by Conrad Brunner
September 2, 2003
For Jermaine O’Neal, this was only the first step in the redemption process.
Granted, it was a pretty big step, and he played a major role, but winning the gold medal in the Tournament of the Americas Olympic qualifying tournament on Sunday night in San Juan, PR, wasn’t the end-game for O’Neal.
"This feels pretty good,” he said, “but I won't feel redemption until I have an Olympic gold medal around my neck. Once I have an Olympic gold medal, then it'll be solidified."
The U.S. wrapped up the gold with a stunning 106-73 blowout of Argentina in the championship game. This was largely the same Argentina team that one year ago became the first to beat a U.S. team with NBA players on the roster in international competition. That upset got the U.S. started toward a humbling sixth-place finish in the 2002 World Basketball Championship in Indianapolis.
But the U.S. team was markedly different. O’Neal and Elton Brand were the only two holdovers from the 2002 WBC roster, while names like Tim Duncan, Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson, Vince Carter and Jason Kidd were added.
"Hopefully, this will let the rest of the world know that we are for real,” O’Neal said. “Argentina is one the premier international teams and we controlled them from start to finish. We exploited them at both ends of the floor. We pretty much shut them down on cuts and screens and got out on our kind of transition offense. But you know they are going to come back. They're going to retool and hopefully next summer we can get the same outcome."
O’Neal’s inside presence was critical to the cause. In just 19.4 minutes per game, he produced averages of 11.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocked shots. He hit .623 from the field and .765 from the free-throw line, and his overall performance made him one of two U.S. players (Duncan was the other) named first team All-Tournament.
His greatest pleasure, however, came in the team’s accomplishment. Skeptics who doubted the ability of NBA All-Stars to mesh into a cohesive team were shown compelling evidence to the contrary.
“Ultimately, we really showed (in the final) that when we come out and play as a team and follow the game plan on both ends of the floor,” he said, “we are pretty hard to beat.”
The top three finishers in the Tournament of the Americas qualified for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. Joining the U.S. will be Argentina and Puerto Rico.