It was small thinking back in 2003 when Mavericks owner Mark Cuban decided that the price to re-sign a 29-year-old Steve Nash was too high and broke up a partnership with Dirk Nowitzki that had only begun to flourish. All that Nash proceeded to do was get voted onto the Western Conference All-Star team six times and win back-to-back Most Valuable Players honors in 2005 and 2006.
It was another case of small thinking when Cuban decided that once was enough in 2011 after his Mavericks won the only NBA championship in franchise history and broke up the team. In the interest of salary cap management and to chase quixotic free-agent fantasies, Cuban decided it was time to cut the cord with big man Tyson Chandler, their long-sought rim protector and anchor. Rather than remain among the league’s elite, the Mavs fell into the morass in the middle of the standings.
Now, in the wake of the injury to Paul George last week in a USA Basketball scrimmage in Las Vegas, the Mavs’ outspoken and often highly-entertaining owner is thinking small again by saying that NBA players should not be playing in the Olympics or the FIBA World Cup.
“The [International Olympic Committee] is playing the NBA,” Cuban said. “The IOC [pulls in] billions of dollars. They make a killing and make Tony Soprano look like a saint … Teams take on huge financial risk so that the IOC committee members can line their pockets.”
It is a natural and understandable knee-jerk reaction to the loss of a player of George’s caliber, especially in Indiana where the Pacers’ bid to climb to the top of the Eastern Conference will likely go on hold for at least a year while he mends. Yet in blaming the IOC for the broken bones and restating his old case for an NBA sponsored world tournament, Cuban is both misguided and conflating the issues.
First off, injuries occur in sports and in life. The Bulls’ Derrick Rose tore up his left knee in the final minutes of Game 1 in the 2012 playoffs, sat out a full season and then suffered a tear in his right knee barely a month into the 2013-14 schedule. Clippers top draft pick Blake Griffin suffered a stress fracture in his left kneecap in the final exhibition game in 2009 and missed his entire rookie season following surgery.
They were accidents that can happen at any time. Grizzled vet Moses Malone used to spend summer nights in the stifling heat of Fonde Rec Center in downtown Houston, staying in shape and schooling any challengers, including a pupil named Hakeem Olajuwon. Either one of them could have torn a ligament or broken a bone at any time. Michael Jordan specifically had a “love-of-the-game” clause written into his contract with the Bulls because he wanted to be able to pick up a ball and step onto a court to feed his competitive fire whenever and wherever the urge struck.
Sure, George’s injury is a devastating blow, to the player, the Pacers and to the NBA. However, Cuban’s screed against the IOC isn’t to get every NBA player resting on a bed of pillows every summer, but rather have them play instead in an NBA-sponsored tournament, where the league and the owners can get their cut of the money.
“The greatest trick ever played was the IOC convincing the world that the Olympics were about patriotism and national pride instead of money,” Cuban said. “The players and owners should get together and create our own World Cup of Basketball.”
Ask yourself if Pacers fans would be any less melancholy today if George had run into a stanchion at an official NBA event in July.
In thinking small, Cuban is also selectively squinting to avoid recognizing how much NBA participation in the Olympics has changed the league and the game for the better. His own star Nowitzki was inspired as a teenager in Germany by the 1992 USA Dream Team that included the icons Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. By taking the best of the best to the Olympics, the NBA spread the gospel of the game, cultivated new generations of talent and established basketball’s firm footing as the second-most popular sport on the planet, behind soccer.
When the Dream Team was assembled 22 years ago, there were only 21 foreign-born players in the NBA. Last season that total had quadrupled to a record-tying 84, including a staggering 10 on the roster of the 2014 NBA champion Spurs. In the interim, Yao Ming was literally and figuratively a giant bridge to Asia and helped turn the largest continent on Earth into a hotbed of fan interest and a lucrative market that lines the pockets of NBA owners.
Perhaps Cuban can be forgiven for not grasping the importance of the international effect on the game, since he bought the Mavs and joined the league in 2000, after the tap had been turned on and worldwide cash was already flowing. But that’s an awfully benevolent benefit of doubt for the shrewd entrepreneur billionaire. It would be wrong for the wounded fan base in Indiana to ignore the vast benefits derived from the Olympics and point the finger of blame that way, too.
Or, it could simply be just small thinking.