I don’t agree with or like Kobe Bryant all that much. I thought it was funny when he said the current Olympic team could beat the 1992 Dream Team, and a variety of numbers back up his ridiculousness. But Kobe did get one thing right about the Olympics: it would be stupid to limit players to being under 23.
David Stern apparently suggested this for two main reasons: one is that when players play in the Olympics they risk injury and the other is that the NBA would like to emphasize the newly-named World Cup of Basketball, which the NBA/its owners may be able to profit from (and would not be subject to the age rule).
The first reason, as Kobe mentioned, is silly on its face. If guys weren’t playing in the Olympics, it isn’t like they’d be at home sitting in padded rooms to avoid injury. They’d be playing basketball anyway, or at least exercising. Maybe they’d be riding mopeds. Unless you think that playing basketball is dramatically more dangerous than whatever those guys would be up to anyway (and, as Kobe noted, they have access to all the Olympic team trainers and preventative medicine right now), the Olympics don’t really increase anyone’s chances of getting hurt.
The second reason is presumably more likely. Mark Cuban has talked before about how the Olympics are basically a risk for NBA owners with little upside, since a player can get hurt while the guys who pay them gain nothing. This isn’t 100% true, since Olympic fame can presumably help players once they return to their NBA teams. And as far as it goes, I can buy Olympic gear from the NBA.com store right now if I want to. But there’s a reason that (should, at least) trump the owners and their profits: winning.
Playing in the Olympics is an issue of national pride for many people. For those who don’t play in the Olympics, watching your country do well is an issue of national pride. Since NBA players were allowed on the Olympic basketball team, victory has been taken as granted for the US. When the 2000 team only won their semifinal game by 2 points, it was a shock. When the 2002 FIBA team came in sixth, it was a disgrace. In 2004, despite efforts to create a team with some continuity, the team took the bronze. These efforts were viewed as not good enough, and so Jerry Colangelo was put in charge. His main step was to make players commit to playing for the team for a number of years; the goal was to establish continuity and familiarity so that the US team could compete with other countries where the players are together for years before the Olympics. That seemed to work pretty well, since the US won the gold again in 2008 with the Redeem Team.
Continuity is one reason why the under-23 rule makes no sense. If the architect of our national team has decided that it’s important, you can’t add an age rule. It’s easy to see why: players would rarely have the opportunity to be in more than one four-year competition. If a player could participate at age 23, four years prior he would have to be 19. And that would be it, if he was even good enough to make the team at age 19. The age rule will pretty much throw team continuity out the window. And maybe that idea of ‘if he could even make the team’ will stick with you, because that’s another big problem with the under-23 rule. Two words for you: age curve. Basketball players don’t appear to hit their peak until around 25. So if you still dedicate the US team to NBA players, we won’t even be sending the best available (or the best of those willing to go). Limiting team members to those under 23 (or 23 and under, whichever) is depriving the US team of its best players and continuity, two things which are kind of important to winning. And winning the Olympics is the most important thing.
If you look at how Team USA has done historically, it is obvious that the Olympics are the most important competition. The US has only not won the gold three times and has never done worse than third. In the FIBA World Championship, on the other hand, the US has only won four times; it’s actually finished out of the medal positions more often. It might be due to the players, USA basketball, or just dumb luck, but the Olympics are what is important. To the casual fan, it’s almost certainly more important; your random American will watch the Olympics and might catch some basketball whereas he or she will probably not turn on the World Cup of anything. If the US wants to continue its winning ways, and its international relevancy in basketball amongst casual fans, it certainly would be stupid to put in an age rule.