LONDON — LeBron James said Saturday that he would not play in future Olympic Games if the NBA establishes a 23-year-old age limit for future competitions.
“If the 23 rule goes in, I’m not playing,” James said before the U.S. team’s final practice here, before Sunday’s gold medal game against Spain. “Then, look–all my guys ain’t playing, either. So, no, I’m good. If the rule doesn’t go in, I don’t know. Then it’s an I don’t know thing, and that means there’s a chance. But there’s no chance if the 23 rule goes in.”
James is 27, so he’d already be too old if the rule was adopted. However, basketball is expected to adopt the same parameters as FIFA, soccer’s international governing body. FIFA has established a 23-year-old rule for participants in Olympic soccer. However, each team is allowed three exceptions to that rule, and James would definitely be one of the players that USA Basketball would invite to continue playing.
The 2012 Olympic team is a blend of the 2008 Olympic team that won the gold medal in Beijing, and the 2010 team that captured the gold medal at the World Championships in Turkey. James said he doesn’t want to start over with another group of players.
“Teams are built on friendship and camaraderie, and being together,” James said. “You can’t just piece together no team and think it’s going to happen. We’ve seen that in ’04, with our team (which, beset by internal problems, only won the bronze in Athens). We threw our team together in ’04 and thought we could compete against the world, and we got smashed. It took us a three-year commitment to win gold. This team is basically the ’10 team and the ’08 team put together, with the same coaching staff. I love what we’ve got going on with USA Basketball, and I’m happy to be a part of it.”
USA Basketball Czar Jerry Colangelo said Saturday that James and the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony would be two of the three players he would likely invite to continue playing in the Olympics if such an age limit were established.
“If there’s two guys that probably would say to me that they want to, it’s probably them,” Colangelo said. “I think they love it so much. Chris Paul might fall into that category, I don’t know. Certainly there’s a time and place for that, too. LeBron is building such a legacy in terms of who he is, his persona, his accomplishments. He’s moving himself ahead of everybody. And that might appeal to him, one more run. But, heck, let’s wait and see.”
The NBA has floated the idea of establishing an Olympic age limit, in part, because of concerns voiced by its owners, who are leery of their star players committing year after year to international competitions, with the inherent risk of injury and the difficult some face in getting the proper amount of insurance through their country’s governing bodies. The pressure that non-Americans in particular face in playing for their countries in cycle after cycle is enormous, and putting an age limit in would take it out of the players’ hands. However, there are financial implications as well. The NBA is partnering with FIBA, basketball’s international governing body, in developing the World Championships into a rebranded World Cup of Basketball, beginning in 2014.
A new age limit may not be in place before the next Summer Games in 2016, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A source with direct knowledge of the talks between the International Olympic Committee and FIBA told Sports Illustrated’s Ian Thomsen Thursday that it was “unlikely” a change would be made in time for the Rio Games. And even when and if a change is made for the Olympics, there would be no age limit for players in the World Cup. That would allow pros such as James to continue participating in international competition as long as they want to or as long as they are asked.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, long a critic of allowing NBA players to play internationally, has said the NBA should start its own international competition and cut out FIBA altogether. In an e-mail to The New York Times last month, Cuban said an NBA-controlled World Cup would allow the league to share profits both with the participating countries’ basketball governing bodies and with the players, rather than with entities such as the International Olympic Committee and NBC, which broadcasts the games.
“They are risking their futures so that the Olympics organization can maximize sponsorship and TV deals,” Cuban wrote. “There is no good reason for the N.B.A. to risk our athletes so they can profit.”
NBA Commissioner David Stern has said he’s thinking about the age limit after growing to understand his owners’ concerns. During the Finals in June, Stern said that Cuban “had a point” regarding the continued use of NBA players in offseason competitions. However, he also knows the impact that NBA players have had in growing the game around the world since the Dream Team in 1992. Despite winning 49 straight games in international play since 1996, the U.S. team still has gotten the loudest applause by far at these Games from fans.
At a press conference following the league’s Board of Governors meeting last month, Stern said he didn’t have a position on the under-23 issue.
“I said that after 20 years, it’s time for the owners to sort of think about what other options there might be,” he said then. “I didn’t stake out a position. I said one option is what soccer does, what you Americans call soccer, you know, which is 23 and under. There are all kinds of other options, as well.”
Among the other potential options is establishing an older age limit than what FIFA uses in soccer, or capping the number of Olympic appearances a player could make in a lifetime. But several current Olympians want to continue playing through the next cycle.
“I’m 23 now,” said Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, who led the 2010 team to the gold at the World Championships. “That means I’m done if (the NBA) puts that in. I’m still young, and I still have a couple of years left in this league, more than a couple of years left in this league. I would love to be an Olympian, another Olympian.”