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NBA holds weaker hand in cash game

July 24, 2008 3:43 am

GOLD OR BUST. Just as it was for the prospectors of 160 years ago, that's the motto for the U.S. men's basketball team in Beijing.

If the Americans can't win the Olympics with a squad laden with NBA stars--one that's spent parts of three summers together--and coached by resident genius Mike Krzyzewski, there may be nowhere else to turn. If Kobe, LeBron and Dwyane can't bring home gold, who can?

And even if the U.S. ends its recent string of international futility, there are signs that the NBA's status isn't quite what it used to be.

We've discussed the Tim Donaghy scandal, wherein the former official admitted to betting on games and supplying inside information to gamblers. While awaiting sentencing, Donaghy has claimed that he wasn't the "rogue official" NBA commissioner David Stern claims he was, and that other whistle-blowers (and possibly the league itself) conspired to affect the outcome of games.

Nothing short of murder charges could be more damaging to the NBA's credibility. No one has ever doubted that stars get preferential treatment from officials, but if you believe the actual results are fixed, you might as well watch pro wrestling.

Even as Stern tries to distance himself from Donaghy, a couple of developments continue, bit by bit, to erode his league's reputation.

First, Oak Hill Academy hotshot guard Brandon Jennings decided to spurn the league's one-year college mandate and signed with an Italian team.

Jennings reportedly was struggling to meet NCAA academic qualifying standards, but he could have played somewhere in the states and applied for the 2009 NBA draft. Instead, he chose to get paid legally (rather than under the table, as O.J. Mayo is accused of doing).

If enough other talented teens follow Jennings' lead, Stern may have to reconsider his league's age policy--or face a class-action lawsuit.

Just as big a concern for Stern was Josh Childress' decision to leave the Atlanta Hawks yesterday and sign a three-year deal worth a reported $20 million after taxes with a Greek club, Olympiakos.

Childress was a key reserve on a young Hawks team that ended a nine-year playoff drought and seemed poised for a bright future. But as a restricted free agent, his earning potential was limited in the NBA.

Most teams are loaded with bloated contracts (I'm looking at you, Knicks) and couldn't afford to offer Childress more than the $3.6 million he earned last season. So the Stanford grad went overseas for more guaranteed cash--and the option to void his contract after each year.

Will Childress lead a wave of presumably underpaid American players across the pond? Don't count on it. Given the NBA's increasingly international makeup, more guys want to come here than the other way around.

Players like former Virginia Tech standout Deron Washington hope to use a stint in a European League as a springboard to the NBA. And don't be surprised if Childress returns next summer, when some NBA team can afford to pay him more.

Still, it's clear that the NBA no longer holds a monopoly on basketball talent--or options. The world isn't catching up with the U.S.--it caught up a while ago.

And if the latest "Dream Team" doesn't bring back gold from Beijing, the Americans may need to retire the "We're No. 1" chant. Somehow, "We're in the top five" just doesn't inspire the same patriotism.

Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443
Email: sdeshazo@freelancestar.com





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