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Ring or medal: Team USA campers want both

A slew of the NBA's top players in Las Vegas are fueled by the big goals

POSTED: Aug 13, 2015 10:38 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Stephen Curry and Chris Paul: Each has a type of major basketball title the other doesn't.

LAS VEGAS -- Even literally, any attempt to compare an Olympic gold medal and an NBA championship ring requires some agreement on the criteria.

In heft, the medal wins easily, with some in recent years -- those awarded at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, for instance -- weighing in at approximately 1.1 pounds. Even the most garish, paperweight-sized championship rings barely top 4 ounces.

All-Access: Curry at USAB practice

Listen in as Stephen Curry wears a mic to the second day of USA Basketball practice.

In raw materials, the diamonds that encrust the precious metal forged into the rings awarded to NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL champions can push the cost upwards of $20,000. The actual gold in Olympic medals, depending on the market at any given time, usually would be worth less than a thousand.

The true value, of course, of such medals and rings comes from what they represent and reward, all the striving and hours and sweat, some of which was on display this week during the Team USA men's basketball minicamp on the UNLV campus.

That's where the scale turns more emotional and sentimental, the choice -- gold medal vs. championship ring -- more personal. And in some cases, thoroughly difficult.

"I would say winning an NBA championship probably is the main thing," Houston center Dwight Howard, a member of the U.S. squad that triumphed at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. "But being in the Olympics for your country, playing with the best of the best and against the world, also is a great honor. Either one is good. I would rather ... it's hard to choose which one. That's tough."

Given the setting -- an offseason gathering of players and coaches with an eye on the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, detached for the moment from their day jobs -- the politic response when spoke to several NBA stars was to shade toward the gold medal. The easy answer, of course, was "Both."

"Why not? I definitely want both," said point guard Chris Paul, who likely will pursue his third Olympic gold in Rio. "There are so many guys who played in this league over the years who never had this opportunity, to ever put on one of these uniforms, let alone play for a gold medal.

"They're both important. I haven't had an opportunity to win an NBA championship, which is still a goal of mine. But this right here is pretty special also. There's only a few guys who can say they ever played in the Olympics and actually won a gold medal. So it's pretty cool."

USA Basketball: Chris Paul

Chris Paul speaks with the Real Training Camp crew at the USA Basketball event in Las Vegas.

It's fairly rare, too.

Of the 34 players who were on the USA Basketball roster when the week began, nine have won one or more Olympic gold medals. Nine more have gold medals courtesy of their participation in the FIBA World Cup tournament, traditionally held in the even-numbered, non-Olympic summers.

Six players have earned NBA championship rings, with four of them -- Golden State's Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green -- due to get theirs on opening night Oct. 27 against New Orleans at Oracle Arena. San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard got his last year.

Only Cleveland's LeBron James, of all those currently involved with Team USA, owns both an NBA championship ring and an Olympic gold medal. In fact, he has multiples of both. James won two rings with the Miami Heat in 2012 and 2013. And he has two Olympic golds (2008, 2012), one Olympic bronze (2004), as well as a World Games bronze (2006).

Curry (2010, 2014) and Thompson (2014) won World Cup gold medals but haven't participated in an Olympics.

As for the five players summoned to flesh out the rosters for Thursday night's event -- Arron Afflalo, Amir Johnson, Terrance Jones, Elfrid Payton and C.J. Watson -- none of those "extras" for the "intrasquad" scrimmage has won either Olympic gold or an NBA title.

GameTime: USAB first practice

NBA TV's Steve Smith and Stu Jackson give their thoughts on the first day of the USAB training camp.

"Just knowing I won two championships in one year, it's been such a surreal year," Thompson said. "Obviously we want to get another ring. But next summer, if I can get an Olympic gold medal, it'd be a dream come true."

No kidding, said Clippers center DeAndre Jordan. "As kids, we all dreamt about playing in the Olympics and winning a gold medal. And we thought about winning an NBA championship," he said "Those two things are bigger than us as individuals, and I think this is bigger than everybody. Playing, having a chance to represent your country is huge."

James has been involved with USA Basketball since his rookie NBA season. He has played in the past five NBA Finals, and he's not close to being done in his Hall of Fame-bound career. But he did play along momentarily, looking back to assess the relative satisfaction of winnings medals vs. rings.

"If I ended my career right now," James said, "I would say it's been a success both in the NBA and in the international play with Team USA. Couldn't ask for more. I've been very blessed to be a part of some great teams, both internationally and in the NBA. So it's been a good ride for me so far."

Blake Griffin missed out on the 2012 London Games after suffering a knee injury in a pre-Olympics workout that summer. Thus, an ambition got put on hold, one he had nurtured since he put a poster of the original 1992 Dream Team on the wall above his bed "literally from the time I was about 8 until I left for college."

But he and his Los Angeles Clippers teammates, including Paul and Jordan, still are chasing the rings James, Leonard and all those Warriors already have won. Griffin wasn't willing to choose between the goals.

"That's not something I would ever compare or put on a scale, to be honest," the All-Star power forward said. "When you play basketball, the ultimate goal is to win the ultimate honor. So when you're playing in the Olympics, the ultimate honor is the gold medal. When you're playing in the league, the ultimate goal is to win a championship. So it's not something I would compare and say, 'I would rather have a gold medal than an NBA championship.' Or vice versa. You want both."

Griffin did speak eloquently about both. Winning in the NBA, he said, is the culmination of a long, grinding schedule during which teammates navigate ups and downs and ideally come together at the right time to nail down their championship. Team USA is about representing one's country and filling roles, sometimes sacrificing, among the best players in the world.

"I can't sit here and say, 'When I'm 60 years old, I'm going to appreciate this more than this.' Because I don't know," Griffin said.

Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook helped Team USA win gold in the 2010 FIBA World championship and in London two years later. But they still are seeking their first NBA title after making one trip to the Finals in 2012.

As one of the many players who has had the misfortune, perhaps, of living through the LeBron/San Antonio Spurs era and who had a brush with athletic mortality via last season's foot surgery, Durant took more of a macro approach to the medal vs. ring question.

"To be honest, with me, anything you work hard towards getting in life is rewarding," he said. "To know that it's not going to be easy, to know that we can't just walk through, breeze through and not take [international competition] seriously, I think that's what makes it even more fun. Knowing that we're fighting against the Pau Gasols, Marc Gasols, Serge Ibakas, those guys throughout the league."

Durant added: "Of course you always want to win a title in the NBA. That's the main goal. But to win a gold medal, it's right up there. I also think, after an NBA career, if you don't have both, knowing that you gave it everything you had and you walked out on your terms, that's good enough as well."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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