O'Neal Invited to Join Iverson on Olympic Team

by Conrad Brunner

Indianapolis - Jermaine O'Neal has been invited to join the U.S. team that will attempt to qualify for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. Though O'Neal has yet to officially accept, he made it clear Friday morning he is anxious for the chance to redeem the country's basketball reputation.

The U.S. finished a staggering sixth in the 2002 World Basketball Championship in Indianapolis. O'Neal, who averaged 7.3 points and 4.5 rebounds in eight games, including five starts, is the lone member of that team thus far invited to participate on the Olympic qualifying group.

"To lose the way we lost, the other countries now think they can compete," O'Neal said. "Other countries have gotten better but the team we're going to throw out there this time is going to be the real-deal team. Not saying the last team wasn't the best, we had a lot of All-Stars, also, but we just didn't play together as a team. Hopefully all the players on this team are playoff-type players that know how to win tough games and championship games."

O'Neal and Philadelphia guard Allen Iverson, who accepted his invitation Thursday, join Seattle guard Ray Allen, San Antonio forward Tim Duncan, New Jersey guard Jason Kidd and Orlando forward Tracy McGrady on the U.S. team. Three more NBA players are expected to be added to what USA Basketball has dubbed the "core group" of the team, with speculation centering on the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, Sacramento's Mike Bibby and Utah's Karl Malone.

The U.S. team's stunningly poor finish in the World Basketball Championship means it will be forced to qualify for an Olympic berth. The top three teams from the FIBA Tournament of the Americas (Aug. 20-31 in San Juan, Puerto Rico) will earn spots in Athens, Greece.

O'Neal said he has some reservations about committing to two weeks of training camp and at least one exhibition game before the zone qualifying tournament because of wear and tear on his body. This will mark the third consecutive summer in international competition for O'Neal, who helped lead the U.S. to a gold medal in the 2001 Goodwill Games. Assuming the U.S. team is among the three qualifiers to advance to Athens, that would bring a fourth consecutive summer of international competition for O'Neal.

"It's hard because I'm going through a lot now that I've never been through," O'Neal said. "My knee's hurting unbelievably, my ankle's hurting unbelievably, my body is taking a little longer to heal and you can see I'm still wearing the arm pad. My ankles are taped heavily every day now. That's an issue with me. I'm not looking at playing three straight summers but four straight summers and that's unheard-of for most NBA athletes."

Despite the extra physical stress, O'Neal has come back better from each of his two previous international experiences. Following the 2001 Goodwill Games, he enjoyed his breakthrough NBA season with averages of 19.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.31 blocked shots in 2001-02. Despite the disappointment of the 2002 World Basketball Championship, O'Neal has again raised his level of play, averaging 20.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.36 blocks for the Pacers this season.

"It's awesome for him simply because coming out of last summer there were a lot of questions about him as a man, not necessarily his play," said coach Isiah Thomas. "The changes that he's made in his person has been rewarded, and his play always speaks for itself. The character he's exhibited during these times speaks volumes for him.

"I think there will be a strain but it'll be well worth it. Any time you have a chance to represent your country and be on an Olympic team, it's the highest honor you can receive."

USA Basketball has not yet announced the additions of O'Neal and Iverson. Reports of the selections leaked to the media Thursday evening and have not been confirmed by the governing body.

"It's not necessarily official right now," O'Neal said. "I've been invited but I haven't really talked to them much. I haven't signed any papers or anything yet so I'm not officially on the team yet.

"It's not really my top concern right now. My concern is the Pacers getting into the playoffs and doing well. As the year progresses we're going to talk a little more and they're going to get a feel for me and I'll get a feel for them. But I'm honored, if I do play, to play on the Olympic team."