As the Olympics have taken over the basketball stage this summer, NBA Commissioner David Stern and associated business partners have discussed the idea of restricting the NBA's Olympic participants to an age limit of 23 years old and turning the FIBA World Championships into international basketball's marquee event. The system would be fairly similar to that of FIFA's international soccer tournaments, with the massive World Cup taking precedence over the age-restricted and not particularly popular Olympics. For the NBA, it's a way to make a lot more money.
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The proposal has not been very popular, to put it mildly. Fans and writers have noted the business decision for what it is, players pretty much hate it, and Stern appears to have overplayed his hand. His camp took a bigger hit on Wednesday when USA Basketball director Jerry Colangelo spoke out against the idea. From KTAR (via SLAM):
"The game comes first, money comes second," he said at a team practice. "I'm not quite sure that's true for all owners in sports."
Colangelo said lowering the age limit would deny NBA stars an opportunity to play for their country. For example, guard James Harden, a former Arizona State University star, would not have made this year's team because of the age rule. [...]
Ultimately, the decision isn't Colangelo's. But he is lobbying owners not to impose the rule. He said players want to decide whether or not to play for the Olympic team.
"They love it," Colangelo said. "I mean, it's pretty hard to argue with something as simple as supporting the flag and representing your country."
Colangelo's argument is not a particularly good one, and not just because USA Basketball (with the help of its very special friend Nike) is arguably about the money as much as it's about the game. While one aspect of Stern's idea involves restricting the Olympics, in theory the World Championships would subsequently become a tournament with the importance that the Olympics carries now. The reason for this change is primarily money, but that doesn't mean the game would suffer, as well. In fact, with more teams, more games, and more stars involved, it's possible that an expanded World Championships would actually produce a more exciting and more global competition. People are right to be wary of any shift this major, as they should be with any transformative act. However, the fact remains that the best form of the Stern proposal actually sounds pretty darn fantastic.
Yet, in order for the best-case scenario to be realized, the USA Basketball players and executives have to commit to the idea fully, just as they did in the early '90s when the Dream Team first came into being. The Olympics have become the predominant event in international basketball because years of competition have lent them weight. The World Championships won't become similar just because Stern wants to will it so. The most important participants have to be excited and begin building up that same sort of historical importance, too; otherwise it's just a business venture.
Stern is vain, but he's also not entirely stupid, and it's possible he expected this blowback all along. Even if it takes time for people to warm to the idea, that process has already begun just because it now seems to be a distinct possibility. The World Championships won't replace the Olympics in our hearts immediately — no opinion wobbles that quickly. But don't be surprised if Colangelo and various athletes support Stern's new vision in a few years.
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