NBA WINS OLYMPIC GOLD IN MARKETING

A lot of people are upset that Isiah Thomas was not chosen to the NBA/Olympic team. Personally, I don’t think any of those NBA guys should be going.

I guess, unlike a lot of Americans, I don’t really care whether we win the gold medal. My life didn’t change when we lost in 1988, and, I’m willing to bet, neither did yours. I’d rather see some young U.S. kids — who may never have their own Nike commercial — get a chance to see the world, meet foreign athletes, march in the ceremonies, and stay in the Olympic village. So what if they fall a game or two short of the gold? They had the experience, right? Even if one day, these kids become the very NBA stars we now send, I’d still rather have them go now, while it can make an impression. You know. Before they start complaining about lack of room service.

Instead, this is what will happen with our USA/NBA Olympians: They will land in Barcelona, and be the biggest celebrities in the country. They will stay in a fancy hotel, not the Olympic village. They will have more to do with businesspeople than with other Olympians. Unlike swimmers or wrestlers, they will be mobbed wherever they go.

And, oh yes. They will win the gold medal, after kicking the crap out of countries such as Cameroon, Ghana, China and Japan. Then, I suppose, everyone will be happy.

What this has to do with competition, I’m not sure. I’m not sure it even has to do with the Olympics anymore. What we really want is to win

Ask yourself. Why are we sending NBA players to the Games? I have heard all the arguments: Other countries send professionals “disguised” as amateurs. America should send its best. What it all boils down to — and nobody can tell me otherwise — is this: We want to win. We want to win. We want to win.

Now ask yourself, why is the NBA willing to send its players — risking injuries to its biggest stars? Here is the answer: future business. The league, which hopes to be international one day, knows the value of the biggest sports stage in the world. Michael Jordan? Magic Johnson? Three weeks, watched by the entire world? Think of the money from new licensing alone!

Now ask: Why do most of the players want to do it? Sure, there’s the part about “representing your country.” There’s also this: After three weeks in Barcelona, each of them will be huge. International stars. Their earnings could multiply tenfold. Let me give you an example: Right now, an NBA player with a “name” can go to Spain or Italy and pick up a quick $30,000-$50,000 for a brief clinic. Now, imagine that player as “the NBA gold medalist”? The whole world watched him do his stuff in Barcelona — instead of a few countries who stayed up till 2 a.m. watching NBA reruns? Whoa. Up goes the price.

Future earnings. International marketing. Winning at all costs.

Not exactly what the Greeks had in mind back in Athens, is it? Games have long been political

And what’s happening to Thomas is probably not what he had in mind, either. Personally, if the U.S. must send NBA players, I think Thomas should be included for one simple reason: He made the team as an amateur in 1980, then was denied his chance to go. Why not give him that chance now?

But that’s just my opinion, and everyone seems to have an opinion on this, along with an accusation. Why, some local TV anchors are crying “politics.”

I have to laugh. Anyone who thinks Olympic politics arrived with the exclusion of Isiah Thomas on the basketball team has obviously been asleep for years. The Olympics are nothing but politics. Boycotts in ’76, ’80, ’84. Gymnasts and divers marked down by “enemy” judges. Even the selection process. Come on. Isiah is hardly the first guy to feel that sting. Remember Butch Lee, from Marquette, who in 1976 was excluded from the U.S. team because

his college coach, Al McGuire, failed to select him for the trials? Lee made the Puerto Rican team instead — and almost single-handedly beat the U.S. in the Olympics. It wasn’t a big story because Michael Jordan wasn’t involved. But is this the Olympic Games or NBA Entertainment?

To be blunt, all of this makes me sad. I began in this business by covering Olympic sports such as luge and swimming — sports for which the Games are the ultimate. In Sarajevo, 1984, some lugers snuck me into the Olympic Village. They were like children, pointing out the buildings, the cafeteria. One showed me his room, and the blanket on his bed. It had five rings stitched inside. “I wonder if we get to take this home,” he gushed. “I mean, you think they would let us?”

I remember that kid, that blanket, and I watch this fuss over which multi-millionaire gets to strut his stuff in Barcelona. And I wonder whether the Olympics even know what they are anymore.

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