Greedy NBA may bar stars in future years
with Alvin Sallay
Michelle Obama was there to give the players a hug and her best wishes after NBA's multi-million-dollar superstars laid the foundations of the United States' gold-medal campaign with an easy win over France. It was all smiles and high-fives - but there seems to be a cloud on the horizon, as black as those which for the first time brought heavy rain to previously sunny London.
Like everyone else, the US First Lady was enamoured by her country's men's basketball team as they began their title defence on a bright note. But could this be the last time that the stars come out to play? It will be if NBA commissioner David Stern has his way.
Stern, probably under pressure from the owners of the league franchises, has intimated he would like basketball at the Olympics to become an under-23 event, just like soccer is presently. In the case of soccer, each country is allowed to field three overaged players but basketball might go the whole hog.
This has upset the players, with Kobe Bryant calling it a stupid idea and saying the decision of whether to play should solely be left to the players. 'The Olympics is about putting the best players on that stage,' cried Bryant. He is right. But owners who pay millions of dollars to players - a recent survey showed most of the top-10 paid athletes at these Games were basketball players from the NBA - don't want to risk seeing their investments injured at the Olympics.
They have been instigating moves to ban players like Bryant and LeBron James from future Olympics. They want to take the stardust out of the sport.
Millions of Americans will most probably agree, and the US basketball team might not even suffer the consequences if basketball was reduced to an under-23 competition. But imagine if other countries were not be able to field their best side. We wouldn't have been able to see Yao Ming play for China at the Beijing Olympics for instance. The US has enough depth to field competitive sides even with age restrictions. This won't be the case for most other nations.
If one thought this move was pure altruism on the part of the NBA, the owners as well as the International Basketball Federation, think again. It has been born out of greed. The world governing body wants to have a re-branded world championship, a new World Cup.
For this to succeed, they have to get the television giants onside, and what better way to do that than by showing them they have reduced the Olympics to an under-23 event and the best players will only be on show at the World Cup.
This is like the other all-powerful world governing body which cares a hoot for the Olympics - Fifa. As stated earlier, men's soccer is an under-23 tournament at the Olympics with a small quota of overaged players. You might agree or disagree with this, but the crux of the issue is that it should be left to the individual in each sport to decide if he wants to take part in the Olympics or not.
And I bet if a straw poll of 100 football players were taken, all of them, if not the majority, for you will always get a few muttonheads, will say they want to figure at the Olympics. It is time the International Olympic Committee put its foot down and insisted Fifa lift the age rule. They should demand that the Lionel Messis of this world - in fact he played in Beijing four years ago and inspired Argentina to the gold medal - be given the choice of whether or not they want to represent their country at the Olympics.
Rugby sevens, which will become a medal sport four years from now, thankfully does not have any such restrictions on who will turn out. It will be up to the individual unions to decide who is best-suited. In this case, sometimes the best 15s player might not be the best for sevens, as the two games have different skill sets, although the basics are the same.
This is not the case in soccer or basketball. The game is basically the same, whether it is played at the Olympics or at the World Cup. So countries, if they want, should be able to fill their teams with the best available players.
King James has already gone on record saying he loved playing at the Olympics and representing his country. Twenty years ago, the original Dream Team of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson turned out for the US at the Barcelona Olympics. Winning gold was never an issue, but what they did was raise the profile of basketball and the NBA worldwide.
And the NBA has benefited from that. Today guys like Pau Gasol or Dirk Nowitzkis are proof that a generation of players was inspired by Jordan and Johnson. The Olympics are a source of inspiration for young boys and girls all over the world. They love to see the world's best turning out and the world's best love this once-in-four-years chance to come out and shine.
It would be a travesty if the NBA were to tell Kobe Bryant or LeBron James they couldn't take part in the Olympics. Among US NBA players at London, only NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, James Harden and 2012 NBA draft top pick Anthony Davis would be eligible if the age limit was 23. Those mind-boggling alley-oop passes and thunderous dunks wouldn't have been quite the same. Only the French might not have minded.