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The Vote That Cleared the Way for NBA Players to Play in FIBA Competitions

  • Author:
    By Jan Hubbard
  • Date:
    Apr 8, 2020

If there is one basketball rule that has consistently befuddled the experts, it is the rule that led to the participation of NBA players in the Olympics.

In 1988, the U.S. lost to the Soviet Union in the Olympic semifinal game in Seoul, South Korea, and had to settle for the bronze medal. About eight months later, the rules were changed and NBA players became eligible to play in international competition. So the assumption by a large segment of the media was that American basketball officials were angered by the loss, and thus decided to declare NBA players eligible so the U.S. could reclaim its rightful spot as the best basketball country in the world.

That would seem to make sense - except that it is not true. When the U.S. team with college players lost in 1988, the only players who could not participate in international competition were NBA players. Brazil's brilliant scoring machine Oscar Schmidt was playing in Italy and earning a salary in the $500,000 per year range at the time. So were many others.

To FIBA Secretary-General Boris Stankovic, then the head of the organization that governs international basketball, that did not seem fair. So he decided a change was needed and he led the movement to change the rules. On April 8, 1989, at a special FIBA session, the proposal was adopted, 56-13, with Greece refusing to vote.

''We see this as our triumphant entry into the 21st century,'' said Stankovic.

At the time, the NBA was not even a part of the organization that came to be known as USA Basketball, the governing body for basketball in the U.S. When the vote to change the rules was taken, in fact, the U.S. representatives voted against it. They were content for the U.S. to be represented by amateurs.

Interestingly, a Soviet Union sponsored amendment to limit each national team to two professional players for the first few years was unamiously rejected. FIBA felt such a limit would unnecessarily complicate the matter.

Once the rules were changed, however, the NBA was invited to become a part of USA Basketball, and it was determined that NBA players would play in the Olympics and World Championships with college and other young players continuing to represent the U.S. in all other international competition.

What is even less known, however, is that in 1986 - two years before Americans lost in '88 - the rules were nearly changed. Stankovic introduced the resolution for open play at a FIBA convention, and the vote to allow all professionals to play was defeated 31-27. At the time, Stankovic said 18 or 19 countries abstained from voting, but if only five had changed and voted "yes," the resolution would have passed and the original Dream Team could have debuted in 1988 rather than 1992.

"It is nonsense to have 200 million players in the world as FIBA members but not the 300 best players," said Stanovic following the vote in 986. "Today it is a fact the U.S. professionals are much stronger, but only by playing with stronger teams can the rest of the world improve."

The truth, however, is puzzling. Why would international executives who want to win gold medals change a system after they won a gold medal?

"Two reasons," Stankovic said. "Our competition was closed to the NBA players, but no one else. That seems immoral. The second is very simple. Our feeling is that only by playing with the best players in the world can everyone else make progress. If you are from another country and you can run a race against Carl Lewis, maybe you don't have a chance. But you still want to run."

We saw that in 1992. The Dream Team whacked everyone it played, but the international players were thrilled to be on the same court. The experience for them was the same that it was for the rest of the world. That team was not only unforgettable but also responsible for the enormous boost in popularity for basketball on a global basis.

But the credit for that group getting the opportunity to play on the same team does not belong to anyone in the NBA or USA Basketball. It belongs to Boris Stankovic and his group of farsighted executives, who understood that the best way for basketball to grow globally was to put the greatest players on the world stage.

About the Author: Jan Hubbard is a former editor of Hoop magazine. 

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