The Olympics would be better off without NBA players
I love the Olympics. I live for the Olympics. I've been excited about Rio since an hour before the London Closing Ceremony began. I love the big events (swimming, track, gymnastics) as much as the minor-leaguers (shooting, archery, racewalking). Shoot, I'll even willingly watch diving - only in bits and pieces and, to be honest, on the few nights when NBC leads off primetime coverage with the sport, I might channel surf for the first time in two weeks, but still, DIVING, people! But there's still one thing that never crosses my Olympic radar and it's the sport with the most star power in the Games.
I've been bored with Olympic men's basketball since 1992. The first, and only, Dream Team was - and there's no other word - awesome. The saga of MJ, Magic, Bird, Sir Charles and Chuck Daly still makes for great television, books, stories and inspiring meaningless debates 24 years later (yes, it would have been cooler if Shaq had been on the team, but Christian Laettner was the right pick at the time, and yes, I realize that I've praised both diving and Laettner in these opening two grafs thus sullying my soul).
(Neil Leifer/NBAE via Getty Images)
Now the Olympic basketball tournament is a marketing exercise masquerading as a legitimate competition. It's been tired for 20 years. It's time to give the pros every fourth summer off and go back to the college kids. The star power will dwindle but the drama will increase.
(Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
Right now, you don't tune into Olympic basketball to see who's going to win, you're watching to see if the U.S. will lose. And other than a two-year revival of the "me decade" back in the early aughts, the answer is no. America's All-Star team is, no surprise, better than every other country's.
Go back to 2012. In the prelims, Team USA played five games with a +191 point differential. That's 38.2 points per game and the foot was coming off the gas about midway through the third quarter in most of them. When the Americans did struggle (as they did against Lithuania) it wasn't a talent thing, it had to do with the fact that throwing an All-Star team together with eight alpha dogs and giving them a couple weeks of practice and tune-up games makes not for cohesion. Lithuania was the better team. The U.S. had the better players.
(TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/GettyImages)
And therein is the biggest problem. With the NBA finals ending in mid-June (or maybe earlier - thanks, LeBron), Team USA will start its preparations on July 18 with a schedule theat calls for 10 training days interspersed with five games in five cities. That's not practice, that's a glorified barnstorming tour.
Though you might get some guff from John Calipari, Bill Self and others, college players could actually come together at the end of May and have a real training camp and worthy practice games. Again, the talent wouldn't be as great but the basketball would be better to watch.
Four years ago, the gold-medal game was the closest in 40 years and still was drama-free, even though it ended as a seven-point game in which one team had one-point leads after the second and third quarters. Spain had a fine roster but was still a team that lost to Russia in the prelims and was close to losing to them in the semifinals too. That Russian team had finished 9th at the previous Olympics, didn't qualify for the upcoming Games and went 1-4 to finish 21st at the European Championships in 2013. Yet the U.S. struggled with a team that they beat in London. So, in the rare case when an Olympic game is competitive, it's not even compellingly competitive. That's a problem. (And it's why I have no problem with NHL players being in the Winter Games. That's a genuine tournament, even if there are some of the same problems afflicting it as the basketball competition.)
Would you really even miss NBA players in the Olympics? Beyond 1992, what do you remember from the Olympic basketball tournament? Okay, other than Vince Carter jumping over Frederic Weis, what do you remember? Michael Phelps is in the pool for mere minutes and Usain Bolt's time on the track can be counted in seconds, yet they've produced dozens of more insta-recall memories than the 20 years of so-called Dream Teams.
The Olympics are about the fulfilling of sporting dreams and while no one does or doesn't deserve to have that opportunity, there's something lacking in watching a guy with a $120 million contract accept the same gold medal as an athlete who's put their life on hold for four years for the sole goal of standing on that podium. NBA players dream of rings. Olympic athletes dream of gold. And even though a group of college stars will theoretically become the next group of NBA players to have those visions of rings, their hunger to prove themselves on an international stage will give the Olympic game the passion it has lacked over the recent decades.
It's gotten to the point where I root against Team USA (the men, at least), despite having nothing against the players and being a huge Olympics fan, big basketball fan and American homer who still gets mad when he sees replays of the 1972 gold-medal game. The 2004 Olympics - when the U.S. lost their only "Dream Team" Olympics - was an exercise in Schadenfreude, or whatever the Argentine word for it is.
(MAXIM MARMUR/AFP/Getty Images)
All of this is just venting though. The reality is that the NBA will never get out of the Olympics and it's the same reason that's applicable to any question about why things in sports are the way they are. It's all about the money.
The '92 Olympics opened the world to the NBA. Michael Jordan was on his way to becoming a global superstar but the Olympics sped up that process and, in turn, did the same for the NBA. Countries that had never heard of the league were suddenly captivated. The international game, for whatever reason, seemed to pick up about 8-10 years after the Dream Team, just when the eight-year-old kids who watched Magic hit Bird on a fast break were coming of age.
Yes, things are different today given the globalization of sport (LeBron doesn't need an introduction to the world), but if you think the NBA is going to pass up the free opportunity to showcase its talent to billions of people for two weeks out of every four years, then I have a team in Seattle to sell you.
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
As for the players, you're always going to have the occasional Steph Curry who will understandably want to take a break after playing 200+ games in the last two years, but the true NBA owners - shoe companies - will not-so-subtly make it known that they'll want their players in the Games. How much influence do they have? Remember when Michael Jordan covered his Reebok logo with an American flag at the 1992 medal ceremony? (And even though Team USA will wear Nike jerseys, don't think Under Armour isn't devastated they won't be able to have Curry, and his sneakers, star on an international stage this August.)
The shoe companies plus the NBA equals two entities with a pronounced interest in keeping NBA players in the Olympics. You'll see eSports in the Games before you'll see a basketball player still enrolled at Duke.
Eh, maybe that's not such a bad thing. Still, I dream.