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Blake Griffin’s knee injury raises concerns about superstars playing in Olympics

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LAS VEGAS — The exact moment when Los Angeles Clippers all-star forward Blake Griffin suffered the knee injury that derailed his quest for an Olympic gold medal remains unknown, but his forced withdrawal from the U.S. men’s national basketball team has renewed concerns over whether NBA players should participate in international competitions.

Griffin left practice with Team USA because of an injury on Wednesday — the same day he signed a five-year, $95 million contract extension with the Clippers — and has since been replaced by Anthony Davis, the No. 1 overall draft pick of the New Orleans Hornets.

“That’s a big loss,” U.S. Coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Griffin after Team USA thrashed the Dominican Republic, 113-59, Thursday night at Thomas and Mack Center. “Blake was playing really well for us.”

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been one of the most outspoken critics of the Dream Team concept and recently called the continued use of free superstar labor for the Olympic team the “epitome of stupidity” since owners assume most of the risk if their multimillion dollar investments get injured.

Cuban has recently found an ally in none other than NBA Commissioner David Stern, who played an instrumental role in opening the door for Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and other Hall of Famers to suit up for the Olympics in 1992. Stern has constantly trumpeted those players’ roles in the globalization of the game. More recently, however, he has suggested that FIBA, the sport’s international governing body, should switch to a model similar to one used in soccer, selecting players age 23 and under to participate in the Olympics while allowing veterans to play in the world championships.

“This is not just a response to Mark Cuban,” Stern said during the NBA Finals. “In fact, usually when Mark says something, I try to go the other way. But actually when he is right about something, he may actually be right, and here I think he actually has a point. I really do.”

For members of the current Olympic team, the lure of a gold medal far outweighs the risk of injury when considering participation in the event.

USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo contends that success on the world stage has spurred improved individual performances and a better overall NBA product. Kobe Bryant went on to win back-to-back NBA championships and LeBron James won back-to-back most valuable player awards after claiming the gold medal in the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Derrick Rose won an MVP award and both Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook made their first all-star appearances after winning gold medals in the 2010 world championships.

Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, James’s teammates with the NBA champion Miami Heat, both had to withdraw from the Olympic team because of injuries; Wade had surgery on his left knee and Bosh needed time to recover from an abdominal strain suffered during the postseason. But James, the regular season and Finals MVP, said he never considered backing out of his commitment to the national team, though he has previously participated in two Olympics and the world championships.

“I told myself, as long as I stay healthy through the playoffs and the regular season I was going to be a part of this team. I think I finished the season pretty strong,” said James, refusing to give much credence to the dangers of playing international basketball in the offseason. “That only comes up when someone gets hurt. You can get hurt doing anything. You can get hurt in the summertime just working out as well.”

Bryant is playing in his second Olympics and echoed James’s sentiment, adding that he preferred the structure of highly competitive basketball in the summer.

“I could get hurt just as easily playing pickup basketball in the gym somewhere,” Bryant said. “Here, I’m playing with the best in the world and I have the best treatment in the world. So, I feel safer here.”

Bryant and Colangelo both argued that the injuries to Griffin and to a lesser extentChris Paul — who sprained his right thumb in Team USA’s first practice — were sustained before they arrived in Las Vegas. Griffin sprained his left knee against Memphis in the first round of the NBA playoffs and labored through a second-round series against San Antonio.

Griffin’s injury is the latest for a team that has also had Wade, Bosh, Rose, Chauncey Billups, LaMarcus Aldridge and Dwight Howard withdraw because of physical ailments. Lamar Odom, one of the 20 players invited to try out for the Olympic team, backed out to concentrate on the upcoming season.

“Hopefully, we won’t have any [new] injuries,” Bryant said. “This is our way to provide service to our country and we’re going to go out here and try to represent the USA the best way we know how.”

Griffin dazzled in early practices with the Olympic team with his electrifying dunks, then left for one practice to negotiate his contract with the Clippers. But on Wednesday, Griffin appeared to aggravate the injury during a collision with Wizards guard John Wall. Wall’s right foot stepped on Griffin’s left foot, causing Griffin’s left knee to twist and buckle awkwardly. Moments later in practice, Griffin attempted to elevate for a two-handed dunk but came up lame.

He immediately leaned over and grabbed his left knee when he landed. A trainer was later seen placing Griffin’s knee in a brace. After feeling some soreness and swelling in his knee on Thursday, Griffin returned to Los Angeles to meet with Clippers trainers and discovered that the injury would require surgery.

“He showed no indication of any problem at all since he’s been here. Obviously, he may have tweaked it,” Colangelo said. “We’ve never had any injuries in USA Basketball. The injuries take place during the season, so we adjust in terms of how our players practice and how they’re played because they’re valuable assets.”

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