Superstar players don’t want to be shut out of future Olympics
Men’s basketball • Proposal making Olympic tournament an under-23 affair draws scorn.
Published: July 30, 2012 11:31PM
Updated: October 30, 2012 11:34PM
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(AP Photo/Eric Gay) USA's Lebron James, right, and Kobe Bryant share some fun during the second half of a preliminary men's basketball game against France at the 2012 Summer Olympics on Sunday. Both are against proposed NBA age restrictions for competing in the Olympics.

London • Add LeBron James to the list of players who don’t want to see the London Olympics become the last one before a restrictive age cap is instituted for men’s basketball, limiting the tournament to those 23 or younger.

“I disagree with that,” he said.

Why?

“Because I’m 27,” he said with a smile.

The charmingly made point illustrated a widespread feeling among the superstar players on Team USA — that although they might be jet-setting millionaires dozens of times over, they still crave representing their country at the Olympics.

“I feel like we should definitely have a choice,” forward Kevin Love said. “When the time comes, I know that they’ll make a decision. But my stance is that the players should have the right to choose if they want to play in the Olympics, because this might only come around once.”

The Americans take on lightly regarded Tunisia in their next game here, on Tuesday.

But in the aftermath of a blowout opening win over France, several players cited forward Blake Griffin in their defense of an Olympic status quo, in the face of suggestions by NBA Commissioner David Stern and some team owners to impose an age limit.

The 23-year-old Griffin was chosen for the Olympic team, but lost the opportunity when he had to back out because of a knee injury suffered during training camp.

“He couldn’t play in 2016, if that goes into effect,” said Chris Paul, his teammate on the Los Angeles Clippers.

The players are competing on the 20th anniversary of the original “Dream Team” at the 1992 Barcelona Games, the first Olympics at which NBA professionals were allowed to compete. Until then, the men’s basketball competition was limited to amateurs and pros from Europe and South America.

It has never had an age limit, per se.

But Stern and owners such as Mark Cuban want to both curtail the risk of injury to players to whom NBA teams are paying vast salaries, and create a “World Cup” of basketball from which they can make more money than they do from the Olympics.

The idea harkens to men’s soccer, which does have a 23-year-old age limit in the Olympics, in large part because the giant European clubs have resisted allowing their top stars to play in yet another international competition.

But even the head of the international soccer federation, Sepp Blatter, has encouraged young soccer stars to take a stand against their teams if they want to play in the Olympics. Blatter cited superstar Lionel Messi, who played at the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a 21-year-old against the wishes of Barcelona FC and won the gold medal with Argentina.

“Everyone should embrace the spirit and play in the Games if they want to,” Blatter said. “The problem is that the national associations are not making the right contacts with the clubs. I think the players themselves would like to come.”

The basketball players seem to demonstrate that.

Paul said he doesn’t see a change happening, and even Stern has acknowledged the issue isn’t an urgent one. USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said he doesn’t expect anybody to seriously study the issue until after the London Olympics.

But Kobe Bryant has been among those most vocal about his opposition, originally calling the idea of an age limit “stupid,” and contesting the notion that owners need a hedge against injuries.

Bryant said it’s more likely for players to get hurt playing pickup games during the offseason against “a bunch of bums” than during the Olympics, when players are closely monitored as they would be during the NBA season.

“To me, playing on an Olympic team is actually better, if I was an owner,” he said.

Beyond that, Bryant said, the Americans can’t expect to compete against the rest of the world if they use only younger players. It was an amateur team’s failure to win gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics in Korea, after all, that led to the creation of the Dream Team, and everybody agrees that other countries have only grown stronger since then.

“We’ll be in trouble,” Bryant said. “Guys playing against us will be grown men and we’ll be in trouble. If you just look at the Olympics as a whole, it’s about putting your best athletes to the front to showcase. That’s what it’s about. If an athlete doesn’t want to play, that’s his decision. If a team feels some type of way [about] him performing, it’s the team’s responsibility to have those conversations with the athlete. That’s how it should be.

“I don’t see why it’s even a topic of discussion,” he said.

mcl@sltrib.com

Twitter: @MCLTribune