LONDON – Together, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant watched the final minutes on the far end of the Americans' bench, the two most transcendent players in the world cheering on teammates, sharing some laughs and understanding that Olympic basketball had been one of the best things to ever happen to them.
For James, it helped him become a champion. For Bryant, it helped him become one again. They've never had much of a friendship, but they do share this unmistakable bond: They drive the revenue, the ratings and relevance in the NBA. They're the most public faces of Team USA's transformation from a lost program to a gold-medal standard.
"The Olympics are a huge for-profit endeavor," Dallas owner Mark Cuban told Yahoo! Sports on Sunday. "It makes no sense that NBA owners subsidize it."
As expected, Team USA obliterated France 98-71 on Sunday, beginning the Americans' march toward a gold medal in these Olympic Games. When it was over, Bryant made the case for the NBA to hold onto Olympic basketball for its star players. He made the case for the way the Lakers had come together as champions after Bryant and Pau Gasol played in the 2008 Olympics, and how James won the MVP and on and on.
"Why is this an issue again?" Bryant wondered.
It is an issue because it transcends Team USA, and that's something that Bryant, Kevin Love, several more teammates, and the public still haven't grasped. This isn't about sending young Americans to the Olympics to play older teams, but the NBA cutting a deal with FIBA to make the Olympics a completely under-23 tournament. For NBA teams, the ability to control their talent in a rebranded World Cup of Basketball goes far past benefiting financially in ways that the IOC will never allow.
This is the fight now, but everyone knows how it will end: The owners are organized, unified, and determined to make the World Cup of Basketball the financial boon that they always believed a European expansion of NBA franchises could be for them. They're determined to control the way that medical staff administer to players in whom they've invested hundreds of millions of dollars, control the circumstances under which those players are cleared to play with injury, and ultimately, control the fate of guaranteed contracts they're obligated to pay.
As one Western Conference GM told Yahoo! Sports, in responding to Team USA players saying they want final say over whether they play in the Olympics: "If players take this control, should they also take the risk on their contract money?"
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NBA owners and executives worry far less about sending their players to participate with Team USA than they do the rest of the world's teams. After all, there's a different nationalistic pressure for elite international players to participate on national teams. For Bryant, the toll on his body is minimal: USA Basketball controls practice time for its veterans and needed to play him only 12 minutes in the victory over France. There's never a singular talent that the Americans couldn't win a gold medal without on the floor.
Across the floor, the burden on the San Antonio Spurs' Tony Parker was immense. For years, he has labored to get France into the Olympics, and has played with serious injuries in international competitions. He logs significant minutes, and once had France's doctors clear him to play despite sustaining a broken finger. Manu Ginobili tore an ankle ligament for Argentina in the 2008 Olympics and needed surgery. The Netherlands once cleared former Spurs center Francisco Elson to play with a fractured eye socket.
Spurs general manager R.C. Buford has been on the forefront of mining the globe's most diverse talent, and has always believed that his franchise has benefited from his players' international experiences. Nevertheless, Buford told Yahoo! this in the 2008 Olympics, and his sense of the issue is unchanged: "Even among the national teams, you have a real inconsistency of care with no set of agreed-upon guidelines between FIBA and the NBA. The quality of care is different between an NBA team and national teams, but it's even different among the national teams themselves.
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"In the especially poorer countries, they don't always have the national team doctor at the tournament with them, and they're using a freelance doctor who may have or not have experience with sports injuries, nor the understanding of the risk-rewards of clearing a guy to play who has a $100 million contract."
Whatever the issues with Bryant's knees, the Los Angeles Lakers will never tell him to stay out of the Olympics. They understand he's wired to compete, chasing championships and gold medals and a significant share of the swoosh's global shoe market. Mostly, the Lakers understand that Bryant's advancing age and diminishing knees would never deter him, that he simply wouldn't sit out London.
In the end, Bryant and James deliver incredible revenue and value to the Olympic basketball tournament, and the owners are tired of watching the IOC bank it. Yet the motivation of changing the Olympic basketball format goes far deeper than Team USA, than the sports' biggest stars. The biggest fights between owners and players always do.
And yet, just remember how those fights always end, who always wins. There sat Kobe and LeBron on Sunday, watching the final minutes of one more USA Basketball blowout together under the Olympic rings. Take a good long look at them here in London, and understand that we'll never, ever see this again.
More London Olympics content on Yahoo! Sports:
• France point guard Tony Parker’s goggles: Function over fashion on the floor
• First lady has love for every USA hoops player
• How U.S. shooting star set new medal standard
- Sports & Recreation
- Kobe Bryant
- LeBron James