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NEW YORK -- The NBA held a media event Wednesday to announce the expansion of its international Basketball Without Borders camps to Brazil and South Africa this summer.
After the event I talked one-on-one with NBA commissioner David Stern about the state of international basketball, the growing tide of teenagers (from the U.S. and abroad) flooding the league and the steps the league was taking to address the issues.
Stern, in a very candid interview, wavered a little on the league's push for an age limit and said the league intends to collectively bargain with the union to expand the NBDL in an effort to create a true NBA minor league system.
Here's an edited transcript of what turned into a pretty ground-breaking discussion with the commissioner about the future of the league both here and abroad.
FORD: This is the first year I can think of that the league will be officially in just about every place in the world. You'll be in Europe, Latin America and Africa doing Basketball Without Borders camps. The league will have exhibition games in China and Russia this year. When are you heading to India?
STERN: Well, we're talking about India as well. We've begun discussions with some television folks in India about the best way to develop it.
FORD: Is it safe to say that the league, its general managers and scouts, have caught international fever? There seems to be a growing obsession with all things international.
STERN: No, I think there's a heavy emphasis on ... I think it's great. You've got GMs going to the McDonald's NBA Classic, the WNBA Final Four, the NBA Final Four, the European Final Four. We have them working in every single direction. They're scouting international players, high school players, women's players, college players.
FORD: Do you think it's great that they're going to the McDonald's Game?
STERN: No, I don't think it's great. I think it's life. Everyone knows how I feel about that. If I were a GM and I was being judged on whether I was drafting the best talent available, I'd be scouting the McDonald's game or in Chicago the week before [the EA Roundball Classic]. I wouldn't have a choice.
FORD: With the influx of international players, some of them rising to a superstar level like Peja Stojakovic, how do they affect the NBA?
STERN: Well, my own view is that it makes our league more competitive, it makes greater talent available to us, it makes, to many of our fans, the game more interesting, and it opens up markets to us all at the same time.
FORD: The flood of high school teenagers into the league has been well documented. Now, the international kids are coming younger and younger, too. Darko Milicic turned 18 just a week before the draft. Is that an area of concern?
STERN: If you were looking at that, so what's the point. The bottom line is whether they can play and whether they can help the team. It's a wonderful meritocracy here. Do you have game? If you do, come on in. If you don't, better watch out.
FORD: Does it concern you less with the international players, because they are already playing professionally overseas and aren't giving up college or an education?
STERN: No, I think it would be a good thing to delay it a bit. I don't think there's a difference really between the international players and the domestic players. I suppose speaking directly to the issue, to the extent that you are living an NBA style lifestyle younger, you may be more equipped to handle life. But I don't think it makes that much of a difference.
FORD: You talk about kids giving up an education ...
STERN: You never hear me talking about kids giving up their education. Fifty percent of our country doesn't go to college. And of the 50 percent [that do], half of them drop out. I'm not here preaching about the need for a college education.
FORD: You've been saying for some time that you want a 20-year-old age limit. Is the age limit legal?
STERN: I know the age limit is legal.
FORD: What specifically makes you think it's legal?
STERN: Because it's my area of law, and I know it's legal.
FORD: I graduated from law school. You can't get specific?
STERN: We've litigated it. Wood vs. NBA. Brown vs. NFL. I could give you a brief that you can go and study. There is no question that an age limit negotiated as part of a collective bargaining agreement is legal.
FORD: The Maurice Clarett decision doesn't affect that at all?
STERN: No. It's a lower court decision. It's wrong.
FORD: Isn't there other ways, besides an age limit, to address the problem of kids coming into the league too young? Have you thought about a real minor league? About allowing teams to send young players to the D league to speed up their development?
STERN: Yes. Very much. That's a subject for collective bargaining. We can't do that unilaterally.
FORD: That's something you want to happen?
STERN: Yes, and I think it's something that the union may want to happen. The issue is, in pure monetary terms, how do you get a payoff on your investment? To the extent that you have development of players, it's good.
A lot of people, I see it beginning to percolate. They say, 'You know what I think? I think we should have 15 teams, not six. I think that two NBA teams should share a NBDL team to focus on developing youngsters who would otherwise be sitting on the bench and being unhappy.'
FORD: And you're for that?
STERN: I think it should be driven by basketball considerations. I'm for it if the coaches and general managers are for it. To the extent that we can develop and ultimately provide an environment on a national basis where the kind of coaching, training, nutrition and life skills can be taught to youngsters, I think that has something to contribute to the game. I have a feeling that the union leadership will feel the same way.
FORD: From a marketing standpoint, that also seems like a coup for the league. Fan interest isn't very high in the D league. For the fans to be able to watch young draft picks like Darko Milicic actually get a chance to play would actually turn into more revenue (in the form of ticket sales and TV viewership) for the league.
STERN: I would tell you that we've demonstrated over the first three years that it's not about the money. It's about the development. Our (developmental) league has been picked clean of executives, of referees, of players by our league and the teams. That's the good news. We're going to make the investment, because developing PR folks, referees, marketing folks, coaches, I think that's great. I suppose we'd sell a few more tickets, but this is the mother lode, the D league is about development.
FORD: Is it feasible to get to 15 NBDL league teams?
STERN: I think it's very feasible. I think you'll see us in the course of the next several years go from the south. You will see eventually a Northeastern pod, a Midwestern pod and a Pacific pod. And possibly a Southwestern pod as we fine tune it. We are just getting it right now. We'll be expanding it, over the years, dramatically beyond the Southeast. We actually picked the most difficult area of the country to start, without a minor league basketball tradition, but a good college tradition. We've obviously learned a lot. I think the next phase would be the Midwest or the Northeast.
FORD: How far along is that?
STERN: We've already begun discussions about the next area [to expand to].
FORD: Would that take away your objections to younger players leaving for the NBA? Does the league really need an age limit if a system like you described was in place and giving players the development that they needed both on and off the court?
STERN: It might. It might. We'd just have to see. It depends upon the union. It's one of a number of moving pieces that has to be worked on to get the right picture. Because frankly, a main concern is the notion of kids, young kids, that the NBA is where they're going to end up. To the extent that they focus on the fact that they could end up in the D league as their career end -- I'm not sure that's what they want. They want to go to the big league, and they just don't have enough opportunity for them to go to the big league. So I don't necessarily like that much.
FORD: You can't blame the kids that want to come out, especially the kids with real financial concerns and troubles?
STERN: Correct. I agree. ... You're wearing me out.
Mutombo still saving the world, one country at a time
It was no surprise to see our friend, and the NBA's top humanitarian, Dikembe Mutombo at the Basketball Without Borders event. Mutombo has been the leading force in the league for years when it comes to providing aid and basketball clinics to underprivileged kids in Africa and around the world.
Last year Mutombo began construction of a hospital in his home country of the Congo. He also donated $100,000 to the Ithuteng Trust as part of the NBA's Africa 100 camp.
The league announced that in addition to returning to South Africa for the second consecutive year, they'll also go to Brazil this year to hold the first ever Basketball Without Borders camp in South America. Mutombo told Insider he'll be there.
"It was an invitation from Nene to help him expand Basketball Without Borders to his homeland," Mutombo told Insider. "It's a great opportunity."
Mutombo has never traveled to Brazil, but does speak fluent Portuguese.
"I love to be out helping in the summer," Mutombo said. "I think we're making a big difference. A lot relates to my own life and the people that reached out to me when I was young and tried to make sure I succeeded in basketball and in my life. Every night when I go to sleep I always feel an obligation to those who didn't make it and for those who have a chance to make it. I came from poverty, I know what poverty is like so I can explain that to them."
While Mutombo is ecstatic about what the league is doing overseas, he's concerned about the flood of young players coming into the league.
"It's been bothering me a lot. I understand why they are leaving. I understand their financial responsibilities. The big concern I have is that there is life after basketball. What if they get injured and can't perform at that level anymore. What is the package you have left that guarantees you success in life? Do you have an understanding of outside life? Georgetown gave me all the tools to succeed in the NBA and in life."
How would a minor league work?
There's been a movement among GMs for some time to see the league turn the NBDL into something that looks more like a real minor league. Insider first wrote about the issue in January, and since then it's been gaining steam.
Back in January, we talked to several prominent GMs about what they'd like to see Stern do in the next few years. The collective bargaining agreement is being renegotiated as we speak, and many GMs were against a straight 20-year-old age limit. Instead, they felt that a minor league system would address most, if not all, of the issues teams were currently facing.
Every GM Insider polled was in favor of some system that allows teams to send young players to a farm team to gain experience. While most agreed that a 29-team minor league system modeled after Major League Baseball wasn't financially feasible, a reworking of the NBDL would help solve the problem. Currently, players under NBA contract are not allowed to play in the NBDL. Many GMs support a system in which each NBDL team serves as a farm team for NBA teams.
What the GMs are looking for:
Each NBA team would send young players to a designated NBDL team, along with an assistant coach to monitor the players' development. If the league expands to 15 teams, two NBA teams would share each NBDL team.
If the player was a first-round pick, he'd continue to be paid at the rookie wage scale. If the player was a second-round pick or free agent, he would have a split contract that paid him different amounts depending on whether he was in the NBA or NBDL.
Teams retain the rights to all of their players and could recall them at any time.
The move likely would coincide with the expansion of the NBA draft to more than the current two rounds. If teams have a place to put players for whom they don't have roster spots, they could theoretically own the rights to more players. Some GMs believe such a system actually would curb the flow of young players into the league. If a teenager knew there was a chance he could be stuck in the D league for a few years, college or international play may be more appealing.
Someone is going to have to pay for such a league, and you can bet Stern won't foot the bill for 15 D league teams on his own. Don't be shocked if teams were charged a yearly "participation fee" (in the millions) for the right to call up or send down players to their designated D league team.
What are the likely objections from the union? Historically, the fear has been the coaches could use the league as some sort of punishment for veterans. The players union definitely wants to limit the types of players who could be sent to the D league.
One idea would be that players with more than three years' experience under the NBA umbrella couldn't be assigned to the NBDL against their will. However a veteran coming off an injury or in a slump could ask to spend time in the D league at their choosing.
Another idea the union could push for is that teams could never send first-round picks down without the player's consent.
The union also probably would limit the amount of time a team can keep lower picks down in the NBDL without calling them up to the pros. The union is obviously in favor of increasing player movement and giving players opportunities to make the NBA with other teams, even if they can't crack the top 12 on the team that drafted them. They likely would insist a team call up a player after two or three years or lose their rights to him.