POSTED: Oct 12, 2012 11:40 AM ET
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The ball went into Phoenix's Jermaine O'Neal on the right post, about 10 feet from the basket. DeMarcus Cousins of the Kings was on his back.
O'Neal, looking out to the perimeter, spotting teammate Michael Beasley moving into position for some two-man game, twitched his head toward the free-throw line a couple times, signaling for Beasley to clear out. O'Neal wanted the isolation.
Beasley moved accordingly. O'Neal corkscrewed in the air to face the basket, then released the ball.
And the strangest thing happened: O'Neal looked at the Suns bench, specifically one of the player-development coaches, former veteran NBA center Sean Rooks, and smiled. One basket in the first quarter of the first exhibition contest, between two teams in the Western Conference, and a six-time All-Star, a veteran of 16 previous seasons with five teams couldn't bottle the emotions.
O'Neal had been joking with Rooks before tipoff that he could still put the ball in the hole, and so when it happened right away, on the first shot attempt, meaningless game or not, O'Neal could not resist the told-you-so glimmer. The moment, at least, was hardly meaningless.
The former Trail Blazer, Pacer, Raptor, Heat and Celtic went from being "very close" to retiring during summer to feeling rejuvenated in the opening weeks as a Suns big man behind center Marcin Gortat and power forward Luis Scola. It's a role that grew in importance when it was learned a month after O'Neal signed a one-year deal that Channing Frye could miss 2012-13 because of an enlarged heart. O'Neal had the knee treatment in Germany that has become popular with athletes, said he has lost about 15 pounds since last season, has dropped to less than 10 percent body fat, and no longer wears a knee brace.
"I think he'll have a leadership role on this team," coach Alvin Gentry said. "But we've been really impressed because he's gotten himself in good shape. I think he's still got bounce in his step."
That's just the physical aspect. The emotional is that O'Neal is relishing the new role as a sage on a team with a lot of young players after years as another veteran on experienced teams, and exhilarated about the challenge of testing himself in a running system for a change.
It is different from what he has been used to, and that's exactly the point.
"Sometimes when you're playing on really good teams and you're the new guy, it's not as fun," he said. "You don't have as much impact. Here, with the leadership I have a voice in the locker room, I get an opportunity to play with these young stallions that get up and down the court. It's kind of a new breath of air for me. A great training staff, fantastic fan support, and the organization is good.
"We run a lot. We run a lot, but they teach a lot here because we have a really young team, which I'm not quite used to. Some teams I've been with, they teach, but they roll the ball out and we play. We would play through the teaching part. Here, they have to be able to teach technique. There's a lot of new guys. That's been the biggest difference, adjusting my body and trying to be smart about it. More than anything, to be quite honest, I'm having a lot of fun. I'm having a lot of fun, and it's no knock against any team. Obviously I'm healthier now. Boston was a fantastic organization, a fantastic fan base. I enjoyed playing with those guys. But this is different. Just different. I'm having a good time."
At least what chance he had to play with those guys. O'Neal played only 25 games last season because of an injured left wrist that required surgery and 24 the season before until an operation on the left knee forced him out. And there were frustrations about having such a limited role in the Celtics offense.
Not being able to pick up his 6-year-old son for months after the wrist procedure was a harsh reality check that left him wondering whether it would be better to retire and let the body heal to where it could hold up another 50 years. O'Neal decided he didn't want to leave like that, though, not pushed into a decision by disrepair. He had the Orthokine treatment in Germany on both knees. He worked out hard in the United States and lost weight.
Maybe this will be the last season, but he wants to at least go out on his terms, feeling the emotional spark again. That's where the Suns -- in roster makeup, in style of play, even in location in the preference for warm weather -- come in. O'Neal even picked a new number, 20.
"Twenty in the Bible, the definition is redemption," he said. "That's for me. It isn't for anybody else. It's for me to remember that if it doesn't turn out the way I want it to turn out, I have put everything I can possibly put into my body, my training, the summer. Everything. If it doesn't work out, no regrets."
He is back for a 17th season and it all feels so right. It is different. Just different.
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