Indiana's Paul George had yet to be wheeled into the operating room, and the naysayers and sports pundits were speculating as to the response of the Pacers' Larry Bird and his fellow NBA front office cohorts. The media speculation ran from comments from basketball operations types to team ownership and the viewpoint that everyone knew might come with the most punch was from Dallas Mavericks team owner Mark Cuban, a longtime opponent of allowing NBA players to participate in events run-for-profit and sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and international basketball federation (FIBA).
Cuban did not disappoint, and less than 24 hours after George's horrific leg injury, suffered in a televised intra-squad scrimmage between USA Basketball's "Blue vs. White" teams of roster players seeking a spot on the senior men's national team scheduled to compete in the FIBA World Cup of Basketball late this summer.
"The [International Olympic Committee] is playing the NBA. The IOC is an organization that has been rife with corruption, to the point where a member was accused of trying to fix an Olympic event in Salt Lake," said Cuban to Marc Stein of ESPN.com.
The IOC [pulls in] billions of dollars. They make a killing and make (fictional HBO organized crime drama character) Tony Soprano look like a saint. The pros in multiple sports are smart enough to not play when they are eligible free agents. But teams take on huge financial risk so that the IOC committee members can line their pockets. The greatest trick ever played was the IOC convincing the world that the Olympics were about patriotism and national pride instead of money. The players and owners should get together and create our own World Cup of Basketball.
First-off, Cuban should've noted it would have to be considered the second greatest trick, because his timing of a multi-billion dollar sale of Broadcast.com to Yahoo will rank numero uno in most debates.
But, taking that aside, let's get back to the international basketball debate currently on a low boil after Bird and the Pacers front office took the righteous and classy step to stop the finger-pointing, take any pressure off USA Basketball and the basic concept of whether to participate in the event or not.
"We still support USA Basketball and believe in the NBA's goals of exposing our game, our teams and players worldwide," Bird said in a prepared statement. "This is an extremely unfortunate injury that occurred on a highly visible stage, but could also have occurred anytime, anywhere."
If taking Bird's viewpoint as the general guideline as the key starting point is the foundation, then framing the debate is rather simple.
Does a player's participation in an international sporting event, representing his country, benefit the player and the NBA team paying his guaranteed contract enough so that the player should risk injury and put his body through the training, lead-up and event itself?
Much of the answer to that question cannot be measured on a balance sheet, as Cuban suggests. If it were to be about the money, the answer would be a resounding "No" and the debate would've never begun. The fact is, the debate is not about money and it's not about a measurable outcome. It's not about two basketball tournaments (FIBA World Cup and the Olympic Games), either. The benefits of playing international basketball come from all corners of the earth and from all levels of the game. You cannot ask whether Paul George, Kevin Durant or Lebron James should play for the USA without also wondering if Yao Ming, Serge Ibaka or Dirk Nowitzki would've ever "made it" to the NBA if it weren't for the grassroots national team (and local club) investments poured into the game years and years ago. It's not about "just" the senior men's level, either, it is about men's and women's basketball at all levels, cadet through juniors, Olympics through continental tournaments.
Cuban cannot have it both ways.
He cannot criticize the IOC/FIBA on one hand but then reap the benefits of the talent of German-born and bred Nowitzki on the other. He can not ask OKC Thunder fans and single out Kevin Durant's participation for the USA without considering whether OKC would be a contender without Ibaka, a mainstay of the Spanish national team. He cannot cash his check on the NBA China investments and praise the NBA's overall international popularity without thanking his lucky stars for a 7-foot-4 Yao Ming who timed his NBA career for the league's coffers and overall global TV resume almost as well as Cuban timed his exit before the dotcom bust.
On the USA side of the ledger, you might surmise that Lebron James matured mightily through his USA Basketball experience to help him become a better overall team player and certainly a better overall person, via the first class experience brought forth by USA Executive Director Jerry Colangelo and national team head coach Mike Krzyzewski and their staffs. While contemplating that thought, please remember that the likes of Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and certainly Lisa Leslie are frequently quoted on their sentiment that the Olympic experience was, by far, the best sporting experience of their careers, and you might get a few international players to agree, especially the likes of Argentina's Manu Ginobili and Spain's Pau Gasol (who broke his leg in the 2006 World tourney in Japan and missed 22 NBA games the following season).
So the issue is solidly framed for more debate. On August 4, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver spoke with ESPN.com's Stein in reaction to the Cuban story he generated on Saturday.
Without a doubt, basketball has grown tremendously since 1992, when NBA players began playing in the Olympics," Silver said to Stein, a veteran chronicler of international basketball.
"Also, it's important to note the [improvement] many of our players have made in terms of ability, leadership and passion for the game by playing for their home countries. Injuries can happen anyplace at any time. The experiences our players have enjoyed by participating in their national teams, however, are ones that are unique and special in almost every other way. At this point, I don't anticipate a major shift in the NBA's participation in international competitions.
It seems clear, however, that this will be a topic at our next NBA competition committee meeting in September and our board of governors meeting in October. And, of course, we will continue to evaluate the pros and cons of participating in international tournaments.
In doing so, the razor-sharp Silver needs to invoke the testimony of everyone involved, but he might simply start with Charles Barkley and Manu Ginobili and save us all some time.