LONDON --- Before the emperor of basketball makes an entrance with his security detail and wing-tipped yes men into the arena here, David Stern should have taken a good long look at an old grudge quarterfinals game between Russia and Lithuania. As the NBA tries to play God on Olympic basketball, pushing FIBA to legislate change that will render this magnificent spectacle irrelevant, Stern should be forced to confront the collateral damage of his failing movement.
“I would hope that the countries would be in an uproar about this,” Russia coach David Blatt told Yahoo! Sports on Tuesday “Who is one country to determine for everyone how international basketball should be played, and particularly how the Olympic Games should be managed? It’s not supposed to be like that. If it’s a global game, it’s a global game.”
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Stern has been met with an increasing level of resistance about his and the NBA owners’ desires to turn the Olympics into an under-23 tournament and send the league’s superstars to an NBA-FIBA partnered World Cup of Basketball. So much resistance, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Stern use this trip to England to start backpedaling to spare himself one more indignity in these sad, dark final years on the job. Stern should tell the owners that he’s parking the issue and leaving it to his eventual successor, Adam Silver.
Stern will soon meet with FIBA secretary Patrick Baumann, who told the Sports Business Journal that he needed to hear many more details from the NBA before bringing an under-23 tournament idea to the 200-plus countries in membership. If the NBA doesn’t get what it wants out of a financial partnership with FIBA in a World Cup tournament, Baumann sounded dubious over the NBA’s chances of financing its own non-sanctioned global event.
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“Everybody’s free to organize a tournament,” Baumann told SBJ. “Whether the rest of the world will participate is their choice. If (the NBA is) to distribute billions and billions, then maybe they might participate. If it’s to retain all the benefits for themselves, my guess is the rest of the world won’t participate.”
The rest of the world is dubious, and has low tolerance for Stern’s bully tactics. On the eve of the quarterfinal round where the United States and Australia play, the Russians and Lithuania were indignant over the NBA’s desire to crush Olympic basketball. Blatt resurrected a program out of the rubble and transformed it into perhaps the second-best in the world now. Lithuania is the Indiana of European basketball, and fought its way into the Olympics through a qualifying tournament before losing to Russia in the quarterfinals on Wednesday.
Now, Russia is the No. 2 seed in the tournament, and Lithuania pushed the United States to the brink in a 99-94 loss in preliminary play. Lithuania’s coach Kestutis Kemzura loves a global basketball climate where he could lose to Nigeria in June, watch them lose to Team USA by 83 points and still somehow come so, so close to beating the Americans. The world keeps getting smaller, Kemzura says the gap keeps closing and he wants Lithuania to keep taking its best shot at the United States’ superstars. He wants to beat the best, wants to beat the USA and wants it on the biggest stage in the world: the Olympics.
"We went to the qualification in Venezuela on the first of June, and some of our players came straight after they finished (professional) seasons,” Kemzura said. “Of course (the Olympics) matters. We were fighting for this place. I don’t understand this idea of sending younger players, not sending our best to the Olympics. I do not understand it.
“If we leave everything on money, and money runs the show, where’s the sport? Where’s national team idea?”
Lithuania’s Martynas Pocius wanted to represent his country in London so badly, he rushed out of Spain the moment the ACB league playoffs ended, landed home, drove to national team practice and soon departed for an Olympic qualifying tournament in Venezuela. He hasn’t had an offseason. When the Olympics ends, he figures he’ll have two weeks until he’ll have to report back to his professional team. It breaks his heart that the Olympics would go to under-23, and the motivations to play for national teams would be lost around the world.
“It gets to your body, and gets to you mentally,” Pocius said. “But it is the Olympics, and this is important. If they go to a tournament with just the young playing, it would lose all the beauty of basketball – just another youth kind of tournament. The USA would just dominate it, because there’s just so much more talent (at the) under-23 level.”
The NBA doesn’t get direct revenue on its players in the Olympics, and hates bankrolling a lucrative basketball tournament for the International Olympic Committee. On this, the NBA’s right: The IOC’s a greedy, contemptible crew, and it’s understandable that they want to benefit on the risk of injury, and the inevitable wear-and-tear on their players for national teams.
Yet, the NBA can find a solution without tearing apart the tradition of Olympic basketball and telling Russia's and Lithuania's and Spain's greatest players that they can no longer compete. Nevertheless, the NBA doesn’t want two major tournaments every four years for its players --- just one, just a rebranded World Cup of Basketball.
“I find it a little bit contradictory that the NBA had made such a push to involve their greatest players in the Olympic movement -- and the world basketball movement -- and now when it no longer serves the interest of the teams, suddenly it’s not a good idea,” Blatt said. “So what does that mean? That the last 20 years were wrong?
“Twenty years ago, the NBA was in the same situation with its players playing in the Olympics --- all the big contracts, the risk of injuries. It’s all the same now. But that wasn’t an issue then? Why, because it was fabulously popular and amazingly well-serving of the economics of the game? And now it’s a bad idea? I don’t get it.”
The bus was waiting for Russia’s coach outside a training center on Tuesday, his coaches and players waiting for him to climb aboard. Seven years ago, Russia had a shambles of a program and now they’re trying to win a medal for the first time in history. The Soviet Union has two golds, but never Russia. David Stern comes to London now, and he would be wise to understand the climate and start backpedaling out of this issue, out of a lost cause. Too much collateral damage here, too much history to tear apart.
On his way to the bus, on his way to perhaps a gold medal meeting with the United States, David Blatt had one final message for the Commissioner of the NBA: “You just don’t mess with the Olympic Games.”
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