BEIJING – As the worst nightmare for an NBA dynasty unfolded on the floor – San Antonio Spur Manu Ginobili crumbling with the agony of an ankle hurt all over again – the world witnessed one more window into how an Olympic basketball war of attrition threatens to deepen the gap between the United States and its reeling rivals.
So yes, the Americans beat Argentina 101-81 to reach the championship game against Spain on Sunday. The gold medal is 40 inevitable minutes away. Yet peel back the restoration of the U.S.’s good name, the sparkle of Kobe and LeBron, the selling of the swoosh, and allow everyone to balance these spastic glory days with the dark side of Olympic basketball:
For its image makeovers and marketing might, the NBA is slowly, surely decaying multi-million dollar assets.
The excess of talent for the United States has largely insulated the red, white and blue because America’s staggering roster of talent isn’t as burdened with pressures to play hurt, to log minute after draining minute on the court. The U.S. team can share the load, the way its smaller opponents never can. Just understand: Hundreds of millions of dollars in guaranteed NBA contracts have played hurt here in these Olympics and the long-term price to pay could be staggering.
One more bad turn of that ankle, the Spurs privately feared, and Ginobili could need surgery. Argentina fought back with such toughness and tenacity after Ginobili was lost just four minutes into the game, but the 2004 gold medalists were dramatically diminished without him. His Argentine teammates would walk into the halftime locker room, and there was a loyal son of Argentina, one of the game’s greatest winners in absolute agony.
“He was pretty bad,” Argentina’s Carlos Delfino told Yahoo! Sports, shaking his head. “He was in pain. …He was in pain.”
Depending on the outcome of tests, there's the real possibility that Ginobili's jammed ankle from the Western Conference playoffs – with swelling that never subsided – could cost the Spurs a chance for a fifth NBA title in 11 years. Ginobili is 32 years old and Spurs management had understood that a decade with his national team has come at a cost for them. To watch him turn that ankle, hobble to the sideline and collapse just broke your heart. Ginobili would do anything for that Argentina jersey on his back – and did.
The Spurs never wanted Ginobili in these Olympics. Yet they understood the sentimental pull to play for Argentina, the way that his DNA almost demands that he don that uniform in this tournament. “He was there to protect his gold medal,” Team USA’s Jason Kidd said.
So, just who was protecting the Spurs’ interests? This goes for the Houston Rockets, who are at the mercy of China’s sports machine with the way it overuses Yao Ming. His over-taxed lower body needs rest and recovery and China is merciless on him. He was a shell of himself for most of these Games, out of shape.
The Los Angeles Clippers were frightened over 7-foot center Chris Kaman taking the pounding of an Olympic qualifying tournament and then these Games for Germany. He confessed that an injury ankle was still bothering him.
Just signed to a $76 million contract, Milwaukee Bucks center Andrew Bogut sprained his left ankle playing for Australia. Argentina’s Andres Noicioni of the Chicago Bulls hurt his knee in the quarterfinals against Greece and still played Friday.
Toronto general manager Bryan Colangelo caught the eye of the Raptors’ Jose Calderon, after Spain’s victory Thursday and was assured by his point guard that he hadn’t seriously injured his groin. Mostly, GMs just watch in fear of the worst at these international events.
Calderon is expected to be out seven to 10 days and as Colangelo told Yahoo! Sports on Friday, "There is a real spirit of cooperation with Spain and us right now. The good news is Calderon and Spain understand his injury is one that he should not play through. If treated appropriately, he should be fine for training camp."
Calderon missed Spain’s semifinal victory over Lithuania on Saturday, and won’t tempt fate trying to rejoin his teammates to avenge a 37-point loss to the Americans with a gold medal on the line.
Where else could you have all this dysfunction, all these conflicts but the Olympics? This is an enterprise with a lot of well-meaning ideals and a lot of unintended consequences.
And do you think international basketball’s governing body, FIBA, cares? Their bureaucrats went on and on Friday with little regard for the welfare of anything but their coffers. All they could talk about were unprecedented TV ratings and arena ticket sales (“There are still some very wealthy people trying to get into the game tonight,” Secretary general and IOC member Patrick Baumann crooned). What’s more, FIBA has ratcheted lobbying efforts to get 16 teams into the 2012 Olympics. More teams, more athletes, more NBA franchises fearing the worst.
This way, France can return and play the Spurs’ Tony Parker with a broken finger. Who knows? Maybe the Netherlands can make it back, and clear ex-Spur Francisco Elson to play with a broken eye-socket again.
When I asked FIBA’s president, Bob Elphinston, about the trepidations of NBA owners and executives of international basketball wearing out their players, about how medical care is so unbalanced between big and small countries, he went on a long lecture about how all the Olympians dream of wearing those national uniforms and how everyone is so supportive of FIBA and how all the great players will keep showing up for these tournaments. He was completely detached of reality. “Yao Ming talked about how he had dreamed of playing in the Olympics since he was 5 years old,” Elphinston said.
Well, Yao didn’t think that someone would make him do it still hobbling on a broken foot. Baumann listened to his colleague, and then did allow, “We need to have a uniformed policy on medical matters.”
They’ve talked about it for years, but the NBA and FIBA have never gotten it done. If the NBA has to subsidize medical care for federations, perhaps that’s what’s needed to protect its players. Too often, the selfish need of a country trying to advance in a tournament pushes players too far to perform. Whatever you want to say about national pride, your responsibility is to the team that signs your check.
“Even among the national teams, you have a real inconsistency of care with no set of agreed-upon guidelines between FIBA and the NBA,” Spurs GM RC Buford said. “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.”
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban had two 30-something maximum-salary players – Dirk Nowitzki and Kidd – in these Olympics and had long been leery of exposing his franchise stars to so much risk. He watched an archrival, Ginobili, go down on Friday and understands that whatever gloss that comes with Team USA’s golden glory, the dirty little secret of Olympic basketball doesn’t go away.
“I absolutely continue to worry about it,” Cuban said Friday in an email. “Maybe we should do something similar to the soccer approach and limit it to players 23 and under. The real question is whether or not the NBA, with our increasing global strength can create our own global tournament to replace the Olympics and make money doing it.”
Sooner or later, the NBA has to take a look at the good of these Olympics beyond the needs of Nike and the commissioner’s global imperialism. Maybe the Americans are protected with the waves of talent that they can turn to, but that gap will just drive the rest of the world harder and harder to catch them. More risks with multi-million dollar investments, more Ginobilis crumbling to floors around the world. These are the NBA’s casualties, too.
“It is a tough decision to make,” Delfino said. “We come here with pride. We play because we want to represent our country.”
Manu Ginobili, loyal son of Argentina and the NBA, went down on Friday and Kobe and LeBron and Stern just pushed past his anguish and agony on the way to marketing gold and global goodwill. Sooner or later, there will be a price to pay.