I know three things about the National Hockey League:
1. There are four Black people involved in the whole operation.
2. Sidney Crosby is the face of the League.
3. Alexander Ovechkin is actually the best player in the League.
Ovechkin made headlines last week when he bashed the NHL for not yet committing to modify its schedule to accommodate the 2014 Winter Olympics. (The League is putting its schedule on hold while players compete in 2010, but hasn’t decided if they’ll do the same for 2014.) Russia is hosting the Olympics that year; Ovechkin is Russia’s top player.
“Nobody can say to me you can’t play for your country in the Olympic Games,” Ovechkin was quoted in Canada’s National Post. “I don’t care. I’ll go play in the Olympic Games for my country. If somebody says to me you can’t play, see ya … It’s not unfair, it’s stupid. Somebody don’t like it, see you next year.”
I wish more NBA players would stand up to their bosses the way the 22-year-old Ovechkin is standing up to his.
The issue of NBA versus international competition isn’t as heated as in hockey, since major basketball tournaments like the Olympics, World Championships and various regional championships (Europe, Asia, the Americas, etc.) take place in the summer and don’t conflict with the NBA’s schedule. Still, you have certain NBA owners and front offices who either discourage their players from competing in FIBA events, or outright prevent them from playing. I’m not sure what kind of threats they’re actually using — I believe the rule states NBA teams can’t prevent players from playing international ball so long as they have the requisite insurance, except in cases where a guy is recovering from an injury — but either way, it’s wrong.
At this month’s FIBA European Championships, Germany is playing without Dirk Nowitzki, and Great Britain doesn’t have Ben Gordon. And at the recent FIBA Americas tourney, Mexico’s Eduardo Najera was held out by the Nets, and Puerto Rico’s J.J. Barea was prevented from playing by the Mavs. None of those players are actively injured; they’re not playing at the request/demand of their NBA teams.
As a result, their national teams are mostly suffering: Germany was 1-4 at FIBA Europe after yesterday’s loss to Macedonia, Great Britain went 0-3 and was knocked out in pool play, and while Puerto Rico finished second in their tournament without Barea, Mexico was swept in the quarterfinal round. While Britain has their spot in the 2012 Olympics guaranteed as the host country, other teams are playing with the possibility of not making future Olympic/World Championship fields whenever they take the court without their respective superstars.
Two things that really bother me about this: First, you don’t hear of players from the U.S. being talked out of FIBA tournaments nearly as much as non-Americans. Second, the idea that a player is more likely to get injured playing international ball in the offseason is one of basketball’s biggest myths.
NBA teams don’t want certain players risking their bodies in FIBA tourneys, but they’d be pissed if those same players sat on their asses all summer and didn’t go to the gym. These are basketball players. If you convince them not to play basketball on one stage, you know what they’ll do? PLAY BASKETBALL somewhere else where the injury risk is just as great. Fatigue is also cited as another danger of playing international ball, but any smart player will incorporate their FIBA work into their regular offseason training, rather than go through a regular training regimen on top of playing FIBA.
For example, Marcin Gortat can bust his ankle or overwork himself playing pickup ball at the Magic practice facility just as easily as he could get hurt or tired playing for Team Poland. But whereas reports of Gortat putting in hours of offseason practice time in Orlando would be met with approval, news of Gortat playing international ball would often be met with trepidation and concern and “What if he gets hurt?” questions.
Over the weekend, I read something in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about Josh Smith‘s offseason. Smith has reportedly spent the summer working on his decision-making, as well as improving his ball-handling and his jumper. Handles and a reliable J can be developed in an empty gym where there’s no one to bump into and no random feet to land on, but decision-making? You can only improve that by playing competitive basketball against defenders who aren’t just going through the motions. So we know that Josh Smith has been putting in a lot of time playing ball this summer — he also took part in Team USA’s summer mini-camp — and if he’d gotten hurt doing it in Atlanta, you wouldn’t hear anybody complain. Charge it to the game, they’d say. But if we had the same situation with Nic Batum — actually, we have had the same situation with Nic Batum and his sore shoulder — people would start questioning Batum’s decision to play for Team France, then questioning the Blazers for letting Batum play for his country.
When the Nets held Najera out of the FIBA Americas tourney, they did it by invoking the injury rule. Najera was pretty much hurt all last season, and even he said he understood why N.J. told him no. Never mind that Najera is a national hero in Mexico, and never mind that the NBA would (and has done it before) schedule an exhibition game in Mexico to take advantage of his celebrity. But if Najera wants to help his country on the court, he could be held out.
At the same time, though, hasn’t Kobe Bryant been playing with four fingers on his right hand for the last two years? And did anyone even begin to wonder why the Lakers didn’t tell him he couldn’t play for Team USA? Look at Greg Oden: If anybody needed to be treated like a figurine in a glass menagerie, it’s Oden. Yet nobody seems worried that he’s been banging with Brian Grant this offseason, or even that he took part in the Team USA mini-camp in July. If the U.S. needed to play in the FIBA Americas tourney and wanted Oden, I doubt the Blazers would object much. But I get the feeling if “Greg Oden” was named “Goran Odenich” from Croatia, things would be different.
Before he came to the Lakers, Pau Gasol often beefed with Memphis Grizzlies management about playing for Spain, and although he pissed them off by always playing, wasn’t going to be held back. I don’t see that same stubbornness from other international players, who sometimes let the NBA teams sway their decision. Dirk says he’s not playing this summer as a result of an agreement he made with Dallas, that if he helped Germany get to the Olympics (which he did in ’08), he’d take a break. But why was that even an issue in the first place?
With the NBA and USA BAsketball so closely tied together, the conflict of interest there is obvious. It also works in the favor of American players, whereas international players aren’t given the same treatment.
How do you feel about the NBA/FIBA offseason conflict?