Imagine if Sunday’s compelling doubleheader of United States-Spain and Argentina-Russia wasn’t the Olympics. Imagine if it was David Stern’s got-to-have World Cup of Basketball, the you-bet-it’s-on-the-way NBA-proposed tournament.
Would the play have been as gripping? There is no reason to believe otherwise.
Would national pride have been as paramount? National colors resonate no matter the venue.
But here’s why it wouldn’t have been the same:
Because it wouldn’t have been woven into an international carnival of sports.
Take the world’s premier national-team basketball championship out of the Olympics (some say the World Championships already mean more, but we know better), and all you have is, well, the world’s premier national-team basketball championship, something you’d be likely to find on some Fox Sports regional network or with ESPN commentators calling games off monitors in Bristol.
What the Olympics give us is LeBron and Kobe and KD marching behind a fencer carrying the United States flag, alongside wrestlers, weightlifters, kayakers.
What the Olympics give us is LeBron and Kobe and KD in the stands at tennis or soccer or volleyball.
What the Olympics give us is that rare moment when NBA elitists are merely part of the program, willing parts of the program, appreciative of their place in the greater sporting landscape.
Yes, the accommodations were separate and upgraded, but the gold medals were exactly the same as those for Misty and Kerri and others even lesser known who soon will return to day jobs out of financial necessity.
And that’s part of why we watched, because Sunday’s men’s basketball gold was bigger that just basketball, it was another check mark in the gold column, another part of the ledger that put this country ahead of other countries, at a time when our politicians only seem to be telling us what’s wrong with our country.
For two weeks, these NBA stars were part of something bigger than not only themselves, but also bigger than their sport.
Reduce the Olympic basketball competition to something along the lines of soccer’s 23-and-under and you’ll wind up with the men’s Olympic soccer tournament, a competition so nondescript that Spain seemingly couldn’t even be bothered by competing.
Basketball fans weren’t the only watching LeBron and Kobe and KD on Sunday. So were, well, sports fans, and Olympic fans.
That’s something you won’t get from a World Cup of basketball.
Because that only will be about basketball.
Ira Winderman writes regularly for NBCSports.com and covers the Heat and the NBA for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. You can follow him on Twitter at @IraHeatBeat.