O'Neal Hopes to Help U.S. Back to Top of the World

by Jeff Tzucker
by Conrad Brunner

August 15, 2003

Some moments, you cherish forever. Others, you try to erase as quickly as possible. The 2002 World Basketball Championship fit into the latter category for Jermaine O'Neal.

Rather than enjoying conquering hero status in the event staged in his professional hometown of Indianapolis, O'Neal and the rest of his U.S. teammates - including fellow Pacers player Reggie Miller - suffered the embarrassment of three losses. They were the first ever suffered by the U.S. since NBA players began stocking the national team's roster more than a decade ago.

"I threw everything away from USA Basketball," O'Neal said. "It's one of those memories that you don't ever want to remember again, so hopefully winning the gold medal can really erase that. I know it's not going to erase that in the records, but it can erase the memory for me."

It is because of that failure in the WBC that O'Neal and a re-constructed U.S. team has been going through training camp in New York this week in preparation for the opening round of the FIBA Tournament of the Americas next week in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The U.S. must finish no worse than third in the tournament to qualify for a spot in the Olympics. Among the chief competition is Argentina, the first team to beat the U.S. in the WBC, Brazil and Puerto Rico.

After an exhibition against Puerto Rico tonight in Madison Square Garden, the U.S. heads to San Juan, where the first game comes Wednesday night against Brazil.

"It gives us an opportunity to redeem ourselves and put ourselves back on top of the world," O'Neal said. "We understand the rest of the world has gotten better but we still figure we’ve got the best athletes in the world. The only way to prove that is to go out and play to win."

This roster is very different from the one that struggled in the WBC. In fact, O'Neal and Elton Brand are the only players back from that group. Headliners for the U.S. include Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, Jason Kidd and Karl Malone.

Even though many of the NBA's biggest stars bypassed the WBC, a lack of talent wasn't the problem for the U.S. The team struggled from a lack of cohesion and was picked apart by international squads that have trained, and competed, together for years.

"We feel we are the world's best athletes," O'Neal said. "And especially how we lost last year (in the WBC), we didn't just lose, I don't think we lost with class. We lost and started pointing fingers as to why we lost. You win and lose games as a team and I think we should have just taken our beating and prepared for this year. This year's team, I think we've already X'd out losing in our vocabulary. We haven't talked about what if we lose. We've talked about winning it and being impressive at winning."

From the first day of practice, coach Larry Brown has stressed the fundamentals of winning in international competition: teamwork, ball movement and defense.

"We have to play like a basketball team and not an all-star team," Brown said. "We have to keep working on that because they're all great players in their own right, but we have to learn to share the ball, play basketball, and that's going to be our challenge.

"They're great guys, great players. They're trying very hard to become a team and play the right way. There's a lot of responsibility, too. You hope you give them an opportunity to play as well as they're capable of playing, but also to show kids that these guys, as great as they are, can play the right way - show people what a great team game we have if we play it the right way."

O'Neal played in eight of the nine WBC games, starting five, and produced averages of 19.4 minutes, 7.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocked shots. He missed the final loss to Spain with a sprained left ankle.

Individual statistics in this competition, he said, are meaningless. All that matters is rebuilding the U.S. image in international basketball.

Asked what role he envisioned, O'Neal said he'd do "whatever I can do to help the team. I think that's what matters most."

"If we go into this just thinking about winning as a team," he said, "and not worrying about individual stats ­ because we are going to get those when we go back to our respective teams ­ our ultimate goal is to win a gold medal in the qualifications and get to the Olympics and put ourselves back on top of the world."