There has always been a shadow hovering over international competition about star players that take up large portions of salary caps risking injury. Now, with Paul George’s horrific leg injury, there’s actual evidence and ammunition to use to support that view.
“This could be a game-changer for international basketball,” said one general manager, according to Yahoo Sports.
George’s health and career are the first priorities for everyone, but this is an opportunity to get political. As Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne wrote on Saturday, there are already a bunch of questions to be answered, and the further we get away from George’s injury, only more will pop up. It’s a bit crass for a league power broker to speak up publicly just a day or two removed from the sickening play, but more and more is coming.
Mark Cuban has long been at the forefront of that movement, saying this before the Olympics in 2012:
“We should never put our athletes in that position,” he said. “For some sports the Olympics are very, very important. For basketball, it’s meaningless. It’s not that they’re not decent games. All things being equal, it’s fun to watch us play Argentina and Spain, but it would be just as fun if they were 21 and under.”
Cuban has since doubled down, writing a blog post on his website. This is his chance to champion his message, and now he has tangible proof to do it. He has a point, too. Who is really winning with these players playing? And more importantly, who stands to lose the most? The teams paying them their mega million dollar deals, right?
But since the Dream Team arrived in 1992, for the most part, NBA players have avoided significant injury in international competition. Some added wear and tear, a few extra dings heading into training camp, some twisted ankles and pulled muscles, but never anything prominent enough to actually spark a real debate about using NBA players under contract. The issue resides, as always, in the money. Owners are paying their NBA stars multi-million contracts, and the only people seeing any return for the use of their players are FIBA, the IOC, and the NBA by expanding the game globally.
But here’s the thing: If a player wants to play, he can play. If he doesn’t want to play, he doesn’t have to play. Teams can restrict a player only one way, if there’s a pre-existing condition or concern, as the Spurs did this summer with Manu Ginobili. Outside of that, their choice. As it should be.
Clearly there’s no comparison of the FIBA World Cup to its soccer counterpart. One is the pinnacle of the sport, the other barely registers. But just because there’s a consensus opinion on the perceived importance of one event compared to another doesn’t mean that mindset trickles down to the players. When Neymar broke his back playing for Brazil, was there an outcry for FC Barcelona? What about Marco Reus tearing ligaments in his ankle in Germany’s final World Cup warm-up game? Those players understood the risks of playing. But to them, it was worth it.
And just because the FIBA World Cup doesn’t carry the same kind of prestige really doesn’t matter. There’s less to be gained for star NBA players — soccer players can cement their legacy or earn massive new contracts with great tourney — but the motivation is different for every basketball player. Some want the experience. Some play for pride. Some want the training. Whatever their prerogative is, it’s their choice to play, or not.
What we’re really talking about here is player freedom. A team restricting the ability to play based on the potential for injury might be unfair, but you can see their side. They’re just trying to protect their investment. Still, where do you draw the line? A player understands the risks in playing in a competitive tournament. They understand there are risks every time they walk on to a court for a casual pickup game. Do you outlaw Rucker Park, the Drew and Goodman Leagues? Do you take away those summer pickup battles at UCLA? Do freeze them in carbonite like Han Solo for three months while you wait for training camp? Start down the path of restricting basketball players from playing basketball, and you start turning them into property.
NBA teams essentially have players under their control for 270 days a year. They don’t get weekends off, they don’t have set hours. Everything they do throughout a season is within the context of the team, whether it’s meals, pregame naps or even sightseeing in a different city. They truly only have time to themselves when they get to choose what they want to do a couple of months.
Injuries suck a lot, but they are, and always will be, part of competitive athletics. If you go play flag football with your buddies tomorrow morning, you understand there’s a chance you could bust your ACL. But you’re willing to take the risk, because you want to play. And remember: Kevin Love missed 64 games during the 2012-13 because of knuckle push-ups.
Kevin Durant watched the FIFA World Cup and saw the overwhelming passion and emotion pouring out of it and couldn’t wait to put on the red, white and blue. The players understand there won’t be watch parties in parks and drinks flying in bars every time someone hits a 3, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want that. They want the FIBA World Cup to mean something. And the only way to ever have it scratch the level of soccer’s biggest tournament is to play in it. If it matters to then, then maybe it will start mattering to us.
If you feel that NBA stars shouldn’t play, you probably need to look in the mirror and realize it’s more about your own selfish motives and less about true concern over a player’s well-being. If you don’t want stars to play, it’s probably because you’re afraid YOUR guy is going to come home hurt, or worn out, and worried about how that will impact your team. Whether you’re a fan, coach, GM, owner or whomever, your opinion of international competition is largely shaped by your overwhelming commitment at the franchise level.
Does the FIBA World Cup matter? Not a lot, but who cares. It’s not about you and how much you care. Plus don’t forget: The 2004 Olympics mattered a whole lot all of a sudden when the United States took bronze. International basketball hasn’t been able to make the same imprint as international soccer for whatever reason, but that’s no reason not to play.
George’s injury is devastating. It’s awful. It’s a painful, heartbreaking reminder that sports are cruel, and often dangerous. But if he wasn’t playing Friday in Las Vegas, he probably would’ve been on the hardwood somewhere else, doing pretty much the same thing. Basketball players play basketball. Doesn’t matter whether it’s for fun, for money, for country or for club. If they want to play, they play. And that’s the way it should be.