LAS VEGAS — It was a peculiar time for David Stern to open such a dialogue, but the time and place signified his seriousness.
This might be it for the Dream Team concept in the Olympics.
The NBA Finals were 45 minutes from tip-off last month when the league commissioner said it himself — cognizant that NBA owners fretted every four years about players being injured with the extra month of activity . . . that the players themselves began to question whether they should be paid to play for Team USA . . . and, finally, that the NBA wasn't making an abundance of money by lending its assets to the national cause of thumping (take your pick) Angola, Tunisia, etc.
In other words, enjoy the London Olympics. Who knows if such a collection of basketball players will ever suit up for the Games again?
"I think we got a lot out of the Olympics," Stern said ominously last month. "We helped grow the game. The result has been extraordinary. But I think it's appropriate to step back and take stock of where we're going."
Then he did something completely wild. He sided with longtime sparring partner Mark Cuban, a sign that a basketball apocalypse was beginning . . . and NBA participation in the Olympics could be ending.
Cuban, after all, had said the league's quadrennial gift to the Olympics was "the biggest mistake the NBA makes."
"If you look up 'stupid' in the dictionary, you see a picture of the USA Dream Team playing for free for corporate America so the U.S. Olympic Committee can make billions of dollars," Cuban told reporters in April. "And it has nothing to do with patriotism and it's all about money. You don't see the [International] Olympic Committee in Switzerland saying, 'Oh, we made so much money, let's give it to people.' How many jets do they have?"
The Dream Team launched in legendary fashion in 1992 in Barcelona with Magic, Michael and Larry. Stern said the NBA was televised in 80 countries back then. It is now shown in 215. There were only a handful of international players in the NBA 20 years ago. Now there are 80.
Stern hopes to make the Olympics a 23-and-under event, basically retuning it to the college kids and NBA players with only a few years of pro experience.
Then the NBA plans to create a World Cup of Basketball, akin to the one in soccer, two years after every Olympics, with no age limit and plenty of ways to maximize financial gain for the league.
If the Dream Team concept ends this year in London, it will have a similarly stacked roster, with stars from the newer generation: Kobe, LeBron and Kevin Durant.
But USA Basketball, which selects the U.S. Olympic team every four years, isn't quite ready to roll over.
"I don't want to change anything, because I like what we have," USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo said Sunday. "We take care of our players and I think we do the right things.
"You need a lot of things to fall into place in order for all of this [age restriction] to happen. You need the cooperation and the votes and support of a lot of people. So when I hear something like this, I say it may happen. The real question is when. Is it '16, is it 2020? Don't know at this point. It's a long way from the finish line."
One prominent U.S. player says he likes the Olympics the way they are now.
"I hope it continues to go that way, because it's good for the game," Bryant said. "You put your best players in that stage and you want to see the best players go against each other. That's what it's all about."
Bryant shrugged off the vision of hand-wringing NBA owners who invested millions upon millions in the players on the court in an Olympic game. The combined NBA salaries of the 12 Team USA players is $185 million next season.
"I think that's the wrong way to look at things," Bryant said Sunday, halfway through Team USA's training camp. "If I'm an owner, I would want my player to play [internationally] because I understand that they're going to be playing anyway, going to be playing pickup basketball in the summertime, and I'm not going to be able to know where they are. They could be playing against a bunch of bums — no, really — guys that feel like they have something to prove and all of a sudden, a [star player] goes to the rim and a guy takes them out and now he's hurt.
"Here you're playing against the best guys, you have treatment around the clock, your [NBA] coaching staff can always come sit in the stands and view practice. To me, playing on an Olympic basketball team is actually better if you're an owner."
Maybe Colangelo and Bryant will get their way. USA Basketball and the U.S. Olympic Committee are powerful entities.
But so is the NBA.
To be continued after the London Olympics, perhaps the last one ever for a U.S. Dream Team.
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