Column: Stars and Gripes: Olympic basketball needs to pay up to keep up

Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen and Mark Cuban want to be compensated for participating in the Olympics.

Call them unpatriotic. Call them selfish. Call them idiots.

But in the end, they’re right.

Olympic basketball is built on heroes, and if Wade — one of the league’s top five players — does not participate, a couple million kids suddenly won’t be as inclined to watch the events in London this summer. Simply put, the United States Olympic Committee would greatly benefit from Wade’s participation as opposed to, say, Indiana’s Danny Granger’s.

The argument isn’t really about the product on court; Granger and at least 30 other players are good enough to star on a gold medal-winning American team, given the weak international competition.

It’s the off-the-hardwood product (see: money) that’s in jeopardy when guys like Wade and his Miami teammate LeBron James turn down a chance to don the stars and stripes.

When it comes to Olympic basketball, the play-for-the-love-of-the-game ideal is a little sketchy at this point. The Games’ values have been slightly neutered since the “Dream Team” of the early ‘90s, when professional players were first able to take the spots of amateurs.

After all, the people who say, “The Olympics will never allow players to be paid,” are the same people who said 20 years ago, “The Olympics will never allow professional players to play."

The times, they are a-changin’.

Wade’s, Allen’s and Cuban’s comments are basically unprecedented, and they stirred up quite the national debate the last few weeks. The Dallas Mavericks owner’s words were the most tenacious.

“If you look up ‘stupid’ in the dictionary,” Cuban said to Fox Sports, “you see a picture of the USA Dream Team playing for free for corporate America so the U.S. Olympic Committee can make millions of dollars.”

Cuban also stated he would freely hand over his players to the Olympics if the Games were not about profit.

Wade and Allen were less antagonistic. Wade told ESPN that he sells “a lot of jerseys” for the Olympics when he participates. Allen, who has not participated in the Games since 2000, told Fox Sports Florida that NBA players are “businesses” that have various opportunities to make money during the summer if they don’t compete in the Olympics.

These guys see the dollar signs through the patriotic cloud. The NBA — and, given its investment in the league, the USOC — is all about branding. Players are individual products that perpetrate the “coolness” of the league.

King James, Black Mamba, Big Ticket, Linsanity. These names essentially push the league along, and it’s no different for an international competition like the Olympics. Yes, the USA logo is obviously the most integral part of the marketing operation, but it becomes a much hotter commodity when LeBron James or Kobe Bryant wears it while crossing up some poor Italian.

“Wade can sit at home if he doesn’t want to represent our fine country,” you say. But that’s the committee’s worst nightmare; when Wade sits out, LeBron will sit out, and on and on.

While Wade recently retracted his comments in a terrible cover-up effort, and Allen and Cuban have been silent since their outbursts, this is only the tip of the iceberg. All of this is slowly tilting in the direction of Olympic contracts, be it in four years or 20.

After all, nobody wants a USA jersey with “Granger” on the back.

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