(Reuters) - Team USA’s grip on the basketball world is being undermined by a lack of focus on fundamentals and will eventually be threatened by emerging international powers, according to Olympic and world championship gold medal winner Shaquille O‘Neal.
Renaissance man O‘Neal, whose many pursuits since retiring last year after a 19-year National Basketball Association (NBA) career include TV commentary, feels players who leave college after one year for the pros are hurting their development while international players practice more.
“Over here, the one-and-done phase took a big stab in the development of our young kids,” O‘Neal, referring to a rule that allows players to join the NBA one year after their high school graduating class, told Reuters in a recent interview.
”Over there in Europe, I’ve been at a lot of these camps, they’re sticking to the basic fundamentals and that’s why they are great shooters and great passers like (Spain‘s) Ricky Rubio.
“There’s gonna be one day where another country is going to dominate us in basketball.”
Shaq said the weakening of fundamental skills was compounded by the inspiration that up and coming international players get from watching countrymen compete on the NBA stage.
There are 76 international players from 36 countries and territories on official NBA rosters, according to the league, including eight from France, six from Turkey, five from Spain and four each from Argentina, Brazil and Canada.
“That’s it, exactly,” said O‘Neal, promoting his role as a spokesman for the Dove Men + Care skin care product.
O‘Neal spent three years at Louisiana State University before declaring himself for the 1992 NBA draft, where he was selected with the first overall pick by the Orlando Magic. He went on to win three consecutive NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers and one with the Miami Heat.
Illustrating the surge in international basketball, the only foreign player taken in that ‘92 draft was Predrag Danilovic of Yugoslavia with the 43rd pick by the Golden State Warriors.
The one-and-done rule was introduced in 2006 to keep top high school players from going straight to an NBA team, but Shaq said players could benefit from even more seasoning.
O‘Neal, at a beefy 7-foot-1, imposed his will in his international debut at the 1994 world championships in Toronto.
He was named Most Valuable Player of the worlds, averaging 18 points and 8.5 rebounds for the second U.S. national team of NBA players following the original “Dream Team” of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Shaq admitted that being passed over for the initial “Dream Team” fueled his desire at the 1994 competition.
“When I played for Dream Team II at the world (championship) games, I was playing with anger,” said O‘Neal, who this May will receive a PhD. in education. “I thought they should have picked me for Dream Team I.”
That group of NBA stars on the first U.S. team featuring professionals included just one college player, with Christian Laettner of U.S. national champions Duke selected over O‘Neal.
”That was extra motivation right there,“ said Shaq. ”I just went out and led the team. I knew what I had to do. My job was to dominate all the other big men. We didn’t want to be known as the team that lost.
“Dream Team one had a great record, (Dream Teams) two and three had an unblemished record. It didn’t get blemished until a couple of years ago when the Europeans started stepping their game up.”
The international advance coincided with disharmony and disarray on the U.S. national teams. O‘Neal himself became disgruntled about his treatment at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
The star of the ‘94 world championship team was told by coach Lenny Wilkens that center David Robinson, playing in his third and final Olympics, would feature in the gold medal game.
“In ‘94, I played a lot of minutes, but then in the (Olympic) championship game ... the coach said, ‘your gonna be in many more games. This is David’s last game. We’re going to let him play.’ He put me in with something like 12 seconds left. I was very upset.”
O‘Neal conceded it led “a little bit” to a falling out.
“I was getting old and I was doing other stuff. I was focused on winning championships,” said 15-time NBA All-Star O‘Neal, who did not return to play for the national team.
The team stumbled badly after winning the 2000 Sydney Olympics finishing sixth at the 2002 world championships and taking bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics and 2006 world championships before rebounding to 2008 Beijing gold with the “Redeem Team.”
O‘Neal sees U.S. basketball as still superior for now, but believes the margin is narrowing fast.
“Back then, the gap was far, as far as talent was concerned,” Shaq said about his time on the international stage.
“Now it’s very, very close and it’s going to be one day where they’ll beat us, sad to say.”
Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue