by Conrad Brunner
March 28, 2002
INDIANAPOLIS, March 28, 2002 - Jermaine O'Neal can't do anything about what happens in the next two games while he serves an NBA-imposed suspension. But he's determined to make sure his presence is known once he returns.
"I've got to," he said Thursday. "By me not playing, I've shortchanged this organization, my teammates and the city. It's at a crucial time where my team really needs me and I'm not in there and it's tough. I've got to be ready to go all out and play my best basketball of the season when I get back."
Speaking publicly for the first time since his altercation with several Detroit Pistons that led to a two-game suspension and $10,000 fine levied by the NBA, O'Neal said he felt badly about letting down his team at a crucial time.
With the Pacers battling for playoff position and 12 games left in the regular season, O'Neal must sit out Friday night's game in Orlando as well as Sunday's game against Miami in Conseco Fieldhouse. He will return April 2, a home game against Boston.
There will be just eight players in uniform in Orlando, as Jonathan Bender, Primoz Brezec and Bruno Sundov were suspended one game and fined $5,000 each for leaving the bench to join the O'Neal fray.
"I feel real bad," he said after practice Thursday. "One thing I can say is I don't feel bad about the foul, I feel bad about the fight. My team really needs me. I don't think I'm going to even watch the game. It's tough for me to watch games when I'm not in there, so I'm just going to pray and talk to the guys before they leave and ask them to win one for the gipper."
The incident occurred with 1:16 remaining in the fourth quarter of the Pacers' 96-77 loss in Conseco Fieldhouse. O'Neal threw a body-block into a driving Corliss Williamson, who responded by throwing the ball hard at O'Neal. Ben Wallace stepped in to intervene as angry words were exchanged when O'Neal started pushing and shoving. In the eyes of the NBA, he threw two punches - one at Wallace and one at Michael Curry. O'Neal was hit with a Type-2 flagrant foul, calling for an automatic ejection, on the scene. The league issued the suspension Wednesday evening.
"It made me upset, but overall, (Williamson's) reaction to a hard foul, I probably would've did the same thing," he said. "I don't really fault him for what he did. But there's a couple other things that went on after he hit me with the ball, a couple things his teammates said to me that really ignited the fight.
"I don't fight, normally, if I don't have to, especially when it's a situation where there's a minute-30 left in the game and we're down 20. I've learned from this and hopefully next time I'll put myself in a better situation where I can just walk away."
He plans to use the down-time to work on his body and his game. He has been in a shooting slump in recent weeks, hitting just .394 from the floor in the last eight games.
"I've got to really work on my jump shot again," he said. "I've been struggling from the field, rushing my shots, taking bad shots. And overall I've got to get my body back healthy. I've been having some problems with my legs. A couple days of rest will probably help."