by Conrad Brunner
January 29, 2002
INDIANAPOLIS, January 29, 2002 - For a player, validation can come in many forms. Few are more significant, however, than the first selection to the NBA All-Star Game.
That honor was bestowed Tuesday upon Jermaine O'Neal, who was among the seven reserves named by a vote of the league's coaches to fill out the 12-man Eastern Conference roster.
"I was extremely happy (when he was told)," O'Neal said after practice Tuesday afternoon. "It's been a long road for me. To go from a situation where I wasn't even picked to play for my own team and come into a situation like this, I've got to give this organization a lot of thanks and credit for the success I've had; Donnie Walsh had confidence in me when nobody else did; my teammates for having the confidence to put me in key situations where I can prove myself; this city, for allowing me to come in here and be a player and not put too much pressure on me; and also God and my family for being behind me 110 percent.
"I haven't really had the chance to think a lot about it. It's a great honor. I'm going to be a little nervous but overall it's a credit to the work that I've been putting in the last four or five years. I wanted to get to a situation where I would be able to play in the All-Star Game and be considered one of the best but for me, I've just got to keep building. This is just round one of many rounds I have planned. I have to keep getting better. I came in this season wanting to prove myself as the best post player in the East and I feel like I've done that. Next year, I want to prove myself as one of the best forwards in the game."
O'Neal is one of three first-time All-Stars named by the coaches, joining Paul Pierce (Boston) and Shareef Abdur-Rahim (Atlanta). Other reserves named were Miami’s Alonzo Mourning, Milwaukee’s Ray Allen, New Jersey’s Jason Kidd and Orlando’s Tracy McGrady.
He is the seventh Pacers player to become an NBA All-Star, following Don Buse (1977), Billy Knight (1977), Reggie Miller (1990, '95, '96, '98 and 2000), Detlef Schrempf (1993), Rik Smits (1998) and Dale Davis (2000).
Miller was particularly pleased with O'Neal's selection.
"It's fantastic," he said. "He's worked hard. He's been somewhat of a work in progress. When he first came in here he was a little bit raw. We knew how much talent he had, but I think he displayed it to the country and to the world last summer when he went to Australia and played on that national team. I think he's only gotten better from there on. Even though he's been hurt a few times this year, he's really been the backbone of this team. For him to come back early from his knee injury and play hurt shows what kind of character he has. I'm very happy for him."
As a five-time All-Star veteran, Miller was asked if he had any advice for the All-Star rookie.
"Relax, because in your first All-Star Game you're not going to get many touches and you're not going to get many looks because there's guys that have been there five, six, seven, eight years that are probably going to take the bulk of the shots," he said with a smile. "So go in there, enjoy the experience and understand what this means. It's a big accomplishment. The fan voting, that's more of a popularity contest. To be chosen by the coaches, to me, that means a little bit more because it shows how diverse your game is and what other people think of your game."
O'Neal is averaging 18.3 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.38 blocked shots. He leads the Pacers in those three categories as well as field goal percentage (.497). The most telling statistic is that the Pacers, 22-17 in games O'Neal has played, are 1-6 when he has been injured. He missed four games in December with a bruised lower back, and three earlier this month with a hyperextended left knee.
"He's our best player, our best rebounder, scores the basketball, defends his position," said coach Isiah Thomas. "When he's not there, I think we've won one game out of the 10 or so that he's missed. That tells you how important he is.
"It's been a good first half for him and it's been a good first half for us. When he's healthy, we're a different team. We've won more games than we've lost when he's healthy. Early in the season he got off to a good start, we got off to a good start, then he got hurt and we lost our rhythm. He came back, we kind of got our rhythm, then he got hurt again and we're trying to regain our rhythm now. He means an awful lot to our basketball team. When you've got a player such as him it's awesome."
Now that O'Neal has broken through to the All-Star level, the challenge is to not only remain there, but continue to grow.
"This is just a tiny step," said director of player development George Glymph, O'Neal's high school coach. "I'm going to keep reminding him that success is a journey, not a destination. You have not arrived yet, this is just a small step in what we're trying to become."