NBA's world view shows up in X-rays


July 04, 1992|By KEN ROSENTHAL

PORTLAND, Ore. -- For all the fear of the Dream Team making a joke out of the Olympics, the people who ultimately might object won't be the international basketball community, but the NBA itself.

By now it's clear that foreign players relish the chance to face their idols, even when the treasured experience results in embarrassing defeats.

But it's even clearer that the United States is one Michael Jordan knee strain away from being forced to reassess the idea of sending its best players into international competition.

Four of the 12 Dream Team members have missed games with injuries, and NBA owners and general managers no doubt are fretting about which marquee player will be next.

Two of the injuries -- Larry Bird's sore back and Clyde Drexler's sore knee -- qualify as pre-existing conditions that were aggravated during the Tournament of the Americas.

Patrick Ewing, on the other hand, dislocated his thumb in a practice. And John Stockton, the most seriously hurt, suffered a slight leg fracture in a game.

Stockton vows to return by Barcelona, only it's not that simple. Things could get mighty interesting if his doctors with the Utah Jazz determine he should not play.

The saga will play out during the next 11 days, for the 12-man Olympic rosters must be set by July 15. U.S. team doctors said Stockton can play without jeopardizing his career, even if he is in pain.

The decision, though, is being left to Stockton and the Utah front office. Publicly, Stockton is receiving the full support of Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. Behind the scenes, who knows?

Karl Malone, Stockton's Utah and Olympic teammate, said jokingly earlier this week that he was "scared" to call Sloan, fearing he might be told, "Go home."

And why not? Stockton and Malone are franchise players, just like everyone else on the Dream Team. Yet here they are, with the NBA playoffs barely complete, hooping it up some more.

Ewing was expected to miss three games, but returned after one. Think the New York Knicks wouldn't prefer him resting his thumb?

David Robinson is coming off his own thumb surgery. Think the San Antonio Spurs aren't cringing every time he dunks?

The benefits are enormous -- to the players' marketing images, the league's imperialist vision, the worldwide appeal of the sport.

The risks, however, are not easily dismissed.

"It sort of makes me put on the brakes to some degree," Malone said. "I'm not saying I'll play soft. But I'll play hard when the opportunity presents itself. I won't go absolutely bonkers."

Malone surely won't be alone in that regard, but most of his teammates scoff at the threat of injury, saying if they weren't playing here they'd be off at a pickup game somewhere else.

Basketball is the only major pro sport where the superstars play year-round. Cal Ripken can't drop by the sandlot in the dead of winter, not that he'd want to after 162 games.

Still, Jordan is coming off 82 regular-season games for the Chicago Bulls and 22 more in the playoffs. He's obviously in superb condition. That doesn't mean he's incapable of breaking down.

A major injury to Jordan would be disastrous for the Bulls, disastrous for the league -- and not to be overlooked -- disastrous for Jordan-endorsed products like Nike, Wheaties and Gatorade.

NBA executives are grateful the Olympic experience at least qualifies as organized ball. But now they're faced with the frightening realization that their global vision could backfire.

Lose the players, lose the product.

Yet, who's going to tell them no?

"You've got a lot of guys who would give up their whole summer to be here," Magic Johnson said. "Those other guys are lining up if John can't go. They're by the phone saying, 'Call me.' "

Four years from now it might all be different. There is talk of seven pros and five college players, or even a 6-6 split. But the ball is rolling now. It will be impossible to stop.

The other national teams won't want to meet the Harvey Grants of the world after facing the Jordans and Johnsons. In a delicious irony, they'll demand the United States sends its best.

What's more, the next Olympics are in Atlanta, making Dream Team II an even more irresistible proposition.

Before you know it, the whole thing will be a quadrennial event, complete with commissioner David Stern announcing the selection of the team on national TV.

What if someone gets hurt?

Don't raise that possibility.

It's not in the master plan.

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