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Players run injury risk in international play

9/22/2003

Mark Cuban's annual summer nightmare just ended. We're not talking about
the hangover from his Dallas Mavericks' inability to win at home in the
Western Conference Finals. Or his team's inability to land a prized free
agent.

We're talking about Germany's elimination in the ongoing European Olympic
qualifier in Sweden. No more Germany means no more minutes for Dirk
Nowitzki, Cuban's franchise forward who already has been hurt once playing
this summer for the motherland. No more minutes means, we think, no more
worries about injuries.

Italy eliminated the Germans, so look for Cuban's international guys to
recommend signing Massimo Bulleri and Giacomo Galanda as a form of reward.

Cuban can now breathe easier because both Nowitzki and Steve Nash, his two
main catalysts, are through with international competition this summer. Even
better from Cuban's point of view -- neither Germany nor Canada qualified for
the Olympics.

Cuban has been typically out front on the issue of NBA players
participating for their countries in Olympic, pre-Olympic and World
Championship competitions. Simply, he doesn't think his guys are
sufficiently insured; God forbid one of them goes down with a torn
Achilles or ACL. He has stopped short of insisting his guys don't play, but
his concerns last summer helped convince Nash to opt out of the Worlds just
before the tournament began.

In the cases of the N & N boys, their team's season extended until the end of May.
Nowitzki's season actually ended a week earlier, thanks to a knee injury incurred in
a collision with Manu Ginobili in the conference finals. But when Germany
called, Dirk answered. It's very hard to say no to the homeland, especially
for a player of Nowitzki's stature.

Nash had Maverick company in the Olympic qualifier in San Juan; Eduardo
Najera played for Mexico and missed a game because of a fighting suspension.
Tariq Abdul-Wahad, another Mav, is playing for France, although he is not a regular in the Dallas rotation. But that's one-third of Cuban's active roster
playing in very heated competitions under international (read: anything
goes) rules.

Cuban was asked if he was worried about injuries, fatigue, or both.

"It depends on the age of the player and how long he is playing,'' he said
via e-mail. "The older (the player), the more concern. Two weeks with time
to rest isn't a problem. (But) you start playing for a month and then don't
have at least a month before training camp, and then for older guys, you
just have extended the season. And that's not good.''

Nash finished playing on Labor Day, so he'll have a month off. Nowitzki will
have almost a month off and, remember: Older vets can miss the first few
days of training camp under a deal cut with the league last February.

Cuban can now cede the worry hat to the Maloof brothers in Sacramento. For
reasons unknown -- pride can be the only possibility -- Peja Stojakovic is
playing for Serbia and Montenegro in the European qualifier. And he sprained
an ankle on Monday. The Sacramento Kings quickly got a statement out saying
that Stojakovic's ankle wasn't seriously sprained and that he didn't need
crutches.

Now, if you're the Maloofs, you have to ask yourself this: I'm paying this
guy millions of dollars and he gets hurt in a tournament in which his team
already has secured a qualifying berth? Am I missing something? Serbia and
Montenegro went by the name of Yugoslavia last summer at the World
Championships, a tournament it won, thereby automatically qualifying for
Athens. Why did he even go?

Stojakovic's Kings' teammate Vlade Divac didn't participate in the Euro
qualifier. Neither did Worlds hero Dejan Bodiroga. But the Clippers' Marko
Jaric did. And he could end up being Mike Dunleavy's starter on Opening
Night. However, at last we heard, he has two healthy ankles. Utah's Andrei
Kirilenko is playing for Russia and the French team has Abdul-Wahad, Tony
Parker and Jerome Moiso (but not Mickael Pietrus, who was too cooked to play
after a long season.)

The "summer issue'' isn't going to go away anytime soon. It's only a major
issue now because the NBA players who are playing for their respective
countries are no longer fringe players but, at least in the case of Nowitzki,
franchise players. I can guess how Red Auerbach might have reacted had Bill
Russell wanted to play in the 1960 Olympics. Or John Havlicek in the 1968
Olympics. Or Larry Bird in the 1984 Olympics. Yeah, right.

And it's not the same for the Yanks, simply because of their depth. Russia
can't play Kirilenko 23 minutes a game, the way Larry Brown did with his
main guys. Same for Germany with Nowitzki and Canada with Nash. (Actually,
we saw what happens to Canada when Nash plays sparingly. The rest of the
team might as well have been comprised of salmon fishermen. Rick Fox,
although hurt this time, last played for Canada in 1994. And Jamaal Magliore
decided he couldn't risk being hurt with a possible contract extension in
the works. Geez, where's Bill Wennington when you need him?)

The Orlando Magic got a bit of a scare when Tracy McGrady's back acted up in
Puerto Rico. But Brown simply plugged the hole with "a stiff like Vince
Carter'' as he joked and the U.S. train rumbled on. McGrady returned in a few
days anyway. But if I'm Doc Rivers, I'm stepping on eggshells until I see
T-Mac on the floor.

We all know that injuries can happen anywhere, anytime. Mo Taylor tore an
Achilles working out. And remember MJ's broken ribs, supposedly happening at
one of those brutal pickup games at Hoops? As long as the NBA keeps signing
international players -- and that is a trend that is not going to stop -- then
its teams will have to understand how important it is to these guys to suit
up for the motherland. And live with the consequences.

The insurance issue still hasn't been addressed to Cuban's satisfaction. "I
have the same concerns,'' he said. At least his mainstay got through
unscathed -- or so we think. The European qualifier ends on Sunday and you'd
like to think that reason will trump valor for Stojakovic. He was supposed
to miss Serbia and Montenegro's game against Lithuania on Wednesday and was
listed as day to day.

The Kings' legendary depth already has been somewhat depleted this summer
and the last thing Rick Adelman needs is for a gimpy Stojakovic to show up
on the first day of training camp. If that is the case, then maybe Cuban
will have a new ally in Sacramento when he again raises the issue next time
around.

Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.