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Christopher L. Gasper

NBA’s Olympic age-limit proposal isn’t golden

Kobe Bryant is right about Olympic basketball.

No, not that utter nonsense that the current Red, White, and Blue ballers could beat the fabled 1992 edition, the first team of NBA megastars in the Olympics and the only one deserving of the “Dream Team” moniker.

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Keep dreaming, Kobe.

Bryant is right. NBA commissioner David Stern’s proposal to limit the NBA players in the 2016 Olympics to those 23 and under (with three age-limit exceptions) is “stupid.” It would be a step back for the quality of international basketball, an arbitrary restriction on how the world’s best players utilize their talents, and NBA extortion of international basketball.

“It’s a stupid idea. It should be a [player’s] choice,” the Lakers star said during USA basketball’s warm-up tour in Manchester, England.

If Stern got his way, the US Olympic team would go from a virtual who’s who to just who.

The only player on the US team, which begins Olympic play July 29 against France, who would be automatically eligible for 2016 would be New Orleans Hornets big man Anthony Davis, the 19-year-old No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.

Fellow lottery picks Thomas Robinson, Terrence Ross, and Dion Waiters, all born in 1991, wouldn’t be eligible, unless they were granted an overage exemption. The sixth overall pick, Portland point guard Damian Lillard, who turned 22 this month, would be a geezer by Stern’s Olympic standards.

The basis for Stern’s suggestion was the Olympic soccer tournament, which is confined to players 23 and under with three overage roster exemptions per team. Unlike basketball, the Olympic soccer tournament is not the sport’s most significant international competition. That honor belongs to the World Cup.

The idea of sending pros to the Olympics has become tedious for some. They prefer the good old days of apple pie, Chevrolet, and Cold War histrionics, when the best and the brightest from this country’s college basketball factories took to the court at Olympus. They’re tired of the preening, primping, chest-bumping Ugly Americans act that can take place during Star-Spangled blowouts.

But the world has changed. The Cold War is no more and the same is true of the US’s basketball monopoly. Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Tony Parker, Pau Gasol, Ricky Rubio, Manu Ginobili don’t carry a Made-in-the-US label. The top player in the college recruiting class of 2014 is a small forward named Andrew Wiggins . . . from Canada.

If the United States sent our NCAA-sanctioned semi-pros to the London Games, we could kiss the gold medal goodbye. It was the 1988 bronze-medal finish of the college kids that spurred the idea to send in the NBA mercenaries and marketing machines to restore America’s hoops hegemony and proselytize the sport to the global masses. It worked on both counts.

Sending our best NBA players now is no guarantee of gold in the international game.

It was just 10 years ago that a US squad packed with NBAers, including Celtics star Paul Pierce, finished sixth at the FIBA (Federation Internationale de Basketball) World Basketball Championship. It’s been just eight years since the Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury-led debacle of the 2004 Olympic team, which lost to Puerto Rico by 19 points and had to settle for a bronze.

It’s highly unlikely a team with Kobe, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, etc., will suffer a similar fate. But a callow group of NBAers could in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.

But this isn’t about ensuring gold for the NBA, which is a separate entity from USA Basketball. It’s not about jingoism, but capitalism.

Stern’s age limit would apply only to the Olympics because the NBA can’t make a lot of money off the Lords of the Rings. The International Olympic Committee is a byzantine, tightly controlled entity with a centralized power structure that makes the NBA look like a book club. If the Olympic tournament were not the premier international basketball competition, then the league could cash in on the tournament that was.

As Yahoo! Sports pointed out last month, the NBA and its owners are interested in turning the FIBA World Championship, held in four-year cycles between the Summer Olympics, into a basketball World Cup. The league would look to strike an agreement with FIBA, the game’s international governing body, that would give the NBA a revenue stream from the international tournament.

If you think that’s a far-fetched rationale for an Olympic age limit, know that one of the chief topics of discussion at the NBA’s Board of Governors meeting in Las Vegas last week was putting advertising patches with corporate logos on player’s jerseys. Deputy commissioner Adam Silver told the media the patches, which could be in place in time for the 2013-14 season, could generate as much as $100 million for the league’s 30 teams.

The league will explore all avenues of making a bigger buck, so a Dunkin’ Donuts or Comcast patch is coming to a Celtics jersey near you.

Stern backed away from his Olympic proposal a bit Thursday at the NBA’s meeting, saying it was just one option.

But if there is one hard and fast rule of the NBA — besides not calling traveling on a star player even if he rides a Segway through the paint — it’s that Stern gets what Stern wants. If the NBA’s iron-fisted emperor wants to impose an Olympic age limit, it will happen, just like the dress code and the NBA draft age limit.

Trying to restrict the opportunity of NBA players to participate in the world’s most-celebrated athletic competition may be stupid.

Doing it so you can make a larger profit is as American as apple pie.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.
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