by Ken Kleppel

When the Notre Dame men’s basketball squad spends its fall break in Barbados to prepare for the start of the 2003-04 campaign, sophomore center Omari Peterkin may very well be the most popular man on the team.

Need to adjust to the gap in culture? No problem. Calling the U.S. Virgin Islands home, Peterkin is a native of the Caribbean.

Need a home-cooked meal? Once again, no problem. In addition to the hospitality from Peterkin’s immediate family who will make the trip to the Barbados to attend the series of exhibition contests, Peterkin’s cousins that are native to the island have already promised to host he and his teammates for a sample of Caribbean cuisine.

Need advanced scouting on the international opponents and international rules? Peterkin offers a unique perspective on this too.

While the final days of summer are dog days for most, for Peterkin, August presented the opportunity to compete against the top professional players in the United States and overseas. A member of the U.S. Virgin Islands National Team, Peterkin represented his homeland at the Tournament of the Americas-the 2003 FIBA Americas Men’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament-held in Puerto Rico from August 20-31.

“It was an honor to be chosen by the national team down there to go and compete and represent my island in the Tournament of Americas,” says Peterkin.

The Virgin Islands, approximately twice the size of Washington D.C. in terms of geography, has a population of just over 125,000, but its basketball team earned a birth in its first-ever Olympic qualifier only four years after re-forming its national unit. Under the direction of Jackson State head coach Tevestor Anderson, Team Virgin Islands made itself eligible for the Tournament of Americas by finishing fourth in a regional pre-qualifying event, with three narrow losses by a total of just four points.

Peterkin’s whirlwind tour of the Americas began and ultimately ended, appropriately enough, in Debartolo Hall. As soon as he completed his last final exam of the summer session on the first day of August, Peterkin boarded a plane for his home island of St. Thomas. Two days later, Peterkin found himself in St. Croix competing in a rigorous two-week tryout against college athletes and professionals from overseas-an audition that Peterkin would ultimately pass.

With that, the 19-year old Peterkin advanced from the Pit of the Joyce Center to the floor of the Roberte Clemente Coliseum in San Juan and onto the hard court against the top basketball talent in the Western Hemisphere, which also happened to include the current edition of the United States Dream Team.

In the course of a 113-55 loss to the United States in the Virgin Islands’ third game of the first round, Peterkin matched-up with the likes of NBA veterans Elton Brand, Richard Jefferson and Kenyon Martin. Finishing the contest with a tournament-best two points and four rebounds in 11 minutes of play, Peterkin became the first Notre Dame basketball player to compete against the Dream Team since Troy Murphy did so as a member of the USA Men’s Select Team that played against the USA Men’s Senior National Team on September 2, 2000 in Honolulu.

“It was a good experience being able to match up against NBA players,” says Peterkin. “During the game Kenyon Martin and Elton Brand were telling me to take my time. When I came off the bench in the fourth quarter I was a little bit cold. They just told me to take my time. I got warm and got into the flow of the game.”

The Virgin Islands would drop all four games of the tournament-against Brazil, the Dominican Reublic, the United States, and Venezuela-and finish tied for ninth in the final overall standings and last place in Group B. But for Peterkin, the ability to compete with some of the world’s best in preparing himself-both physically and mentally-for his collegiate career at Notre Dame would prove most compelling. Dropping nearly twenty pounds from the start of summer classes in June, Peterkin reported to preseason camp at 280 pounds and, admittedly, in the best shape of his short collegiate career.

“I learned how to play more physical, be more aggressive, improve my rebounding, run the floor, and a bunch of different things about the game in general,” says Peterkin. “Running up and down the court and being able to play physical against some of the world’s best was a good experience for me in coming back here and playing in preparation for the upcoming season. I learned tools that I could translate to Big East play and hopefully I can contribute it this year.”

Just over forty-eight hours after his celebrated battle with the Dream Team, Peterkin found himself back in Debartolo Hall for his first class of the fall semester. But with four weeks remaining before another trip to the Caribbean-and the start of another season-Peterkin’s naturally giant smile is probably a little brighter in September.

After all, while the Caribbean Hilton Hotel in San Juan likely offers more amenities than his room at St. Edward’s Hall and while the one-on-one conversation with island-mate Tim Duncan must have been special, who needs the Dream Team-as Peterkin now likes to joke-when your roommate is Chris Thomas.