Aug. 18, 2003 – For Virgin Islands basketball fans, it can't get much better than this.
For 12 days starting Wednesday, Tim Duncan and Raja Bell will be in Puerto Rico battling to qualify for a berth in the 2003 Summer Olympic Games. And they'll be playing on competing teams — Duncan for the United States and Bell for the Virgin Islands.
The occasion is the FIBA Americas Senior Men's Olympic Qualifying Tournament (the FIBA initials are in French for the International Basketball Federation), which opens Wednesday and runs through Aug. 31. There will be a total of 40 games, four a day, all played at the 8,600-seat Roberto Clemente Stadium in the Hato Rey section of San Juan.
Ten teams from North, Central and South America — Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Uruguay, Venezuela and Virgin Islands — are vying to qualify for the Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, a year from now. Three of them will get to do so.
There's only one game where Duncan and Bell are guaranteed to meet — on Saturday at 5:30 p.m., when Team USA meets Team USVI in the first round of play. And tickets are already sold out for that day's action. Whether both teams will advance to the second round of play remains to be seen.
If Team USA doesn't make the cut, it would be the upset of the era. The United States basketball teams have taken the gold medal at 12 of the 14 Olympic Games in which they have competed, including the last three Summer Games.
At the qualifying tourney four years ago for the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia, also held in San Juan, the Yankees went 10-0. The team consisted of Vin Baker, Elton Brand, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Tom Gugliotta, Richard Hamilton, Tim Hardaway, Allan Houston, Jason Kidd, Gary Payton, Steve Smith and Wally Szczerbiak
And in 1992, in Portland, Oregon, they went 6-0 to qualify for the 1994 games in Barcelona, Spain — that was the "Dream Team" of Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Michael Jordan, Christian Laettner, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson and John Stockton.
In the tournament starting Wednesday, the Virgin Islands is David to everybody else's Goliath — representing by far the smallest jurisdiction of any team.
Brazil took first place in this year's South American Championship, followed by Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela. Puerto Rico won the Central American Championship in June, followed by the Dominican Republic, Mexico and the Virgin Islands. And that's how they all ended up in the Americas Olympic Qualifying Tournament. (Why Mexico is included with Central America, rather than North America, is not clear.)
The squeaker of the Central American contest was Puerto Rico's 87-86 win over the Virgin Islands on June 20. For a summary of how the Virgin Islands team did at the tournament in June, see the Latinbasket Web site.
Sen. Usie Richards is president of the V.I. Basketball Federation. His chief of staff, Richard Muhammad, said he was in Puerto Rico on Monday. The V.I. team, which has been practicing on St. Croix for the last week, was scheduled to travel on Puerto Rico on Monday, too.
Duncan, born on St. Croix in 1976, was a member of the Dolphins competitive swim team until 1989, when Hurricane Hugo badly damaged the team's practice facility. Only after that, at the age of 13, did he seriously take up basketball. He graduated from Wake Forest University and joined the Spurs in 1997. Named the NBA's Most Valuable Player in 2002 and 2003, he is the only player since Michael Jordan to win that honor two years in a row. He also was named the NBA Finals MVP in 1999 and again this year, when the Spurs won the NBA Championship.
Bell, also born on St. Croix in 1976, was also a member of the Dolphins swim team. He entered the NBA arena in 2000 as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers and played last season for the Dallas Mavericks. He was awarded the Shaw's Cup in recognition of his extraordinary effort during the 2001 Shaw's Pro Summer League, a weeklong exhibition series.
On the 2003 USA team roster are NBA players Ray Allen (Seattle SuperSonics), Mike Bibby (Sacramento Kings), Elton Brand (Los Angeles Clippers), Kobe Bryant (Los Angeles Lakers), Tim Duncan (San Antonio Spurs), Allen Iverson (Philadelphia 76ers), Richard Jefferson (New Jersey Nets), Jason Kidd (New Jersey Nets), Karl Malone (Utah Jazz), Tracy McGrady (Orlando Magic) and Jermaine O'Neal (Indiana Pacers); and University of Kansas standout and Seattle 2003 NBA draft pick Nick Collison.
Larry Brown (Detroit Pistons), who coached Team USA in 1999, is back as head coach, with Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, Oliver Purnell of Clemson University and Roy Williams of the University of North Carolina as assistant coaches.
Team USA has been practicing in New York City and was scheduled to play an exhibition game against the Puerto Rico team in Madison Square Garden on Friday night. Because of the power outage, it was postponed to Sunday afternoon, when USA rolled over Puerto Rico, 101-74, with Duncan contributing a game-high 21 points and rebounds.
The St. Croix son told the New York Daily News after the game: "I think we've come very far from where we started just through five or six days of practice and a couple exhibition games. Things are starting to fall in place. We have so many guys who can score at any time."
The V.I. team spent the last week practicing at Central High School under the guidance of coach Tevester Anderson, head coach at Jackson State University.
Raja Bell, who made the move this year from the Philadelphia 76ers to the Dallas Mavericks, is by far the best-known of its players. The others include professional players on teams in Europe and the Far East and on Puerto Rico, as well as college students.
Efforts to learn who made the cut on Monday when the team traveled to Puerto Rico were unsuccessful.
In addition to Bell, the preliminary roster listed Faisal Abraham (Marquette University), Marques Brathwaite (Mount Mercy College), Jabahri Brown (University of Oklahoma), Sylvester Charles (Old Dominion University), Jason Edwin (St. Louis University), Akeem Francis (Columbus State University), Leroy Gore (Florida Memorial College), Jerome Gumbs (University of South Florida), Carlos Hawkins (Delaware State University), Jameel Heywood (Gallitos de Isabela/Puerto Rico), Stephen Hodge (Edward Waters College), Vernal Maynard, Marcus Oliver (University of Houston), Omari Peterkin (Notre Dame University), Kitwana Rhymer (University of Massachusetts), Ja Ja Richards (Coamo/Puerto Rico), Kevin Sheppard (Jacksonville University, Avellino/Italy), Carl Thomas III (Aishin/Japan), Leon Trimmingham (Knights/South Korea), David Vanterpool (Avellino and Siena/Italy), Cuthbert Victor (Murray State University), Calvert White (All Eyez on We/The Netherlands) and Jason Williams (University of Alaska-Fairbanks).
For the Puerto Rico tournament schedule, visit the USA Basketball Web site.
Tournament play will be in three rounds. For the first round, Wednesday through Sunday, the 10 teams have been divided into two groups of five teams each. Each team will play round robin with the other four in their group.
The top four finishers in each first round group will advance to the second round, Aug. 25-28, forming a single group and carrying over their results from the first-round games. Each team will play against the four advancing teams from the other first round group. At the conclusion of the second round, the top four placed teams will advance to the semi-finals on Aug. 30.
The No. 1 ranked team will play the No. 4 team, while the No. 2 ranked team will face the No. 3 team. The losers in the semifinals will play for third position and
the semifinal winners will meet in the finals on Aug. 31.
For the 2004 Olympic Games. Greece, as the host country, and Yugoslavia, as winner of the 2002 FIBA World Championship, have automatic berths. The remaining 10 Olympic men's basketball teams are being determined through FIBA's five zone qualifying tournaments. In addition to the Americas, the zones are Africa, Asia, Europe and Oceania.
For tournament ticket information, go to Puerto Rico's English-language ticketpop Web site and click on the Tournament of the Americas banner at the top of the page. Tickets are sold for a full day — giving entrance to all four games, at 2:30, 5:30, 7:30 and 10 p.m.
For the first (Aug. 20-24) and second (Aug. 25-28) rounds, tickets are $16 for general admission, $35 for preferred seating and $50 for box seats, plus service charge. For the semi-finals (Aug. 30) and final (Aug. 31), they go up to $18, $42.50 and $65. For more information, you can call toll-free (866) 994-0001 or (787) 294-0001.
Now here's the bad news: It's too late to get tickets to see the one sure game where Duncan and Bell will face off on the court. As of Monday, the first, second and fourth of the five days in the first round were sold out. The Virgin Islanders have a bye on Wednesday. On Thursday they meet Brazil. And on Saturday they play the United States.
But there's good news, too. Tickets are — or at least were — still available for the third and fifth days of the first round. On Friday, the Virgin Islands plays the Dominican Republic. On Sunday, the V.I. team goes up against Venezuela.
The Innovative Cable TV companies serving St. Croix and St. Thomas-St. John are planning to offer subscribers Pay-Per-View coverage of the tournament. Efforts to learn specifics on Monday were unsuccessful.
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