Wednesday, July 2, 2008

international incidents

Thanks to Jon for inviting me to post here since I believe that Stern, after being a somewhat exemplary commish for years (although how much of that was the extremely poor performances of Tagliabue, Selig and whatever mensas the NHL trotted out, making a merely submediocre performance appear stellar, is open for debate) has decidedly jumped the shark and entered the zone in which any and all criticism is dismissed out of hand. There's no evidence that his subordinates have the spine to tell him anything other than everything is fantastic even at the mention of the Donaghy revelations. And in fairness, the extremely high tv ratings of the Celtics/Lakers matchup (not to mention the lack of comments here) could lead a reasonable person to think things were great.

But one thing that Stern has gotten a free pass on is the decline in the play of the NBA in international competition. Prior to Stern taking over, it was unheard of for the NBA players to lose against any outsiders, other than ABA exhibition games before they were subsequently assimilated into the league. And when the Dream Team participated in the 92 Olympics in Barcelona, it was a basketball celeb-fest featuring MJ, Magic, Bird, Sir Charles, David Robinson, the Mailman, Stockton et al. and the games were all lopsided wins. Even at Coach Chuck Daly is quoted as saying that the rest of the world would eventually be more competitive but it wouldn't happen anytime soon.

Not so fast with that prediction, Chuck; the 96 team, with 5 members of the 92 team plus Shaq and Olajuwon, won handily but the 2000 team beat Lithuania by 2 points as Sarunas Jesikevicius missed a three-pointer at the buzzer. Subsequently the final game against France was dangerously close until the US team pulled away to win by 10. To be fair, many superstars had bailed on the team which, owing to the length of an NBA season, is understandable. However the feeling of invulnerability had been badly dented. This dent finally broke through in the FIBA World Championship Games in 2002 when a team of NBA players lost to Argentina and Yugoslavia, finishing sixth. In fairness to coach George Karl, even fewer NBA elite players chose to participate in this. Still this was a result that happened far in advance of Chuck Daly's prediction.

Stung by this, the NBA stars regrouped and fielded a team that won the 2003 FIBA Americas Championship games, which also served to qualify for the 2004 Olympics. Unfortunately the participants in this largely begged off of the Olympic team (again, length of schedule), which despite having Tim Duncan and AI, promptly lost their first game to Puerto Rico by 19 points and subsequently lost to Lithuania and Argentina on the way to the bronze medal.

Now is it fair to blame all this on Stern? Obviously not; this was predicted years ago by Al McGuire although he thought it would happen much sooner than it did (Al always was one to exaggerate). Plus the international teams often include NBA players that have returned home to play. But the luster of the NBA, formerly the undisputed gold standard in the world, has been tarnished under his watch. And to my knowledge, in keeping with his "nothing to see here" attitude, Stern has never reflected on this decline to the media.

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