O'Neal Honored by All-Star Start

by Conrad Brunner

Indianapolis - Looking at the statistics, you don't see much difference. Jermaine O'Neal averaged 19.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.31 blocked shots during the 2001-02 season; he's currently averaging 19.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.03 blocks.

But the true measure of O'Neal's improvement is his team's success. After two seasons hovering around the .500 mark, the Pacers are atop the Eastern Conference at 30-12 and O'Neal is the biggest reason. His ascent to the level of the game's elite stars was certified Thursday evening when it was announced that he would start for the Eastern Conference in the NBA All-Star Game next month in Atlanta.

O'Neal, 24, is the youngest Pacers player ever to start. The only other player so honored was Reggie Miller, who started once (1995) in his five appearances. O'Neal will be making his second All-Star appearance; he had seven points and seven rebounds in 17 minutes off the bench last year.

“Last year was extremely exciting for me. The first one is always the best one," O'Neal said. "This year is more of, you know, I expect the outside stuff. So, it’s not really one of those situations where I’m going to go out and get a bottle of champagne and toast to my family.

"But overall I’ve got to definitely thank the fans for voting for me, putting me in a position where I can be a starter. Oh, that means a lot to me. That part means a lot to me that the fans are definitely noticing the type of player that I’ve become. That’s very important to me."

O'Neal will join Isiah Thomas, who will serve as head coach of the Eastern Conference team. When reserves are announced next Tuesday, they hope to be joined by at least one other member of the Pacers. Center Brad Miller and forward Ron Artest are considered the strongest candidates for selection in voting by the conference's coaches.

"I definitely think it would be pretty cool," said Brad Miller. "I'd be one of the guys with the lowest vertical ever in the All-Star Game, so I could bring that to the table."

The first stop for O'Neal will be a trip to his hometown of Columbia, SC, where his jersey will be retired by Eau Claire High on Feb. 5.

"That's really exciting to me," O'Neal said. "That's never happened at my high school. It's an honor for me to go home and see some familiar faces and get my jersey retired."

O'Neal hopes to be able to enjoy the All-Star Weekend experience more this time around by being more selective when it comes to adding events and appearances to his daily schedule.

"I think I did too much last year," he said. "Off the court, I did a lot of things because it was my first All-Star Game and I wanted people to know me and understand me but this year, I'm going to do some stuff for Nike, maybe shoot a commercial, and just play in the game.

"I want to enjoy my family. I maybe saw my family 11 hours out of the three days last year and I was totally exhausted. I was leaving at 8 in the morning and coming back at 10 at night. That's too much. This year I'm going to try to enjoy the city and see some old friends and obviously my family is coming down from South Carolina."

He also is trying to figure out the most appropriate way to thank his teammates. Earlier in the season, Reggie Miller bought the players bathrobes as a reward for going 10-2 while he was recovering from a bone bruise in his ankle. O'Neal is still shopping around for the perfect gift.

"They've put me in a position where I can succeed and do well," he said. "I've been thinking for two weeks what I can do to show my team appreciation. Obviously getting coach (Thomas) there, and hopefully getting one or two teammates would be good for me. I'm going to figure something out. It may be costly, but I'm definitely going to do something."

Even with all the hype, O'Neal has managed to keep the All-Star experience in perspective.

"It's three days," he said, "to have some fun, try to get a little bit of rest, then get back to business."