By Larry Fine
BARCELONA, Spain (Reuters) - When Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird hit Barcelona 20 years ago they ushered in a new era of Olympic basketball, their Dream Team of NBA stars firing the imagination of hoopsters around the globe.
Now the 2012 U.S. team led by LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant are using Barcelona as their last stop before beginning defense of their title in London, with the future makeup of Olympic tournaments up in the air.
USA Basketball chief Jerry Colangelo acknowledged that the wheels were in motion for a "sea change" to shift basketball's showcase global event from the Olympic stage to a World Cup format patterned after the enormously popular world soccer tournament, but cautioned there were speed bumps ahead.
"I understand some of the logic relative to the consideration of change. But I also am a realist that it takes many parties to come to the table and agree internationally, let alone within your own country," Colangelo told Reuters.
"Those kind of decisions usually take time."
The International Basketball Federation (FIBA) got the ball rolling in January by changing the name of the world championship to the FIBA World Cup starting with the 2014 tournament in Spain.
"This new name reflects the prestige that our tournament has as a premier international competition...one of the biggest global sporting events, along with the FIFA World Cup, the Rugby World Cup and the Cricket World Cup," FIBA Secretary General Patrick Baumann said in making the announcement.
That led to conjecture that FIBA would also like to follow the soccer model in the Olympics, where under-23 teams compete with up to three exceptions allowed for older players.
Colangelo, while watching the U.S. team practice at Palau Sant Jordin before their exhibition games against Argentina and Spain, said the issues were not tied to competitive balance or concerns over the stress on NBA players after a long pro season.
"I think it's primarily financial," said Colangelo, former owner of the National Basketball Association's Phoenix Suns.
"I think the soccer model of FIFA and the World Cup has been so successful and has generated enormous revenues that it's something to at least look at."
While the Olympics is a 12-team event, including the host nation, the World Cup is comprised of twice as many teams with games played in six different Spanish cities, and the tournament could expand to 32 teams going forward.
NBA commissioner David Stern has talked openly about a possible shift to an under-23 team for future Olympics, fueling speculation that the North American league would seek to forge a deal with FIBA to share in World Cup revenues.
In Olympic basketball, the International Olympic Committee controls the tournament and most of the revenues.
"Is there an impact on the Olympics? It definitely has had an impact on the Olympics relative to soccer," noted Colangelo. "They do have an age limitation with exceptions."
Colangelo said there was a lot to be negotiated if there was to be what he called a "sea change."
"If there's going to be some age limit on the Olympics, how many exceptions and what's the age? Is it 23 or 25-and-unders? And what about the players? Many of our players have been outspoken, they think it should be the players' decision. They've loved the (Olympic) experiences.
"You can't make that kind of a decision in a vacuum. You have to weigh all of the people involved in this process."
Colangelo said that while Olympic basketball had always held a greater interest for Americans than the world championship, other countries considered the larger tournament more important.
"I'm not against change. I think change is healthy in life, but not change for change sake," he said.
"Money is one of the objectives, and maybe for some people it's the most important. Other people might prioritize it differently."
Colangelo said that for the time being other things weighed heavier on his mind.
"My position is there is a time and place for discussions and for us it's post-Olympics. Our focus is on our job, which is to win another gold medal."
(Reporting by Larry Fine; Editing by Justin Palmer)