LONDON – The most incredible part of the debate about the NBA's desire to run its superstars out of the Olympics is simple: The players can stop it. They're left to believe that they're without voices on the matter, that they're at the mercy of the commissioner, owners, and FIBA, who are conspiring to redirect all those Olympic revenues and control into the rebranded world championships.
While the NBA and FIBA work together to sell TV networks and sponsors on the prospect of a tournament with the best basketball players in the world, the stars can complicate the dynamics of a deal with a unified declaration: Push for an under-23 basketball tournament in the Olympics, and we won't be representing the United States in a new World Cup tournament.
NBA superstars subsidize the sport in a way that doesn't exist in the NFL or Major League Baseball -- or anywhere else. And the stars most responsible for selling the sport's appeal are getting freedom and finances squeezed in unprecedented ways. Owners have restricted freedom of movement in the NBA with salary-cap and sign-and-trade restrictions. Now, they're determined to also do it globally.
"The players definitely have power, because we're the ones out there playing," Team USA's Tyson Chandler told Yahoo! Sports on Saturday. "If the players chose not to play because they've taken something away from us, then obviously we control it."
[ Photos: Athletes take part in Parade of Nations]
Chandler is 31, and this won't be his fight for the future. Unless the players unite, make a stand, and stop the NBA's imperialistic designs, they're going to get trampled the way they always do. That's an indisputable fact. As much as any sport's top athletes, NBA stars drive everything: The TV ratings, sponsorships, ticket sales, merchandizing -- everything. It's true in the United States, and far more true overseas, where the inclusion of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James -- and the next generation -- has the power to turn a niche international basketball tournament into a global happening.
The solution is simple here, but there's a reason the players have been left drifting on the issue, uninformed and unaware of the NBA's behind-the-scenes machinations to move a plan with FIBA into motion: Players Association executive director Billy Hunter is too weakened and distracted to engage the issue. For months, Hunter has been hell-bent on burning through the NBPA's coffers to bankroll lawyers to try and protect himself in a joint probe into the union's business practices by the U.S. Attorney's Office and Department of Labor. The players' interests are barely on his radar because he's in complete self-preservation mode.
The investigators have seized union records and emails, sources say, and have interviewed numerous staff employees on how the union does business under Hunter -- and who and what entities benefit financially. The NBPA has been torn into two distinct groups: Hunter, family members, and fierce staff loyalists against everyone else. Rest assured: When this is over, the only guaranteed losers are the NBA's players. Hunter isn't defending them now -- he's defending himself. And the cost in wasted money, resources, and manpower will be steep.
Hunter has limited his exposure to players in team meetings this spring, especially after a rude reception with the Brooklyn Nets late in the season. He canceled the Players Association's summer meeting. Hunter has never been less popular with the superstars, and he knows it. The owners figured something out: The players are disorganized, vulnerable, and easy prey to be overpowered by a FIBA-NBA partnership forged without regard for the players.
"As we go down that road, I know we're going to push for letting us have the choice whether we want to play in the Olympics or not -- no matter the age," Kevin Love told Yahoo! Sports. Yet once that age rule changes in the Olympics, they're all out of it, and make no mistake: The players should be downright angry over this.
After all, everything the owners have jammed down the players' throats under Hunter's regime has limited the earnings and freedom of the league's superstars. When asked about the need for Hunter to make a stand on the players' position -- which is overwhelmingly to keep the Summer Olympics as the pinnacle international tournament -- several players insisted that they hadn't given much thought to the idea that Hunter should be involved.
It is impossible for NBA players to take a strong stand -- never mind insist they won't represent the United States in a tournament as a protest -- without getting crushed in the public eye. That's why Hunter is paid nearly $3 million a year -- to make the case for them, and make it with complete resolve. "Anyone who has anything to do with it needs to step up and speak about it, because I think it's absolutely ridiculous," Chandler said. "That means one player would be able to come back and play for the Olympics on the squad."
Why the owners want to push FIBA to turn the Olympics into an irrelevant under-23 tournament and ship the stars over to a different two-year cycle in the world championships is understandable, but shortsighted. The World Cup of Basketball won't come close to matching soccer, because nationalistic allegiances are far, far more fervent to soccer teams. The Olympics frame NBA stars as global icons in a way nothing else can, but most NBA owners don't think that benefits them in such a tangible way, and want a clear revenue stream flowing through a partnership with FIBA.
Some want even more. "The question is: Why would we partner with a current tournament rather than start our own?" Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told Yahoo! Sports in June. "If done correctly, it can be NBA-owned and operated and have the potential to be just as large as the World Cup of soccer. That is a product, in my opinion, we want to own, not share."
As the Olympics unfold, Stern has backtracked a little, insisting there's no rush to make a decision, no timetable, and that's nonsense. This process has been underway, and there's no one within the NBA, USA Basketball, or the global basketball community who doesn't believe that Stern's and the owners' minds have long been made up: They're abandoning the grandeur of the Olympics for a cash grab with a splashy new World Cup of Basketball.
They have big ideas, and big dollars dancing in their eyes. The superstars despise the plan and need to get organized, get a course of action, and get moving fast. They've paid Billy Hunter tens of millions of dollars to represent them, to be the voice, the leader, and he's been nowhere near his star players and nowhere on this issue. David Stern is coming and everyone is just left to wonder: Will the players really fold and let the league do this to them again?
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