LONDON — In politics, they call such utterances “trial balloons.”
Someone, usually a “senior official who must remain anonymous,” is quoted offering a proposal that is guaranteed to raise some eyebrows in Washington. Members of both parties trip over each other to get on the 6 o’clock news with an opinion either supporting or denouncing said proposal. The temperature thus gauged, the proposal either is or isn’t submitted again.
It’s all part of the game.
I wonder whether David Stern was floating a trial balloon himself with this business about reserving the Olympic basketball competition for players 23 and under, the difference being we know exactly which “senior NBA official” is sending up the trial balloon. It’s the Big Cheese himself, the chosen vehicle being Colin Cowherd’s weekday ESPN radio show.
The idea is that the chief basketball powers of the world would save their over-23 stars for a bigger and better World Championships, one, presumably, in which the NBA would employ its formidable marketing powers to make the event a proper ATM for the countries involved. Why, in other words, should we provide our valuable players to the International Olympic Committee, so it can make the money?
Ah yes, M-O-N-E-Y. It always comes back to that, doesn’t it?
From my vantage point across the pond, I would say events have overtaken the commissioner. Based on everything we have seen and heard at London 2012, this idea is a certified non-starter. That little “pop” you just heard is the sound of the trial balloon being burst.
First of all, the NBA should be thrilled. Twenty years on from the saga of the One and Only Dream Team, this edition of NBA stars has captured the fancy of the world second only to the original Dream Team itself. Team USA members are rock stars here in a way they never were in Atlanta, Sydney (where the team was essentially loathsome), Athens (where the team was essentially pitiful), and Beijing. Why? I don’t really know why, but it is so.
There is enormous interest in this team. The international media are enthralled with them. The opening game with France brought out such a horde of journalists that a substantial overflow was forced back into the media centre to watch on TV.
The demand to see this team is so high that the IOC took the unprecedented step of making the USA group competition games with Lithuania and Argentina ticketed media events, something normally reserved for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and, more often than not, swimming. (In the Winter Olympics, figure skating gets this treatment.)
Would this be going on if we had a team here consisting of Kevin Durant and the 11 Dwarfs? I think not.
The unalterable truth is that people want the American stars here. And a second truth is that most of our great players want to be here, at least once.
You know why? Because it’s the Olympics. It’s the Olympics, not the World Championships. The Olympic brand has not diminished one iota. It is more powerful than ever. Our stars want to march in the Opening Ceremonies. They want to see the other stars. A half-dozen of our finest basketball players were present for Usain Bolt’s second coronation as the World’s Fastest Man. Kobe Bryant couldn’t wait to get to Wimbledon. I’m sure plenty of them checked out Michael Phelps.
There are no such opportunities at any sport’s individual “World Championships,” some of which are held annually.
No one — I mean no one — thinks this 23-and-under thing is a good idea. Bryant has labeled it “stupid.” Tyson Chandler, a savvy first-time Olympian at age 30 (and the only player surveyed who intended to hit the Tate Gallery), calls it “absolutely ridiculous.” But the rest of the world thinks even less of the proposal.
“I didn’t like it when I first read about it, and now that I’m here I like it even less,” said Australian coach Brett Brown, the Maine-bred onetime Boston University player whose next game will be against the Americans in Wednesday’s quarterfinals. “You want the best players here, and an age restriction does not promote that. I don’t like it at all”
“I’m against it,” said Russian coach Dave Blatt, of the Framingham Blatts. “I know there is a problem with the sheer number of games and competitions. It takes a tough physical and mental toll on everyone. But the age restriction is not the answer. And I understand about the money. But smart people have got to get together and come up with a better solution.”
Forget the American point of view for a minute. The rest of the world has players for whom playing in the Olympics is the pinnacle of their careers, and the idea of playing against the Americans makes the experience exponentially better.
Sure, they could play against a team of US stars in some world competition, but it’s not the same. There are sports in which competitors swear that their World Championships are as important, or even more important to them, but basketball is not one of them. That was always true, and it became even truer when the Dream Team did its job by raising the bar to a new height.
Some people in America still cling to the antiquated notion that the Olympic basketball experience should be for “the college kids.” That was then, when the Olympics were all about, ahem, “amateur” athletes.
The now is that we are in the 21st century, and the Olympics have taken on a very new aura. It is where the best of the best gather. That’s one reason baseball was booted out, in case you didn’t know. There was no way either the Americans, Dominicans, or Venezuelans could free up their best players while the season was going on.
So that toothpaste will remain outside the tube, and well it should.
“I don’t think they should do it,” said the San Antonio Spurs’ Tony Parker, here representing France. “What if someone blossoms late? Why shouldn’t he be given a chance to play in the Olympics? This is the biggest competition. This is where we play against the Americans.”
You heard him. This is where we play against the Americans.
As far as the money is concerned, do not tell me that all this demonstrated interest in the American stars is not transferable into some cash. The NBA brand is being enhanced every time this team steps on the floor.
So, Mr. Stern, here’s what I have to say about your 23-and-under proposal.