Reminder: USA voted against the NBA in the Olympics

For David Stern, the Olympic experience has come full circle.

The NBA commissioner has often found himself depicted as an international bully, and nothing could be further from the truth – at least as it applies to past Olympics.

The oddity of such a charge is that it occurs only in this country, which leads us to one of the great mysteries of American sports journalism: How is it that so many journalists throughout the world know exactly what happened, yet accomplished reporters in the U.S. continually either misrepresent or misunderstand the way NBA players became eligible for the Olympics?

With the basketball world commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Dream Team this summer, the process of how NBA players were invited into international play has been revisited in various forums, and it is simply amazing how often it is incorrect.

In the second installment of our summer series celebrating the Dream Team, we will again try and set the record straight with 20 facts.

Part 1 of the series was the Isiah Thomas Exclusion.

Part 2 is the NBA Inclusion.

1. Start with a simple point, but apparently one that is very difficult for the American mind to comprehend. Let me make this perfectly clear:  THE 1988 LOSS BY THE UNITED STATES TO THE SOVIET UNION IN SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA, HAD ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH NBA PLAYERS BEING IN THE OLYMPICS. ZERO.

2. Basketball is like all Olympics sports. It is controlled internationally by an organization that establishes rules including those governing participation. In basketball, that organization is the Fédération Internationale de Basketball, which translated is the International Basketball Federation. The acronym is FIBA. The NBA has no more power in FIBA than FIBA has in the NBA.

3. Until 1989, the representative of FIBA and governing body of Olympic basketball in this country was the Amateur Basketball Association of the United States of America (ABAUSA). It included several amateur organizations such as the AAU, high schools and junior colleges. But it was run primarily by colleges. The NBA was not a member of ABAUSA. Later, that organization became USA Basketball, and the NBA joined it in the fall of 1989.

4. A few months earlier, ABAUSA representatives went to Munich for the vote on allowing NBA players to play in the Olympics. That measure passed in April 1989 by a count of 56-13. One of those 13 “no” votes was cast by the ABAUSA. To make sure there is no misunderstanding, let me state it again a little more forcefully: THE UNITED STATES VOTED AGAINST INCLUDING NBA PLAYERS IN THE OLYMPICS.

5. The first tournament where NBA players were allowed to compete was the 1990 World Championships in Argentina. USA Basketball, however, chose to continue using college players and sent a team that included Alonzo Mourning, Christian Laettner, Billy Owens and Kenny Anderson. That team lost to a Yugoslavian team led by NBA players Drazen Petrovic and Vlade Divac in the semifinals. Yugoslavia went on to win the gold medal.

6. The man responsible for NBA players playing in international tournaments is Boris Stankovic, who was Secretary-General of FIBA for 26 years and currently serves in an emeritus role. Stankovic was born in Serbia and was a player, coach and administrator before becoming the head of FIBA. Stankovic long thought the ban on NBA players was, to use his words, “dishonest” and “immoral” because professionals from other countries were allowed to play. In 1988, Brazil’s Oscar Schmidt was making a salary in excess of $500,000 playing in Italy but was technically an amateur. Only NBA players were classified as professionals.

7. A fact that is not widely known is that at the 1986 FIBA convention, Stankovic introduced a resolution to allow NBA players in the Olympics and brought it to the floor for a vote. Stankovic said it narrowly failed 31-27 but that “18 or 19 countries abstained.” Stankovic was irritated because those abstentions could have made a difference and NBA players would have been eligible for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

8. Here’s the myth: The U.S. lost in Seoul so the NBA made a unilateral decision to send the Dream Team to the 1992 Olympics and carpet bomb the rest of the world.

9. Here’s what really happened: The U.S. lost in Seoul so FIBA made the decision to invite NBA players because their member countries got no thrill out of beating U.S. collegians. If the Olympics are about being the best in the world, the only way to be the best is to beat the best. I wrote a magazine article on the issue in 1996 and USA Basketball still has it on its web site.

10. Americans have a very difficult time understanding why anyone would react to a huge victory bychanging a rule that would ensure embarrassing losses. Stankovic explained with a track analogy: “If you have a chance to run a sprint against Carl Lewis, you know you’re going to lose. But you still want to run the race.”

(To see the original column that appeared on, click here.)

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Twenty facts about Isiah Thomas and the Dream Tean

Perhaps the most amazing part of the NBA’s documentary of the Dream Team that aired Wednesday night was that Isiah Thomas has now become a sympathetic figure.

Thomas actually released a statement after the show aired and addressed not making the Dream Team in 1992.

Now I have to say my first reaction was pretty straightforward:

A statement in 2012 about not making a team in 1992?

Are we still talking about this?

Beyond that, I kind of felt sorry for the guy. The fact that it’s an issue 20 years later is outrageous. But it is obviously part of the cultural phenomenon that was and is the Dream Team.

I had the good fortune to be one of only a handful of reporters who covered the team from the first day of training camp until the last day of the Olympics while I was working for Newsday in 1992. So in honor of the 20-year anniversary, here is the first in what could be a series of 20 memories about various issues surrounding the Dream Team.

Part One: The Isiah Thomas Exclusion.

1. From Day 1 when the story broke that the selection committee had not invited Thomas, the speculation was that Michael Jordan kept him off the team. In the Dream Team documentary, however, Jordan said he was told even before he committed that Thomas would not be on the team and “I was getting strong innuendo that it was coming from higher places that didn’t want Isiah Thomas on the team.”

2. And that is true. It wasn’t only the enemies that Thomas had made. He had as many friends on the selection committee as anyone, including Detroit general manager Jack McCloskey. But he had little support. No one fought for him to be on the team.

3. In what has to be one of the greatest misjudgments by any member of any front office in NBA history, when the first 10 players were announced, McCloskey said not being on the team would not be that big of a deal to Thomas. I was at the NBA league meetings in Palm Springs and after they ended, I found McCloskey at the pool and asked him about Thomas’ exclusion.

“Isiah is above all of that,” McCloskey said in an interview that was recorded. “He can handle it. There’s going to be some great players that are not going to be on that team. … It may be a disappointment to some, but they’ve got to learn to live with those things.”

4. Later, McCloskey discovered how wrong he was because Thomas was incensed. So McCloskey resigned from the committee in protest because it was an insult that Thomas had not made the team! McCloskey simply was not going to take that! It was a matter of principle!

It was, however, a grandstand play that was really not grand at all.

5. The late Chuck Daly was the Pistons coach and head coach of the 1992 Olympic team. He did not have a vote on the selection committee, but one influential member of the committee told me, “If Chuck had come in and demanded Isiah to be on the team, he would have been on the team.” Daly did not do that.

6. I wrote a column at the time saying that it wasn’t enemies who kept Thomas off the team, it was friends. The next time I saw Dave Gavitt, who was the head of USA Basketball, he pulled me aside and said, “You hit that right on the button. I made copies of your column and faxed it to every member of the committee.”

7. Rod Thorn and Russ Granik, both high-ranking NBA executives at the time, pointed out in the documentary that the selection committee began making decisions shortly after the 1991 NBA playoffs. That’s when Thomas led a group of Pistons off the court when it was obvious the Bulls were going to sweep their Eastern Conference finals series. It was repugnant sportsmanship and who could have possibly been excited about that sort of mentality on an Olympic team?

8. Ah yes, we have heard and witnessed so much of the Michael Jordan competitiveness, and theree several funny moments in the documentary. But after writing all of the above, I do have to report that in Jack McCallum’s book on the Dream Team, which will be released next month (and can be preordered here – you’re welcome, Jack) , Jordan takes full credit for keeping Thomas off the team.

9. That is vintage Michael. He and Thomas have despised each other since 1985 and the infamous All-Star freeze-out (which colleague Mark Heisler wrote about here). After being eliminated for three straight years by Detroit, Jordan and the Bulls won in 1991, and Thomas and the Pistons did their little walk-off, which proved to be quite large. At that point, Jordan gained the upper hand. And when Michael has the upper hand, he’ll use it. So now he revels in keeping Thomas off the team.

(To see the rest of the article on, click here.

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Popovich tells troops: Get nasty

SAN ANTONIO — If there is one certainty about the next couple of days, it is that in various areas of free market trade in the greater San Antonio area, t-shirts emblazoned with “I Want Some Nasty” will be available for purchase.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich provided a one-liner that will follow this series the rest of the way, and will continue following the Spurs franchise into the next days, weeks and, well, maybe even years – although Popovich would settle for about a month.

By then, the NBA champion will be determined, and if it is to be the Spurs – who certainly are the favorites right now – then Game 1 of the Western Conference finals will undoubtedly be a focal point.

That’s because the Spurs overcame a gallant effort by the Oklahoma City Thunder to take a 1-0 lead in the series with a 101-98 victory Sunday night. (Boxscore here).

The Thunder battled evenly for a half, asserted themselves throughout the third and early in the fourth period and were playing confident, free-flowing basketball. They entered the last quarter with a nine-point lead and it seemed Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and a strong group of role players was coming of age.

In growing up, the young team with its core players all 23 or younger, was poised to end the Spurs 18-game winning streak, steal home court advantage and take a giant step towards advancing to the NBA Finals.

But then Popovich addressed the situation. He was unhappy because the Spurs had not played with the same passion or energy of the Thunder. He asked the players if they thought winning was going to be easy. He reminded them that each round was more difficult.

And then he uttered a line that will become a permanent part of Spurs lore, “I want some nasty.”

And he got it – well, as much nasty as a nice group of guys like the Spurs can muster. A minute into the fourth quarter, the Spurs began playing their regular game.

They trailed 73-64 with 11:19 left. They responded with nine consecutive points. And get this – four by Gary Neal, three by Tiago Splitter and two by Tony Parker. They took control of the game. They disrupted the OKC offense. They stifled Durant, who had 27 points in the game but was 0-of-2 from the field in the fourth period.

And after three periods of difficult, grinding basketball, the Spurs breezed to the victory, which was more convincing than the final three-point margin suggested. San Antonio was nine points ahead with 22.1 seconds left but OKC made several desperation shots. But the outcome was never in doubt at the end.

After the game, Popovich was able to laugh at himself for “I Want Some Nasty,” which has all sorts of commercial possibilities – Hip Hop, Country & Western, Heavy Metal, Triple-X rated and, very importantly from a cultural perspective, Jersey Shore.

(To see original column that appeared on, click here.)

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Simply a case of Manu being Manu

SAN ANTONIO — In the jumble of head-scratching, mystifying plays that have turned Gregg Popovich’s white hair a lighter shade of pale, Manu’s Ginobili’s most famous one doesn’t stick out.

In his formative years, Ginobili provided Popovich with many teaching moments, but the outcome of the discussions was sometimes more maddening than the flamboyant approach Ginobili found so inviting.

“He would make passes that were unnecessary in certain situations and he could do it in a more efficient manner,” Popovich said. “I would go to him and say ‘Manu, we don’t need that right now. Here’s the score, here’s the time, I’m not sure what can we do about this.’”

Ginobili speaks three languages fluently, but he would look at Popovich like the Spurs coach was speaking in tongues.

Change the way he plays?


With every bit of diplomacy that he could summon while still remaining true to his basketball values, Ginobili would explain the situation.

“We can do nothing,” Ginobili would earnestly tell his coach. “I am Manu and this is how I play.”

Although Popovich remembers multiple occasions for such a conversation, Ginobili laughs today and says, “It only happened once. I was upset and I shouldn’t have said it. It was after a very awkward behind-the-back pass and I was frustrated. But he understood that’s really how I felt the game. It was just part of me.”

(To see the original column on, click here.)

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Duncan has secured his place in history

For NBA writers, pregame with Gregg Popovich is a little like trading engaging barbs with Bill Maher.

It can be humorous, but the guy you are talking to is a minimum of two times as quick as you and five times as smart, so step carefully.

Pop is a guy who majored in Soviet Studies at the Air Force Academy and worked in highly sensitive missions on the border of Russia and Turkey when he was a younger man. So while he loves to compete, he has a different perspective on sports.

The result is if a writer begins a question with, “How important is . . .” the Spurs head coach will raise his eyebrows, raise his voice, flap his hands and say, “Very important!”

Then he’ll smile while the troubled questioner fumbles to reconsider how different wording might result in a serious answer.

Some don’t take too well to Popovich’s curt humor. Before a game a couple of years ago, Manu Ginobili was hurt and had been examined by the doctor in the late afternoon. Pop was asked about Ginobili’s status and answered, but then a TV reporter wandered over and asked the same question.

Pop answered with a colorful burst of words that roughly translated were, “How the hell should I know? They just looked at him a few minutes ago.”

When the media surrounding Popovich started laughing, the TV guy became so upset that he walked away in a huff. As he did, Pop started yelling at him to come back. When the guy kept walking, Pop said, “At least shoot me the finger,” and then laughed and said, “He won’t even do that.”

Rarely are pregame sessions with a head coach as entertaining as they are with Pop, and he doesn’t limit his surprises to humor. Before the Spurs opened the playoffs with a 106-91 victory over the Utah Jazz on Sunday, Popovich told the media that he had been playing a practical joke on them for 15 years.

(To see the original column on, click here.)

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Drazen was special

(Column first appeared in Newsday, June 19, 1993)


Equating a loss in basketball with the loss of a life is ignorant and inappropriate. Drazen Petrovic died in a car accident in Germany Monday, and right now, anybody in his right mind couldn’t care less who the Nets’ shooting guard is going to be next season.

There will be time for that. Now is the time to dwell on the triumphs of Petrovic, one of the world’s true basketball pioneers. This was a man who refused to fail. He came to the United States after achieving international stardom, first for the Yugoslavian national team and then in Spain as the premier international player in the world.

His accomplishments and skills earned him an immediate seven-figure salary with the Blazers, but he averaged less than 15 minutes as a 25-year-old rookie in 1989-90. Considering his previous success, that was difficult for him to accept.

Other Europeans refused to accept lesser roles. They had been stars overseas, but when they discovered they were no better than journeymen in the NBA, they quickly returned to the Italian or Spanish leagues. Not Petro. He returned to the practice court.

Petrovic was the classic gym rat. Much of his greatness came from repetition. Sonics coach George Karl coached at Real Madrid the year after Petrovic left. When Karl arrived, he heard stories of Petro’s determined work ethic – 500 jumpers before practice, 500 after practice, 500 three-point shots at another practice, 200 free throws at another.

He became a machine. Petrovic once was asked about his best practice session. He said he once wanted to see how many shots it would take him to make 100 from behind the international three-point line of 20 feet, 6 inches. It took 104.

That work ethic enabled him to almost achieve in the U.S. what he achieved in Europe. Petro was upset when he did not make the All-Star team in February, but he still accomplished something no other international player without a U.S. college background has accomplished.

This year, he made the All-NBA third team.

He was going to get better. Much better.

Dedication is only part of the character that will be missed. Petro wasn’t always the most conversational person, but he always was cooperative. Even talking to him about a subject he did not like – for instance, his failed relationship with former Yugoslavia teammate Vlade Divac – would not cause him to be rude. He would not walk out on such an interview. He might answer in two- or three-word sentences, but he would answer.

Mostly, Petrovic smiled and loved to talk basketball. He was serious, but if you stayed around him long enough, he would let down his guard and reveal his sense of humor.

In the Barcelona Olympics last summer, after the Croatian team defeated the Unified Team to advance to the gold-medal game, Petro said it was the biggest win of his career. When asked why, he said a Croatian government official had boarded the team bus before the game and told the team the Croatian government really couldn’t afford to send the team to the Olympics, but it had anyway. And because that financial commitment had been made, the team had no choice but to win the game and advance to the gold-medal game.

“He didn’t say what would happen if we didn’t win the game,” Petrovic said, smiling, “and I didn’t ask.”

Petrovic was a man of principle. When tensions were mounting between republics in the former Yugoslavia, Petrovic refused to play for Yugoslavia at the European championships. He waited until Croatia declared its independence and then played for his new country.

He was strong-willed, sometimes hot-headed, driven and fun to watch. As NBA commissioner David Stern said, “He really added a lot to our league by virtue of his enthusiasm and personality. And I think we judge him in terms of the international scope of the game, truly demonstrating that this was a global sport, bringing us all together. He’ll be sorely missed.”

If someone had asked Petrovic how he would like to be remembered, he probably would have said as a proud Croatian, a great basketball player and a hard worker.

And that’s how he will be remembered by those who were close to him, and who loved him. Those of us who were not so close but who dealt with him professionally can add a simple and hopefully lasting tribute.

Drazen Petrovic: A good guy.

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Lakers vs. Spurs: Hidden rivalry

Sports is always in search of something special – rivalries, dynasties, the greatest.

In so many ways, the rivalry between the Lakers and Spurs should qualify as classic.

But the reality of the NBA is that there is one true lasting rivalry – Celtics and Lakers. One franchise has 17 titles, the other 16. They have met 12 times in the Finals with Boston holding a 9-3 edge.

Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson was Lakers-Celtics. Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain is the NBA’s greatest individual rivalry, so it was fitting that the last year Russell played, his team won the title by defeating Lakers with Wilt in his first year in Los Angeles.

Other rivalries come and go – Knicks-Heat, Bulls-Pistons, etc. And a number of teams think they have a rivalry with the Celtics and Lakers, but it is pretty much a one-way feeling.

The Lakers and Spurs, however, have a spirited recent history. It’s not a rivalry that stimulates the masses – perhaps because the Lakers have a greater rivalry with Boston and the Spurs are a small-market team that has never had a passionate national following.

They are beloved in San Antonio, with their proud small market style, and they are content with that.

Hard-core NBA devotees, however, are aware of Lakers-Spurs, particularly as it centers on Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan. Bryant arrived in Los Angeles in 1996 and Duncan was drafted by San Antonio in 1997. Since then, the two teams have met six times in the playoffs. The Lakers have won four; the Spurs two.

Each time, the winner went to the NBA Finals. Four times, the winner won the championship.

The matchup has had its share of storied moments – none greater than Derek Fisher’s dramatic shot late in Game 5 of the 2004 series.

That shot gave the Lakers a 1-point victory and the home court advantage in a second round series. It began on an inbound play with less than four-tenths of a second showing on the clock – how much less will always be disputed.

Regardless, less than three-tenths of a second had expired off the clock since an 18-footer by Tim Duncan had given the Spurs the lead. Duncan’s would have been one of the biggest shots in Spurs history – instead, it is a maddening memory in San Antonio.

The Lakers went on to win the series.

In the 13 years that began with the Spurs first title, the two teams have combined for nine championships and there is a healthy competition about who has a rightful claim to the title of “dynasty.” Obviously the Lakers, with one more title than the Spurs, are the leaders in the clubhouse.

(To read the original column on, click here.)

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