Kobe Bryant has made a strong attack on plans by the NBA to pull basketball's top players out of future Olympic Games and model the competition on the under-23 format - declaring that it is intended only to "protect the investment" of club owners.
The five-times NBA champion, who has arrived with USA team in Manchester to prepare for a defence of the 2008 Olympic title, said of the proposal: "It's stupid, a stupid idea" and he declared that it would devalue the Olympic spirit.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the original United States 'Dream Team', featuring Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, that won gold in Barcelona in the first year NBA players took part, a team widely credited with helping spark the global popularity of the sport. But though the game's biggest stars are in line to play in London, plans recently floated by NBA commissioner David Stern and his deputy Adam Silver could make it the last Games in which they feature.
Before a reception at Manchester town hall to welcome the players who play the GB Olympic side in the city on Thursday, Bryant said: "There hasn't been much discussion about it. Our discussion is this: basically it is just a dumb idea and we disseminate [that view] it this way." Asked if the idea would degrade the Olympic competition, he said: "Absolutely, from a basketball perspective. The Olympics is putting the best athletes out there. I heard about this a while ago and I was thankful they haven't thought about doing that now because if they were I wouldn't be able to play now because I'm 27 years old. I personally would like it be your own decision. Playing the Olympics has been the greatest decision of my life so I like to have the option to do it."
Bryant said of club owners that the idea was designed "to protect their investments" - by preventing players from returning injured for the new season. But he insisted that players were under less risk of injury by playing in the Olympics.
"If you look at us, guys who are injured here [in the Olympic squad] get treatment around the clock," he said. "We have the best training staff, coaches who are here monitoring us. If our owners or NBA coaches want to contact us and see how we are doing, they can easily come to a practice. They can easily talk to the training staff - as opposed to guys disappearing for the summer and coming back overweight."
Those left to their own plans in the close-season would "come back overweight," Bryant said. "You don't know where you are, you are playing pick-up basketball with people anyway, you get injured, you don't have the right staff. If I was an owner I would much rather my players played on a USA Olympic team."
Outlining the NBA plans at a press conference in May, Silver said there were fears of player burn-out. "Owners have raised repeatedly the issue of our players playing in essence year round when you add the Olympics to our newly renamed World Cup of Basketball (formerly the FIBA World Championship).So when you have the Olympics, the World Cup of Basketball, we are taking a very close look at whether it makes sense from an NBA standpoint and a global basketball standpoint for the top players to be playing at that level on a year-round basis, and somewhere (every) summer."
Silver said the NBA is planning talks with USA Basketball and FIBA following the London Olympics to discuss the matter. Olympic football squads are made up of under-23 players, with a maximum of three 'overage' players in the group.