Following bouncing ball has grown into international exercise for NBA followers


Recently, a friend, discussing how rapidly changing technology has altered our concept of time, used a white-water rafting expedition he took this summer to illustrate the challenges facing managers in the 21st century.

The world, he reasoned, is a raft, engulfed in a swirl of shifting events -- choppy, fast-moving rapids, tossing the raft to and fro, bombarding its navigators with a steady barrage of challenges that demand swift responses.

With no luxury of long, studied analysis, managers will have to make their decisions on the spot, instinctively, intuitively. Time will not be characterized by predictable peaks and valleys, but by constant motion.

In the raft, flux will be the norm, and the successful managers will be those who feel comfortable in that environment.

The rafting analogy comes to mind as the NBA introduces the players who have accepted invitations to represent the United States next year at the 1992 Olympic Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain.

Fifteen years ago, the NBA was a raft being bounced about with no particular direction, but it is now on the cutting edge of major professional sports leagues.

The 1992 team will be the first to represent the United States in Olympic basketball while including professional players -- full-fledged, seven-figure, NBA-certified pro players.

The decision to allow professional players came in a vote by the international basketball federation in 1989, a year after the last batch of U.S. collegians failed to win the gold medal in Seoul, South Korea. Although everyone denies it, the announcement of NBA players effectively heralds the arrival of the Marines.

The pros are supposed to regain the American pride squandered away by college kids who found themselves over their heads against older, tougher international teams.

The unveiling also ushers in a new, challenging era for the U.S. Olympic movement, which finds itself in a state of turmoil with the resignation last Thursday of Robert Helmick as president of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Helmick's resignation comes at a time when the Olympic movement in this country is being forced to redefine, reaffirm or, at least, reassess its mission. For one, how important is winning medals? If it is important, how do you devise a network that

identifies the nation's best athletes?

The presence of professional basketball players on the U.S. team certainly represents a definitive statement of purpose: We're sending paid athletes to represent the country and win.

There are compelling side issues to be debated: Has the vTC committee that is responsible for selecting the 1992 basketball team chosen style over substance? Jack McCloskey thinks so.

Should there have been tryouts? Can Magic Johnson's bad knees and Larry Bird's bad back stand a nine-month NBA season, plus exhibition games in June, and then the Olympics?

This is all food for thought, but in the grand scheme of things, these questions are irrelevant. The bottom line is that the 1992 Summer Games represent a marvelous marketing opportunity for the NBA: The league is going overseas, and the Olympics are an additional bridge.

NBA games are already televised in 70 European markets. And with privately owned TV stations replacing government-owned stations in many countries, new programming will be essential, and the NBA will be a high priority.

From the Europeans' standpoint, the presence of pros in the Olympics will make it significantly more difficult to win -- at first -- but in the long run, it will improve the caliber of play.

While the presence of professionals in the Olympics opens vistas for pro basketball, it could easily be the first step toward capsizing big-time college basketball as we have known it. Some feel the tip-off came in 1990, when Dave Gavitt, the president of USA Basketball, the United States' governing body for the sport in international competition, stepped down from his job as the Big East Conference commissioner to accept a job as senior executive vice president of the Boston Celtics.

Gavitt, the brains behind the Big East, knew or felt intuitively that the future of basketball in this country was at the professional level, here and abroad.

Can pro baseball be far behind? With the currents of political change smashing old borders and creating new world alliances, how can major-league baseball, which doesn't even include all 50 of the United States, justify holding what is called a World Series?

Internationalization has arrived, and you'd better go with the flow.

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