Long before the Indiana Pacers' Paul George crumpled to the court, his leg shattered and a career and franchise suddenly imperiled, USA Basketball had been the unintentional target of the NBA's push for control of its superstars' summers.
For all the global marketing the commissioner's office and shoe companies loved the stars bringing the business, NBA owners and executives had grown weary of the toll taken on bodies. George promises to be the center of the debate, but this fight to get players out of international basketball had never been about the catastrophic injury, nor USA Basketball.
Until now, anyway. Until Paul George had been lifted onto a stretcher Friday night in Las Vegas and carted out of the next year of his basketball career.
"This could be a game-changer for international basketball," one prominent general manager told Yahoo Sports.
Before leaving the commissioner's office, David Stern made a case for a 22-and-under tournament in future Olympics and World Cup of Basketball, but it fell flat – partly because of his own declining popularity. Rest assured, the NBA will want to hold those discussions with FIBA again and George's horrific injury promises to give the idea renewed momentum. This time, the players could be far less opposed. This time, they themselves could be considering the risk of international basketball.
USA Basketball has never been the biggest concern for owners and GMs, because the American talent pool is so deep that no one is made to play with injuries. No one is over-taxed on minutes. No one is made to play far-flung tournaments in the corners of the world to qualify for the world championships and Olympics. Those are the burdens for players born outside the U.S., who play for more modestly talented national teams far less invested in protecting players' value for NBA teams.
Nevertheless, a maximum salary star breaking his leg – losing out on a full season for an Eastern Conference contender – promises to reignite a fight for control of FIBA's future that the NBA's determined to reshape to its own interests.
Most agree with Pacers president Larry Bird: The catastrophic injury can happen "anywhere, anytime," but it happened on national television, happened with the NBA's best young players watching mortified mere feet away. It happened in a useless scrimmage, where the basketball stanchion that George crashed his leg had been too close to the court.
"The Olympics every four years is one thing, but the rest of this inconsequential [expletive] is ridiculous," a GM with a player in Friday night's scrimmage told Yahoo Sports. "We're not paying our guys 50 percent of the BRI so our stars can be exposed to injuries just to let the league [convince itself] that they're going to expand into European markets."
USA Basketball had never been the center of the NBA's concern, but George transforms that dynamic now. Mostly, NBA owners and executives had been reluctant to turn stars over to European and South American, African and Asian national teams. Overseas stars are needed to play deep into their 30s for talent-thin national teams, but that's never necessary for Team USA. An influx of elite talent is always coming up behind them.
For Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, it was the wear-and-tear of Dirk Nowitzki playing for Germany. All those qualifying tournaments, all those practices and games, all those times where the biggest burden is thrust upon an NBA All-Star.
For Houston's Daryl Morey and Jeff Van Gundy, they winced watching Yao Ming limping up and down the floor on one leg in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
For San Antonio's Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford, they've struggled with watching Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker playing with injuries for Argentina and France – and national teams encouraging them to do so.
The Spurs made it clear they were within legal limits to prohibit Ginobili from the World Cup of Basketball this summer. Ginobili had been diagnosed with a stress fracture in his leg in late June, and turned 37 years old this summer. "Players are not allowed to participate with a national team in training or competition activities when there is a reasonable medical concern that such participation will place the player at substantial risk of injury, illness or other harm," the NBA told teams in a memo the San Antonio Express-News' Mike Monroe obtained this summer.
A lot of teams, including the Spurs, have been long willing to take the hit and spare their players criticism back home. Pressure is immense overseas for NBA players to participate, a process that includes hard-pushing training camps, exhibition tours and the grind of qualifying tournaments.
Ultimately, the league can't push its overseas players to sit out national team competitions, but tell the Americans its fine for them to play for Team USA. It has to be uniform.
Something Buford told me in the 2008 Olympics still stands true: "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.
"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."
For every player there's a risk of injuries, but fewer fear the bodies on the 22-and-under players breaking down because of overuse. For those players, the international basketball experiences offer terrific opportunity for growth. And in most cases, it is more rare those players have been awarded longer-term, high-priced contracts. NBA executives have long insisted: If the players want to take the risks of playing international basketball, they should assume the risks of their own contracts.
From the next round of talks with FIBA to the next collective bargaining discussions with the players, the NBA will assuredly take a long look at the risks and rewards of turning over its billion-dollar enterprise to someone else's control. This injury could've happened anywhere, anytime, but it happened in red, white and blue, and it happened to a star.
The golden era of USA Basketball could've ended on Friday night in Las Vegas, could've been carted away with the magnificent talent of the Indiana Pacers' Paul George. From Las Vegas to Barcelona, Buenos Aires to Paris, the future of NBA stars' summers could change forever now.
- Sports & Recreation
- Paul George
- USA Basketball