony to understand at least part of the reason for Stern's proposed change.

Mr. Unibrow/Uniblocker is only on the team because LA Clippers star Blake Griffin suffered a knee injury last week that forced the All-Star to the sideline and gave instant validity to NBA owners' concerns that their players put too much stress on their bodies by surrendering their summers to international competition.

Or as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban - rarely a Stern supporter - told the media in April: "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. It has nothing to do with patriotism and it's all about money."

It could be argued whether it was more for pride or patriotism in 1992, the first year our pros were allowed to play, the summer of the original so-called Dream Team of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley and the Gang.

Stung by the 1988 team's unsatisfactory bronze medal in Seoul using collegians such as David Robinson and Mitch Richmond, we used an international rules change to remind the world that we invented hoops, gosh darn it, and we still play it better than anyone else in the world.

So we smugly watched MJ, Sir Charles and Co. post an average margin of victory of 43.8 points and figured we'd ended any chance of settling for anything but gold in basketball from that day forward.

(Personal note: For those of us old enough to remember the Great Gold Medal Robbery of 1972 in Munich, this was also the ultimate "take that" moment for the worst injustice in Olympic team sports history.)

Yet 1992 was also pretty much where I wanted this NBA experiment to end. We'd made our point. Why not return to letting our collegians compete for gold, at least as long as no other country could dress its NBA veterans?

And because of that, if Stern gets his way and a hybrid of that format returns, I won't complain. It would still be great fun in this country to watch our college guys go toe-to-toe with non-NBA foreigners for the gold.

But there's another side of this that needs to be considered, a side we ignore too often from inside our nation's borders.

The Olympics are a world event, mostly staged on non-U.S. soil, and arguably more eagerly awaited in almost every other country on earth than America.

Just soak up this quote from the current team's Kobe Bryant, the 34-year-old LA Laker great who's attempting to win his second straight gold medal: "You put your best players in that stage and you want to see the best players go against each other. That's what it's all about."

At least that's what it's always been about in almost every sport save basketball prior to 1992. Everyone else played their best before then. We played our best amateurs. Now it's best on best, and to understand just how much the rest of the world has caught up to us, just eight years ago we finished third in Olympic hoops with a team that featured LeBron James and Allen Iverson.

This isn't to strongly criticize the owners - and thus Stern - for their injury concerns. Griffin had just signed a 5-year, $95 million contract extension prior to his knee injury. This current Olympic team will be paid $185 million in salary next season alone.

But the international obsession with Olympic basketball is also almost exclusively due to the presence of our homegrown NBA superstars against the world's best. Two facts to illustrate the game's growth worldwide since the '92 Dream Team:

1) The NBA was televised in 80 countries before 1992. It's beamed to 215 today.

2) There were fewer than 20 foreign players in the NBA in '92. Today there are 80.

And that's the problem with Stern's proposed plan to go backward. Now that the rest of the world's grown used to watching our hoops Ferraris run every four years, it will be hard to get excited about competing against our Fords.

Kobe may have been wrong this past week to say his 2012 teammates could beat the original Dream Teamers. But when it comes to using our best NBA players in the Olympics, he's right. We should want the world's best compete against each other. That should be what all Olympic competition is about.