Could the NBA keep Manu Ginobili out of the Olympics if it wanted to? Should it?
Still basking in the Olympic glow, Argentine guard Manu Ginobili sat solitary, draped in his country’s flag, crowned with an Olympic wreath, a new gold medal hanging around his neck. A perfect moment.
The scene from the summer of 2004 in Athens remains one of my personal favorite basketball memories from one of my all-time favorite basketball teams, with the Argentine national team embracing each other on the court as teammates, friends, and countrymen.
It is a moment that would not have occurred under a new proposal being explored by the NBA and FIBA: The simultaneous creation of a new, NBA-FIBA controlled World Cup-style basketball tournament and banning of players over the age of 23 from competing in the Olympics.
Henry Abbott, over TrueHoop, has been reporting on it at great length. The gist would appear to be that NBA owners, envious that the IOC stands to make millions off their NBA players, wish to pocket that money themselves. In pondering the ethics of the proposal, Abbott asks a question:
Is this even the NBA’s call?
As Michael Wilbon reports, after beating France on Sunday Kobe Bryant made clear he doesn’t want David Stern or anyone to keep him from the Olympics.
“The Olympics,” Bryant said, “are all about putting your very best athletes into the competition. This shouldn’t even be a topic for discussion.”
And here’s where the conversation gets very tricky for the NBA. If Bryant is just dying to volunteer his time to play in the Olympics, by what principle could the NBA fairly stop him?
The phrase “our athletes” in Cuban’s quote above goes down hard. There is something a little possessive about that possessive. Cuban sees Nowitzki as you probably do, as a Dallas Maverick first and foremost, who may or may not decide to play for Germany. And for all I know Bryant sees himself as a Laker first, and then a member of Team USA.
But it is not written in stone. There may be all kinds of players for whom the national team is their heart’s delight and the NBA is simply a job. And they are free to do as they please in the summer.
One of the players applicable to Abbott’s last point is the San Antonio Spurs own Manu Ginobili.
To Ginobili, the national team is everything in basketball terms. One gets the feeling he would continue to play for his national team forever if his body would hold up to the task.
3-time Olympian Manu Ginobili to Y! on future implementation of Under-23 in Games: “If I was 24 right now, I’d be crying in that corner…”
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) August 2, 2012
In an interview given at the 2008 Olympics to Jon Ackerman, Ginobili compared his gold medal to an NBA championship:
“In my situation, coming where we come from, an Olympic gold medal is way harder to get. Because I am lucky enough to play for the Spurs, I’ve had the opportunity to make it there (win an NBA title) three times. So, Olympics has got a special feeling, something I never thought of winning. And we achieved it, so it was huge for us. And it’s going to be even bigger down the stretch when I retire.”
National team commitments have been both boom and bust for the San Antonio Spurs, with Tony Parker and Ginobili both suffering injuries due to their year-round commitments but also experiencing appreciable gains as basketball players and leaders.
A World Cup-style tournament is an intriguing idea, and one that deserves to be explored.
And while a ban of basketball players over the age of 23 from the Olympics would not preclude a Parker or Ginobili from competing with their national team (instead merely changing venues), there is something to be said for the Olympics that should not be denied any athlete capable.
Yes, the Olympics have been as corporatized and exploited as an NBA-controlled summer tournament would be. But it still represents more.
The Olympics are a gathering of the best athletes in the world. For NBA players, who are already acknowledged as the best basketball players, the Olympics represent an opportunity to stand as peers with the greatest athletes the world has to offer, regardless of sport.
Generally, basketball fans would watch a summer basketball tournament because it falls within what already interests them. But the Olympics are a chance for athletes to showcase their talents before the world, in front of audiences that would not otherwise watch them.
A story like Argentina’s Golden Generation deserves such a stage, if only to place it in its proper context as more than just a basketball story.