BEIJING – When Jason Kidd logged into a laptop to see the Spaniards with his own eyes on Wednesday morning, the photo appeared just as described to him: Here were National Basketball Association players giggling like schoolgirls as they posed with fingers pressed against their temples in a squinty-eyed pre-Olympic salute to China.
Before long, Kidd considered the consequences had those giddy European faces been substituted with those of Team USA.
“We would’ve been already thrown out of the Olympics," he told Yahoo! Sports. “At least, we wouldn’t have been able to come back to the U.S. …There would be suspensions."
And for his European peers, well, Kidd suggested, “They won’t do anything to them. It’s a double standard."
For Spain, there are several NBA players, including the Lakers’ Pau Gasol and Toronto’s Jose Calderon, in this unnerving team photo. They wore Spanish uniforms and had the federation’s seal on the floor. It ran as a full-page advertisement in a Madrid newspaper, an advertisement for a national team sponsor. This wasn’t an impromptu shot, but a carefully calculated choice.
Gasol is too smart, too sophisticated, to have let this happen. After practice Wednesday, he suggested that he wasn’t troubled with the photo on the merits of longstanding racial implications as much as he thought it wasn’t funny. The sponsor pushed and pushed them to pose, he said. They broke him down.
“It was supposed to be a picture that inspired the Olympic spirit," Gasol said.
And how’d that work out, Pau? Just imagine what would’ve happened had that explanation come out of the mouth of Carmelo Anthony? Here’s what: Stern would’ve been on the next plane to China to work the damage control.
The Spaniards made a deplorable circumstance worse with dense justifications and a sense that they had done nothing wrong and nothing offensive. When they were hemming and hawing, digging a deeper ditch, Kidd talked at Team USA’s practice. He was curious how the Spanish players were spinning this.
“They have some explaining to do," he said. “They’ll come up with something good."
Gasol and Calderon aren’t just accountable to Spain on this Olympic stage but the global corporate entity that pays them more than $130 million in pro contracts. The NBA could’ve delivered a ready rebuke on Wednesday and there was none.
They’ll dock you $50,000 for ripping an incompetent official, but you can get a pass on an orchestrated racial slur? Gasol is kidding himself to say that he was pushed into it. Do you think Kobe Bryant would’ve been pressured to pose this way? LeBron James? Gasol is a serious, sensitive player with the prestige and clout for Spain to step up and say: Forget it, fellas. This isn’t happening. Only he didn’t.
As much as anything, this episode feeds a prevailing feeling among African-American NBA players that they’re the constant scapegoats for whatever issues – real or perceived – plague the sport. Without the public demanding a pound of accountability for European players, do they get a pass?
“The simple question is, ‘Would Stern and the league hold the American players accountable?’ And I think the answer to that is yes," one NBA general manager said. “So why wouldn’t he hold the ‘other’ NBA players accountable – unless the rules only apply to the American players."
So far, there’s nothing out of the league office. Rest assured, unless there’s an outcry over that photo, the NBA will wish this story away. Maybe the league will even issue a mild rebuke. It won’t be enough. Maybe this doesn’t rise to a suspension, but there should be significant fines and a bold condemnation. There needs to be a message delivered to NBA players everywhere: When you earn your money with us, you are always on the clock. Kidd, Kobe and LeBron understand it. It’s time the rest of the league does, too.
As some suggest he’ll do, Stern can’t dismiss this as the business of a federation team. These are NBA players returning to NBA cities this year. Never mind the host country and millions of fans here, but consider the Asian-American season ticket holders in cosmopolitan cities such as Toronto and Los Angeles. One of the reasons the New Jersey Nets traded for Yi Jianlian was to market him to a large Asian-American base in Metropolitan New York.
The NBA is a global league, so understand: Whatever the summer uniform, it’s the players who are forever representing the logo. The idea that Stern shouldn’t act on this behavior because it falls under FIBA and Spanish rule is ridiculous.
“We could say that too, but at the end of day, we are still representing the NBA," Kidd said. “No matter if we’re saying (the actions) have nothing to do with it. At the end of day, we have to go back home, and our jobs are there."
Stern is walking a slippery slope here, balancing relationships and partnerships in China and Europe. Already, there are jealousies developing in Europe over the way Stern is fawning over the Chinese market. Some European teams have told American marketers and agents that they’ve felt neglected in Stern’s wanderlust for Asia. FIBA is the governing body for European basketball and they’ve already dismissed this as a non-issue. That’s FIBA’s right, but the NBA has a different responsibility here. It has to take the higher ground.
“It would start an international riot if we did it, but they aren’t us," an Eastern Conference executive said. “It’s low-rent stuff, but FIBA won’t do squat, so (the) NBA would show them up with any punitive action. I would be shocked if the NBA does any more than condemn (the) action."
These Games have been a fascinating illustration in the complexities of the NBA’s globalization. The Americans have been treated like rock stars in China. Team USA has handled everything with grace and good humor. After too many trips overseas when this wasn’t the case for America’s national team, it sure is now.
Yes, there are different attitudes in the world, different sensibilities in Europe and North America. But for the NBA, there can be just one set of right and wrong. There should be only a strong voice and strong action now. No one should have to call for accountability from the Spaniards – the way that they would for Americans. Once and for all, David Stern has to be clear that there aren’t rules and responsibilities for different athletes, and different backgrounds – just those for an NBA player.