by Conrad Brunner
July 10, 2003
Indianapolis, July 10, 2003 -
Jermaine O’Neal’s pronouncement that he will remain with the Pacers by finalizing a long-term contract on July 16, the first day free agents are eligible to sign, brought a variety of emotions from franchise President Donnie Walsh.
He couldn’t decide, however, which was more prevalent: excitement, happiness or relief.
“All of the above,” Walsh said. “I’m very happy Jermaine has made these statements. We are definitely close to finalizing the terms of the contract, which we can sign on the 16th. By making the statement, he does make it a lot easier for us to go forward in trying to finalize our team for the rest of the summer.”
A day after canceling scheduled visits to San Antonio and Dallas, O’Neal told The Indianapolis Star that his decision already was made.
"I really appreciate the fans putting up with the talk (of looking at other teams) and staying behind me," O’Neal said. "I want them to understand it's a business and when you want things to happen you have to do what you have to.
"The fact of the matter is I love the fans here and the organization. I love everything about Indiana. Hopefully, over the next seven years I can accomplish everything they want me to accomplish."
O’Neal reportedly will sign a seven-year, $123 million contract, the maximum allowed for a player of his experience level under the rules of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Other teams could’ve offered no more than six years and $92.6 million.
Even with the $30 million difference in the Pacers’ favor, Walsh was hardly certain O’Neal would re-sign. Shortly after the season ended with a first-round playoff loss to Boston, O’Neal expressed frustration with his situation, criticized unnamed teammates for lacking the necessary desire to win, and named San Antonio and Orlando as teams he would strongly consider, in addition to the Pacers.
“I think free agency is a very uncertain time,” Walsh said. “No matter what you feel going into it, once you get to it almost anything can happen. That’s how I always approach it.”
O’Neal told the newspaper he was intrigued by the possibility of playing alongside Tim Duncan in San Antonio, but that wasn’t enough to lure him away from the franchise that gave him his big break. The Pacers traded All-Star power forward Dale Davis to Portland in August 2000 for O’Neal, who had played sparingly in four seasons with the Trail Blazers. Rather than joining Duncan, O’Neal opted to follow his lead.
"I admire Tim Duncan, because he put on his hard hat and said, 'I'm going to stick it out,' " O'Neal said. "He was dedicated to one team and to winning a championship. Now he has two. That's what makes the really good players great.
"That was the difference. I said, OK, it would be easy for me to run to a team. Me and Tim Duncan could be an unbelievable partnership for years to come. It was a tough decision, but when it came down to it my love for my city and my team was more important than chasing a championship with another team."
Walsh was particularly encouraged by O’Neal’s comments.
“Everything he said reflected the remarks of a player in his position, and that’s what really pleased me,” Walsh said. “Jermaine has the opportunity to be the leader on this team for an extremely long period of time. And I think the way he made his comments shows he’s really up to that. I saw that last year. I thought he had really grown into the role of being the go-to player, the leader, the leading player on the team. This brings it to another level.
“I like everything I see about Jermaine’s maturation, because we’re talking about a 24-year-old young man.”
O’Neal’s decision could have an impact on Walsh’s negotiations with the team’s other All-Star, center Brad Miller. The 7-footer said the day after the Boston series concluded that he would wait until O’Neal’s decision was made before moving forward with his negotiations.
Miller reportedly earned $5.3 million last season. Because he is coming off the best season of his career and the market is otherwise thin at the center position, Miller finds himself in a strong negotiating position. Miami, San Antonio and Denver reportedly have interest, and a bidding war is something the Pacers would rather avoid.
“Brad had stated he was looking to see what Jermaine was going to do, so I think that opens it back up for us to talk to Brad and start getting into it again,” Walsh said. “That is going to be more of a negotiation. I have my own idea about value and all that, but that goes out the window when you get into an auction and people are bidding and all of that. That has yet to develop with Brad, in my mind.”
The team’s other primary free agent is veteran Reggie Miller, who remains a high priority for Walsh. His talks, however, could come later in the summer.
“My impression, and nobody has told me this, is that Reggie will just wait to the end,” Walsh said. “That’s just kind of the impression I’ve gotten. That’s kind of the way I’m dealing with it. I certainly have Reggie in the back of my mind throughout this whole period and when the time is proper Arn (Tellem, agent for Reggie Miller and O’Neal) and I will talk about it.”
Another Tellem client, guard Jon Barry, is high on the Pacers’ wish list, as well. The free agent guard spent the past two seasons with Detroit, averaging 6.9 points last season. Barry, 33, is a career .390 shooter from the 3-point line.
“He’s a player that’s very high on our list,” Walsh said.
O’Neal said Barry would be a perfect complement to Miller.
"I know (Miller) is focused on coming back and proving people wrong," O'Neal said. "I know he still has it. Put Jon Barry behind Reggie, with the core guys we have, it's going to be surgery."