At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Utah Jazz will have its three brightest stars competing for their national teams quite an honor to have a quarter of its 12-member roster featured on the world's largest stage, but also a worry that an injury or extended wear and tear during the NBA's offseason could adversely impact the prospects of the franchise's upcoming season and the short- and long-term availability of its cornerstone players.
It's one thing to welcome back to EnergySolutions Arena the likes of U.S. team members Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer or Russia standout Andrei Kirilenko sporting Summer Games medals. It's another to have them come back sporting crutches, a cast, a scar, a limp or a lingering ailment or simply just being worse for wear.
Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan admits there's always concern a standout player could get hurt leading up to or during the Olympics.
"That's the price we pay but you can't do anything about it," he said. "But you don't just replace players of that caliber nobody's going to give you players."
The Jazz have previous experience with players participating in the Olympics (see accompanying box on D3). So you can forgive Sloan and the Jazz their worries, since they've already suffered through one such nightmare.
Former Utah standout point guard John Stockton who along with Jazz teammate Karl Malone played in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics suffered an undisplaced fracture of his right fibula when he was accidentally kneed by Michael Jordan in a exhibition game against Canada prior to the 1992 Barcelona Games.
The injury wasn't considered career-threatening, with the only concern being Stockton's threshold of pain if he continued to play. He remained on the team under medical supervision and ended up playing in pain a reduced role with limited minutes as the Dream Team cruised to the '92 gold medal.
Stockton wasn't the only American who was ailing heading into Barcelona. After just one week of pre-Olympic practice and three lopsided exhibition wins, the U.S. infirmary list included Stockton, Patrick Ewing (dislocated finger), Clyde Drexler (sore knee) and Larry Bird (chronic back pains).
"We've gone through some struggles with that in the past," said Sloan of Olympic wear and tear, adding that he gave Stockton and Malone more rest and less on-court time in the training camps and exhibition games after their Olympic stints.
"I'd just try to accommodate their needs as much as possible," he said. "It's a fine line from the coach's standpoint, but we're not perfect. You try to work that so they have an opportunity to be ready and not as worn out."
As much as worrying about Olympics-related injuries, Sloan is also wary of pushing Olympians too hard and too much after the Games where they might get injured in camp or exhibitions or come back emotionally drained.
Williams doesn't see his Olympics debut as a potential danger, especially after playing for the United States at the 2007 FIBA Americas Championships.
"Even last year, I never played more than 17 minutes a game because our team was so deep and so talented," he said. "I work out hard anyways, about two to three times a day, so it's just the same thing only against better competition."
One advantage Sloan admits seeing in Olympic participation is increased experience, associations with fellow superstars and competing against the world's best.
Kirilenko said it isn't hard to return to the rigors of a long, demanding NBA season after a summer of international competition.
"Even more than that, it helps you a little bit because even before the training came, you come back in shape, in game shape you kind of feel already in the rhythm," the Russian star said.
He cited last fall, when he returned to Jazz camp after leading Russia to the 2007 European Championships title. "This year, I was feeling so great in the preseason camp game-shape-wise," he said.
Sloan always holds out hopes for the Summer Games' silver lining."Some of these players, maybe all of a sudden the light goes on in their head and they come out and go through the summer and work real hard and maybe they come back and play better that's the only way you can do it," the Jazz coach said.
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