As Pau Gasol stretched before Spain’s Olympic semifinal basketball game against Russia on Friday night, Craig Sager, the TV sideline reporter known for his atrocious suits, hounded him. Dwight Howard, the subject of a nauseating number of trade rumors over the last few months, was now indeed coming to the Los Angles Lakers. It was official, Sager told Gasol. And Gasol, also the subject of trade rumors, was in fact staying in Hollywood.
Sager, in town for the Olympic broadcast, wanted some thoughts from Gasol. “While I’m stretching for an Olympic semifinal,” says Gasol, recalling the story, flashing a “can you believe this crap?” smile. “I tell him, ‘look, I’m trying to be focused here.’” But Sager pleaded. “So I have to give him something,” Gasol says, “so he would go away.”
At these Olympics, the NBA isn’t going anywhere. Olympic basketball organizers can talk about playing for national pride, and the love of the game, all they want. They can market the tournament as showcase of global hoops, and call it the most important competition of a player’s life. But the cold, harsh business of the NBA has crashed this Olympic party.
The Howard trade finally went down on Friday, and it was a blockbuster. A dozen players and three draft picks changed hands in the four-team deal. Howard is headed to Los Angeles. Andre Iguodala, a member of Team USA, will remember the Olympics as the time his life got uprooted. He’ll go from Philadelphia to Denver. Andrew Bynum, the Lakers center who developed into an All-Star, is Philly-bound; Orlando picks up draft picks and a slew of spare parts. The team is clearing salary cap space, so it can pursue top free agents down the road.
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Baseball puts a moratorium on big announcements during the World Series: remember 2007, when Alex Rodriguez ticked everyone off when word leaked, during the final outs of Series, that he’d likely leave New York. (He reversed course). The IOC can control everything – what credit card you use at the Olympics (Visa), whether an athlete can pump his or her endorsements during the Games (they can’t). Yet, the Olympics can’t put a gag order on NBA trade announcements? Need more proof that David Stern has major clout?
In a way, it’s a testament to the NBA’s global popularity that, during the most important games of the Olympics, the media was intensely interested in talking about a trade. Spain overcame an 11-point halftime deficit to win its semifinal, 67-59, over Russia. The U.S. notched another blowout victory, 109-83 win over Argentina; that 2004 night in Athens, when Argentina knocked out the U.S. in the semis and forced the country to reexamine its basketball soul, now seems like it took place in the George Mikan-era.
These wins sets up a gold medal rematch from 2008: Spain vs. the U.S. That game wasn’t quite a classic, but it was close. Kobe Bryant had to take over late, to insure a 118-107 U.S victory, and gold medal redemption after the 2004 disaster. This game should be good one too.
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Yet, rather than breaking down an enticing matchup, the players had to react to the trade. “It’s hard to block out completely,” says Gasol. “Because I like to be concentrated and focused 100 percent on what I’m doing and going through right now, with my national team.” Gasol did a nice job of tuning out distractions against Russia: he scored 16 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in the win. When asked about the new-look Lakers, Gasol says, “I’m very excited about our team,” not sounding particularly excited.
Neither was Kevin Durant. This deal shakes up the Western Conference, where Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder are the defending champs. With Howard, new free agent point guard Steve Nash, Bryant and Gasol, the Lakers look like the favorite to reach the Finals. When asked when and where he heard about the trade, and his thoughts, Durant offered a curt response: “I really don’t care.”
Earlier in the day, Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski checked in on Iguodala, to see how the new Denver Nugget was holding up. “He should be fine,” says Krzyzewski. After the semifinal, Iguodala kept a strong face. “It’s part of the job,” he says of being traded. But this tone was clear: he wasn’t thrilled about a deal disrupting his Olympic experience. Who would be?
Unless you’re Bryant. He was very willing to answer questions about his new, loaded team. That’s not surprising: that guy loves championships, and Bryant is in much better position to win one more, which would give him six titles. Unlike Gasol, who made a point of wishing Bynum well, Bryant skipped the goodbyes. “History speaks for itself,” says Bryant. “There are just certain franchises that seem to make all the right decisions and big, smart business moves.” Yes, he was pretty close to gloating. Bryant was asked if any of his Team USA teammates are ticked that the Lakers are so stacked again. “I’ve heard that they are,” says Bryant, flashing the familiar Cheshire cat grin. “We haven’t had those conversations yet. We had a little game to think about tonight.”
Bryant is confident that Howard, who is still a free agent after next season, will sign a long-term extension with the Lakers. “I mean, look, I’ll probably play two or three more years,” says Bryant. “The team is his. I’m excited for the Laker franchise, because now they have a player who can carry the franchise well after I’m gone. It should be his, and he should be willing to accept that challenge.”
Howard and Bryant spoke over the phone last night. “It’s one of those things that, you hear it, and then you’re kind of like, ‘ok,’” says Bryant of the Howard-to-the-Lakers rumor mill, which never ceased. “You’ve kind of got to let it go, because you know, it changes every two minutes. You know what I’m saying? So once I got the word it got confirmed, my mentality kind of switched, from excitement to execution. How are we doing to do it?”
Bryant insists that the trade will keep him more focused on closing out the Olympics. “It helps,” Bryant says. “Because you start getting in a frame of mind of knowing what your team is going to look like.” Post-trade, Bryant came out blazing, hitting a couple of three-pointers and a circus layup to help the U.S. jump out to an early lead against Argentina. But will L.A. teammate Gasol, no longer stressed by the trade rumors, come out strong on the other side, for Spain, in the gold medal game? “Pau’s going to be a problem regardless,” says Bryant.
To Bryant, this year’s Spain team will provide an ever bigger challenge to Team USA, thanks to Pau’s younger brother, Marc, an All-Star center for the Memphis Grizzlies. “Marc is the big difference,” says Bryant. “His skill has improved. That’s going to be one major, major difference.
On Sunday, the Olympics will decide this little gold medal business. After that: let’s just get to the Lakers.