by Conrad Brunner
October 2, 2003
Jermaine O'Neal walked into the room, sat down and wasted no time getting his point across.
"It’s good to be back," he said. "We’ve got a new-look team, new coaches, I’m very excited."
He has added 10 pounds of muscle (his weight is up to 251) and hopes the work in the weightroom, along with his usual cardiovascular regimen, will allow him to extend his effectiveness, both in individual games and through the course of the season.
And if anyone expected residual bitterness from O'Neal over the firing of Isiah Thomas last month, they were disappointed. At the team's annual media day, O'Neal repeatedly said he has resolved the emotions that produced an angry outburst immediately after he heard the news, and that he is ready to get on with the season - full speed ahead.
"It’s old news," O'Neal said. "To tell you the truth, I don’t even want to talk about it anymore because it’s over. There’s nothing I can say or do to bring Isiah back. Rick Carlisle is a very good coach, also. The only thing I can do is to try to make his job easier and try to make my job easier, and that’s coming in and being as attentive and as focused as I possibly can."
Carlisle spoke by telephone with O'Neal shortly after he was hired, and the two met for an hour Thursday morning. O'Neal emphasized that he never bore any ill will toward Carlisle.
"(Things have) been cool between me and Carlisle," O'Neal said. "I’ve never had a problem with him. I’m here to play basketball. I’m excited. My goal is to get out of the first round, then compete for something after that. I’m willing to do whatever it takes. Personally, what happened this summer has happened.
"I still have my relationship with coach Thomas. He was over at the house the other night and we had a great conversation. I had maybe an hour conversation today with coach Carlisle and it went pretty well. I guess, ultimately, the goal is to win and I’m here to win."
O'Neal said he had not yet met with CEO and President Donnie Walsh or President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird, who were the targets of most of his anger. O'Neal said then that he felt betrayed by management because he was given no indication Thomas' job was in jeopardy while negotiating a seven-year contract extension and that, had he known, he wouldn't have re-signed with the Pacers.
"I’m pretty sure at some point we’re going to talk," O'Neal said. "My concern is getting acquainted with the new system. ... Things happen in life. Whether you like it or not, it happens. The best thing I can do is put it behind me, focus my mind and get acquainted with the new system, my new teammates and try to be more of a leader, try to make everybody else better and try to make myself better than last year."
Bird also was ready to move on.
"He had some issues with some things we’ve done but, hey, it’s time to play now," Bird said. "I’ve gone into seasons with a lot of guys unhappy with contracts and different things going on in their lives and we won championships. When the bell rings, you’ve got to play. And if he comes to play, we’ll have a good team.
"Your best players have got to play. You get paid to play basketball and when you step on the court, you’ve got to play. That’s part of the game. He’s mature enough. He’s old enough to know when the bell rings, you’ve got to answer."
O'Neal's mindset was good news for the Pacers, sending the veterans into their first practice day of training camp on Friday without that potentially major distraction.
"No question, you’ve got to have Jermaine on board if we’re going to go anywhere, obviously," said Reggie Miller. "We need a happy Jermaine. And I think there’s been mending of fences on both ends. You move on. The 11 other guys in the locker room had nothing to do with this decision, so you don’t want to let those 11 guys down. No matter what you might feel toward management, you’ve still got to do your job and go out and play. He understands that."
After helping the U.S. qualify for the 2004 Olympics by winning the Tournament of the Americas in San Juan, PR, O'Neal basically secluded himself in his Miami home to sort out his feelings and clear his head. The result was a player focused on the job that lies ahead, and not on the past.
"I’m back, I’m extremely happy about being here and anybody who thinks I’m not going to go out and play hard because I’ve got a new coach is dead wrong," he said. "I understand the business part. I’m a reflection of this team. I’m a reflection of this city. I’m a reflection of this organization. I’m not going to do anything that causes embarrassment to any of us."