Crisis averted, at least for the moment. When LeBron James announced his plans to skip this summer's Worlds, reaction split predictably down the middle: James owes his country and should play for honor, LeBron does his job hard all year and can take a break if he wants. USA Basketball czar Jerry Colangelo hardly helped things by stressing the three-year commitment, even calling into question LBJ's invite to the 2012 Olympics.
But, like I said, we're cool now. LeBron reiterated his love for America and his history of past service; Colangelo, as if he had no interest in calling James's bluff, fell back a little.
Or wait, have we solved anything? The central problem remains: USA Basketball is a form of blackmail. If LeBron doesn't play this summer, he's reneging on his word and, more importantly, perceived by some as spitting at his country. If he goes on to play in the Olympics anyway -- despite breaking that sacred three-year bond -- then he's demanding special treatment. That's one thing in the NBA, but everyone knows that it won't fly in international competition. If, god forbid, James is shut out of the Olympics, well, he did it to himself, and cost his country the gold.
Granted, this scenario is USA Basketball's nuclear option. Yet it gets at the root of what's wrong with having pros in the Olympics. When they sign on, they're entering into a different kind of obligation -- an informal one, outside the structure of their professional lives, that brings all sorts of honor into play. It's at once sentimental, sanctimonious and more than a little manipulative.
Remember, this new regime came into being when NBA players were guilt-tripped for failing to make the trip to Athens, or take playing there seriously enough . . . or, in the case of LeBron, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Amar'e Stoudmire, convince Larry Brown to let them off the bench. It was decidedly paternalistic: Players can't take the Olympic for granted anymore, and need to have that drilled into them. Refusing to buy into this would be, to say the least, a PR disaster. Remember when Kevin Garnett stayed home in 2004 because he was afraid of terrorists? What a jerk.
So while I don't generally feel sorry for LeBron James, Colangelo has him beat in the most dastardly way imaginable. The clamorous success of Team USA in Beijing -- which James played a large part in -- gave Colangelo even more of a bully pulpit, while leaving him with even less to do. International basketball is one of those increasingly rare chances for the USA to run roughshod over the rest of the world.
Feel it this way: Colangelo's initial plan of putting together a more humble, but rational and organized team that had more to do with college ball, or the system-based teams of the rest of the world, than the Wagnerian fury we saw on display in Beijing.
Colangelo dreamt of shooters, role players, Shane Battier. He ended up with all-out All-Star ball, but with tooth-gnashing defense. Those three years became largely symbolic -- if that's the kind of ball America would play, did they really need to grow and fuse like one, as Duke or Argentina do?
The less Colangelo's mandate, and model, end up having to do with USA Basketball, the more of a cudgel they become. It's classic table-turning; today's brightest stars rescue America from having to go toe-to-toe with international programs on such foreign terms, instead imposing their will on the field. The reality: America's concern is getting maximum, engaged firepower together in the months leading up to the Olympics. That will always fend off even Spain, although their star/system hybrid might be a dark horse in this equation.
It's disingenuous to suggest that James needs the three years. That's just not the kind of program this is. Everyone knows this, and yet now Colangelo's free to throw around nationalist lingo without having to reference a basketball plan. They solved that one in China.
All of which reduces this to a gigantic public relations battle, one somehow separate from these players' actual obligations. It's a nebulous moral imperative: Being lucky enough to become an NBA millionaire doesn't simply mean you owe your fan and teams, but also the society that made it possible. That borders on religion; sports is a job, reason governs a player's pro obligations, and yet somehow this trumps all that. You go to work, do your job, and act gracious for it. If you're a wealthy athlete, you put on a good face, wow the fans, and make nice with crowds. Team USA, though, digs deeper.
Let's drag out the "only in America" cliche -- LeBron James could not have happened anywhere else (well, except for in those soccer-playing nations), and thus he owes the country as much as he owes his company, his team, his fans, and his league. By that logic, we should all be in AmeriCorps right now, without it being seen as a way to push anyone into internment camps. Do you love your country? Has it done right by you? Then what are you waiting for?
Colangelo now can push this line, however surreptitiously, because he has nothing else to do. And until international competition is a part of the CBA -- you know, the actual laws that govern basketball labor -- this three-year commitment is slippery and invincible. It's a public relations mine field that players have no choice but to enter, and little chance of extricating themselves from unless a bone breaks in the forest.
Folks like Mark Cuban want nothing more than to keep their international studs, like Dirk Nowitzki, from risking injury in the name of blood and soil. Would it make any sense for only American players to formalize, and de-mystify, these agreements? The double-standard there would be sickening. USA players always owe everyone for everything. Internationals, they need to focus on their jobs.
We might do well to close this investigation by comparing the latest round of comments from Colangelo and LBJ. Here's James, speaking after Sunday's loss to the Celtics:
I don't pretend to know exactly what that means, but James sure sounds conflicted, if not a little annoyed. James went to the Olympics in 2004 -- it's not his fault Brown didn't play him and thus set the whole catastrophe into motion -- and if memory serves, was at the 2006 World and the 2007 Tournament of the Americas. He likes Jerry and the program, or is at least trying to talk his way out of this bind with some diplomacy, but there's definitely a WTF overtone to this. Yao Ming has had his career sidetracked by endless summer play."I think everyone in the USA knows what type of commitment these guys have made, including myself, since 2003 [. . . ] I'm not trying to bash Jerry or anything like that, because he's a good guy and I respect him. I don't respect that because of the commitment we've all given to the USA. Right off the bat, we didn't second guess it at all. If we're jeopardizing being in London, what can we do?"
Why isn't this warning applicable to Americans? Because they have to prove that they're not selfish punks -- and doing their job with honor and dignity isn't enough? Opportunity is a right, not a privilege.
Colangelo's follow, while more coherent, hardly quelled concerns:
He goes on to acknowledge James's "equity" -- namely, all the summers he's logged previously. But the coldly technical language, that more befitting a bean-counter than the quasi-diplomat Colangelo's become, ignores the basic fact: harping on this committment is not only outmoded, it's driving wedges between players, the program, and the public. Either try and turn it into something that's integrated into business structure of the NBA, or drop the pretense."We appreciate the fact they're willing to give their time. We have to be flexible," Colangelo said. "Some players may have to miss for whatever the reason may be - contracts, injuries, family issues...free agency this year is big. [. . .] The point I made regarding London is, we will give credit for all the equity people have put into it," he said. "Bosh has equity, so does Wade, so does LeBron. Things happen. We just have to be flexible."
What's not right is using it as a tool to basically shame players into showing up. Which, incidentally, seems particularly insensitive when the next round of CBA negotiations is about to screw over the players like never before. Then again, while they're supposed to be thankful to America for a labor situation that might screw them, when it comes to Colangelo, they're only supposed to remember the good times.