Lance Armstrong was minutes away from surgery, but still took time to post a photo of himself in his hospital bed.

O’Neal uses Twitter to bring his fans closer — sometimes literally. He’ll hold impromptu scavenger hunts, tweeting his location and offering a free pair of tickets to the first person who finds him.

Armstrong, who has been unhappy at times with his portrayal in the media, now has the option of bypassing reporters entirely and making a direct connection with fans.

“I think some people see it and think, ‘The guy’s building a Pinewood Derby car with his son? That sounds awfully normal,'” Armstrong said recently. “Or, ‘He’s taking his kids to the church play or he’s talking about the music he likes,’ or, hell, whatever. I put everything on there.”

Villanueva is so addicted that he couldn’t stay away during halftime of the Bucks’ March 15 victory over Boston, tweeting that he had to step it up. He got in some hot water with his coach, Scott Skiles. But he also became an overnight Web celebrity.

Twitter also is becoming a necessity for fans of sports that sometimes get don’t get much attention from the mainstream media.

Cycling fans who care about riders beyond Armstrong can follow feeds from American standouts Christian Vande Velde, Levi Leipheimer, George Hincapie, Dave Zabriskie and others. Italian Ivan Basso tweets in his native language and broken English.

“We go eat sushi with my family!!” Basso posted Wednesday.

The new Women’s Professional Soccer league is allowing players to tweet during Sunday’s inaugural match between the Los Angeles Sol and the Washington Freedom.

Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who does media consulting for sports clients, said athletes are smart to use sites such as Twitter and Facebook to their advantage.

“You have the old geezers like me who read newspapers, and you have the future of the fan base, young kids, who don’t,” Fleischer said. “They increasingly get their news and their information online and on social networks.”

Fleischer doesn’t advise athletes to ignore traditional reporters, who he says still hold significant — if waning — influence. But the Twitter trend has occasionally left scribes scrambling to keep up.

That was the case after Armstrong’s crash.

While reporters were trying to get details, Astana team director Johan Bruyneel confirmed the injury through Twitter and Leipheimer posted a video link.

A few hours later, Armstrong was tweeting: “I’m alive!” On Wednesday, Armstrong posted a photo of himself in a hospital bed minutes before he was wheeled into surgery.

Armstrong regularly tweets insider tidbits and makes a point of noting when an anti-doping official shows up unannounced to administer a drug test. By doing so, he reinforces his long-held stance that he’s the most frequently tested athlete and hasn’t failed a drug test.

As of Wednesday, O’Neal had more than 414,000 followers, and Armstrong wasn’t far behind. Part of their appeal is that they don’t put out slick, milquetoast posts written by their public relations representatives.

“The athlete has to do it themselves,” Fleischer said. “The PR department can’t do it for them. It has to be genuine, it has to be real.”