By Steve Lichtenstein
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A common complaint among many viewers of haunted house-themed movies is that they can’t understand why these people keep coming back inside — wasn’t one horror sufficient motivation to stay away?
With that in mind, you won’t find many sights more gruesome than the injury suffered by Pacers star forward Paul George on Friday night.
George’s right leg turned abnormally after coming down on the basket stanchion 27 seconds into the fourth quarter of Team USA’s Blue-White scrimmage in Las Vegas. He was carted off with compound fractures in his leg and the scrimmage was immediately terminated.
As for USA Basketball, unfortunately, the whole concept of having professionals take the court in international events such as the upcoming World Cup, well, that night be similarly scrubbed in due course.
This one freak play could very well kill international basketball as we know it. Unlike those homeowners in horror films, there are plenty of forces that don’t want the pros to come back to the scene.
I hope I’m wrong.
Nothing in sports tops best-versus-the-best competitions. That’s why millions of Americans tune in to the Olympics and the World Cup every four years. Meanwhile ratings for regular season hockey, soccer and similar sports barely register a blip on the Nielson meter. Funny how I didn’t see any viewership totals in reports on the most recent Red Bulls games.
For years, under the sham auspices of the International Olympic Committee, Team USA was forced to use amateur collegians against the world’s professionals in basketball. While the Americans were still able to cruise to gold medals for decades, the world eventually caught up.
The 1992 Dream Team restored order. For a little while. Again, the game grew sufficiently to create a somewhat competitive environment in global tournaments. The U.S. pros have actually lost a few times.
The FIBA World Cup, which begins at the end of August in Spain, will be another opportunity for the game to showcase many of its top players.
It might be the last time.
I am pretty sure I could lip-read what was coming out of Kings center DeMarcus Cousins’ mouth in the immediate aftermath of George’s fall: “I ain’t playing no more.”
Not that Cousins is the embodiment of work ethic, and he may have been limiting his reference to that evening’s scrimmage, but can anyone blame him for having second thoughts about risking his livelihood in these sorts of ventures?
I envision all the Ari Gold-type agents on a conference call today going over the game plan for a mass intervention on behalf of their clients. “Yes, playing for your country is a just cause, but think about the possible consequences–like George probably losing a season and now facing intense rehabilitation if he has any hope of regaining his superstar form. That can happen to any one of you.” They even have video to ram home the point.
Of course, such incidents can occur any time these guys lace them up. With their power, speed, leaping ability, and devil-may-care confidence, NBA player injuries seem inevitable.
Now add in the density of games the league schedules over the course of every regular season, that’s how you have All-Star teams in street clothes every January.
With great irony, some of the men who created these working conditions–the league’s owners and general managers–are also apoplectic over the Pacers’ loss. And divinely grateful that such a fate didn’t land on one of their own employees. (To be fair, the Pacers—through president of basketball operations and legend Larry Bird–issued a statement on Saturday indicating that they “still support USA Basketball and the NBA’s goals of expanding our game, our teams and players worldwide.”)
The party-poopers have a problem, however, in that these matters are collectively bargained. Despite the explicit risk, the players want the freedom to choose whether or not they’ll play for their respective countries. The glory of an Olympic medal can’t be purchased (well, the high-earning guys probably CAN buy one in some auction, but I’m guessing their competitive nature wouldn’t allow them to procure one this way).
Even though the NHL loses star players–like the Islanders John Tavares in February– to injury every four years, they keep interrupting their season for an Olympic break, possibly out of fear of a player shortage. The league has a heavy percentage of European stars, many of whom–should it come to that– wouldn’t hesitate to bolt and play at home in order to participate in the Olympics, a la Ilya Kovalchuk.
While the NBA has diversified, it is not in that kind of jeopardy. But it should still take heed of Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s suggestion to use its leverage against FIBA for future extracurricular tournaments.
On Saturday, Cuban called for the owners and the players to stage their own World Cup, one that would profit both parties directly instead of the various nontransparent associations.
That’s a start, assuming that the revenues can be allocated fairly to the participating opponents that don’t materially contribute to the NBA talent pool.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said on Sunday that while he doesn’t “anticipate a major shift in the NBA’s participation in international competitions,” the topic will be discussed at the next league meetings and that “we will continue to evaluate the pros and cons of participating in international tournaments.”
Expect these “evaluations” to be dollar-denominated.
As a fan, I was also horrified watching Friday’s incident. You can be a Nets supporter and still have natural empathy over the pain George endured on the play. But there’s also sadness in that the league will lose another sublime talent in his prime for a significant period.
Yes, that part is a bit selfish, the same as how we expect our top players to put their future earnings at risk in order to entertain us by beating the snot out of foreigners in games of basketball.
Lest we forget, that scrimmage on Friday was top-level. My sons and I were glued to the screen to watch the two 10-man teams play with maximum effort just to try to secure one of the 12 spots on Team USA’s final roster.
The game featured the return to form of Derrick Rose from his own injury demons as well as noteworthy performances from bubble guys like DeMar DeRozan and Kenneth Faried (and Mason Plumlee scored 10 points in a quarter!). Though the shooting wasn’t so sharp, the game was rewarding nonetheless.
That is, until George’s landing spooked the basketball community and made everyone question whether it would be worth it for the pros to go back inside these arenas.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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