Kudos to Kobe. He's incredibly right on this one. Via ESPN's Marc Stein, Bryant said this when asked about David Stern's proposal to put a 23-and-under cap on American Olympic participation: "It's a stupid idea."
Well, that about cuts through it. I was getting the feeling that David Stern could suggest almost anything, and his media friends would coo in support. This ridiculous age proposal was actually met with some praise, making me wonder whether most pundits just echo Stern for fear of doing anything else. Kobe elaborated to Stein: "It should be a (player's) choice."
I am having difficulty finding a rationale as to why it shouldn't be a player's choice. It's one thing to have an age limit, preventing the youngest athletes from entering your sport before they're ready. It's another to take your most mature league members, the one's best equipped with deciding for themselves, and telling them they can't represent their country. It makes little sense for the NBA to declare, "Ages 19 through 23 is your peak range of choice."
Let's take the conversation away from "choice," though. We're in a cultural moment where the '92 Dream Team is being celebrated the country over. It's the two-decade anniversary for that historic talent collection, and Jack Mccallum is heralding the moment with a book on all that happened during the Barcelona run.
The '92 games are credited with globalizing basketball, with giving young Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker the inspiration to become NBA players. It would seem a bit hypocritical for the U.S. to celebrate the Dream Team's importance while attempting to disfigure further American Olympic teams.
And for what? Steve Kerr was trying to argue during the Brazil-USA game that injury concerns were a rationale for such an age limit. This angle leaves me cold. If the issue is that NBA owners hate risking their talent abroad, then how is risking the youngest talent a solution?
Is Kyrie Irving less valuable to the Cavs than Andre Iguodala is to the Sixers? NBA owners would be most loath to lose under-23 players, as they're making peanuts on the rookie salary scale. Young stars have as much if not more value than established all-stars. If the idea is to curtail injury risk, this would be a funny way of accomplishing that. Also, Kobe has a good counterclaim, quoted by the Los Angeles Times, via Marc Stein:
"I think that's the wrong way to look at things. 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."
So even though Blake Griffin recently hurt himself playing with Team USA, injuries can come from a variety of sources. At least the Olympic environment is controlled and checked by fantastic trainers.
David Stern likely wants this because the NBA can make money off World Championships, and they cannot profit from the Olympics. Soccer has a 23-and-under restriction on Olympic participation to keep the sport from competing with their World Cup. This seems sound and reasonable until you step back and go, "Wait, is the idea to hurt American Olympic chances because it's not profitable enough for NBA owners?"
Where is the patriotism in taking American gold medals off the podium? Where is the respect for tradition? I wonder if Kobe Bryant is fighting this fight because he wants to protect his legacy. Bryant sacrificed his summers to help the U.S. excel, and he doesn't want the Olympic competition thrown into history's dustbin for some greedy gamble on the World Championships.
Basketball isn't soccer. NBA owners can't just create something like The World Cup because they're imitating its structure. For now, we have basketball in the Olympics and it's quite enjoyable. To harm the sport would be "stupid" indeed.