Players run injury risk in international play

NBA owners hold their collective breath as their prized commodities play in international competition.

Updated: September 22, 2003, 2:02 PM ET
By Peter May | Special to

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.

A year ago, Nowitzki was nails for Germany in the world championships.

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

Peter May

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