It’s bigger than basketball.
That’s a phrase typically associated with players promoting social reform activism and critiquing injustices off the court.
But with many of the league’s top stars dropping their Team USA roster spots prior to this month’s FIBA Basketball World Cup in China, and the increasing decline in national team talent as a whole, the term shines itself in a new light.
Team USA was once a glorified All-Star team, a world-class display of American dominance in a sport the country invented. Picking the USA against lesser national competition was as palpable as betting on the Harlem Globetrotters to defeat the Washington Generals. Winning gold was an expectation.
But with the changing perception on international competitions, NBA talents see an opportunity to represent their country as more of a burden than a responsibility.
This year’s Team USA squad looks significantly different than the teams that won gold in years past. Gone are the days of Lebron James, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. The Team USA of today is likely to be led by lesser threats like Khris Middleton and Kyle Kuzma.
So why are the big names no longer filling up the roster like they once were?
The foremost reason is rest. The NBA season runs well into June, should a team be fortunate enough to make a deep playoff push. By that point, players are not easily willing to step on a court for a few weeks or months, let alone train with a new team for a multi-week long competition halfway across the world. It’s a big investment with little return.
The fact that the Olympics — the much more prestigious and relevant team event — is next year doesn’t help the cause either. It’s a tough position for NBA stars to jeopardize millions of dollars over injury or fatigue heading into next year’s season.
Granted, this is not solely a Team USA problem. Canada will compete without countrymen like Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson and rookie R.J. Barrett due to a combination of unwillingness and injury. Spain is void of Serge Ibaka and Pau Gasol for the first time in years.
Though the reasons for NBA stars missing national competitions are somewhat justified, they lack true depth.
Representing one’s country is an honor and a privilege that not many athletes are granted. The FIBA World Cup, as lackluster as the excitement may actually be, is still a chance to display excellence in front of the world. Sure, it’s a large time commitment in the ever-hectic lives of world-class talent. But will skipping the event automatically guarantee full health through next season?
Players should treat international competitions with the respect they deserve, even if the actual “competition” part is lacking. They should represent the people and the league who put them in the position they’re currently in, rather than defend frail excuses.
Team USA is still favored to win its third consecutive gold, but it won’t be nearly the same without the country's best on the court.
In the scope of international competition, it’s most certainly bigger than basketball.
Follow Jack Braverman on Twitter @jack_braverman and contact him at [email protected].