New York: Beyond the grind of the National Basketball Association season lies a dreamy challenge for some international players in the world`s top hoops league -- a crack at getting to play in this summer`s London Olympics.
Three spots in the 12-team Olympic basketball tournament are up for grabs and will be decided from July 2-8 at the men`s Qualifying Tournament in Caracas, Venezuela.
"I`m going to be there," Venezuelan guard Greivis Vasquez of the New Orleans Hornets told Reuters after a recent game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
"It`s going to be a great tournament to help our country to develop our level of basketball, and it`s going to be good for the country."
Venezuela is one of 12 countries vying for the final three places along with Russia, Macedonia, Lithuania, Greece, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, New Zealand, Angola, Nigeria, Jordan and Korea.
"We are a young team, we have high expectations," said the 25-year-old Vasquez, a first-round draft pick by the Memphis Grizzlies, who is averaging 8.1 points and 4.7 assists this season for the Hornets (9-29).
The winners of the semi-finals in the round-robin tournament will punch their tickets to London, with the last berth going to the victor of a playoff between the losers of the semi-finals.
Nine countries, including world champions United States, have already clinched a spot in the Olympic basketball tournament.
Other teams to qualify include EuroBasket winners Spain, France, hosts Britain, Oceanic champions Australia, Americas winners Argentina, Brazil, Asia champions China and African title holders Tunisia.
Sacramento Kings (12-26) guard/forward Francisco Garcia, 31, said he was fired up to play in the qualifying tournament, which the Dominicans reached under the guidance of University of Kentucky coach John Calipari.
"We got a lot of talent. It`s going to be our third year playing together," said Garcia, who has averaged 8.8 points in his NBA career.
Garcia said Detroit Pistons power forward Charlie Villanueva, who has been out with an ankle injury, was on board and that he expected the Atlanta Hawks` Al Horford, currently sidelined with a torn pectoral muscle, to be ready to play in Caracas.
"When he comes back, we`re going to be OK," Garcia said about Horford. "He told me he was going to be back.
"We have a good chance. We have to get the chemistry right. We`ll be all right. It means a lot, it means everything. We`ve never been there. We`ve never been this far. Just to make it (to the Olympics) would be a great accomplishment for our country.
"London -- it would be great. That`s our goal, that`s our dream."
A few lockers down from Vasquez in the visitor`s locker room at the Garden, New Orleans forward Al-Farouq Aminu said he was pondering the possibility of joining Nigeria for the qualifying tournament.
"I might try and play with the Nigerian team," said 21-year-old Aminu, a 6ft 9ins (2.06 m) forward, who has been averaging 4.7 points and 4.2 rebounds for the Hornets.
Aminu was born in Georgia and helped his high school win a pair of state championships before going to college at Wake Forest.
"I`m going to try and get on the team. If the opportunity presents itself I would love to play for Nigeria. I think it would be a great opportunity and learning experience, and I`d get to travel," said Aminu, the eighth pick of the 2010 NBA draft by the Los Angeles Clippers.
Nigeria finished third in last year`s African Championship.
"Hopefully they`ll reach out to me, because I don`t know who to reach out to," he said.
Vasquez, who in his second NBA season has worked his way into the starting rotation for New Orleans, said he was excited to join Venezuelan team mates such as Hector Romero, David Cubillan and Gregory Echenique.
"We did good at Mar del Plata," Vasquez said about Venezuela`s fifth-place finish at last year`s Americas Championship.
"Our average age is 24, 25. It`s a very young team, so the future looks bright."
"It`s not going to be an easy tournament, but we have Eric Musselman as our coach," he said in reference to the former head coach of the NBA`s Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors. "
"We`re going to go out there and compete and see what happens."
"What would it mean to qualify? It will mean the world."