by Conrad Brunner
April 25, 2002
INDIANAPOLIS, April 25, 2002 - George Glymph recognized the moment for its significance.
The Pacers were at low ebb, coming off consecutive losses to Toronto and Cleveland that left them with a 37-40 record, in ninth place in the Eastern Conference and fading playoff hopes. Five games remained, beginning with a home rematch with the Raptors on April 10, and they all had to be won. Even then, the team would need some help to get into the playoffs.
Before that game, 23-year-old Jermaine O'Neal and 36-year-old Reggie Miller decided to take matters into their hands and, acting together as co-captains perhaps as the first time, kicked the coaches out of the pregame locker room and gathered the players for a private meeting in which personal agendas were cleared and the collective commitment to team success was reaffirmed.
"That was a huge sign, right then and there," said Glymph, a player development assistant with the Pacers who was O'Neal's high school coach, "that he was emerging as the leader we expect him to be and need him to be."
The Pacers won their next five games to qualify for the playoffs, then opened the first round with an 89-83 upset of top-seeded New Jersey on the road as O'Neal scored 30 points. In the process, O'Neal stepped out of his shell and became a vocal, active and sometimes critical leader.
It was a momentous cap to a season that earned him the NBA Most Improved Player Award, announced Thursday. O’Neal posted career-highs in points (19.0), rebounds (10.5) and minutes (37.6 mpg) during the regular season and finished in the top ten in the NBA in rebounds and blocks (2.31). He also earned his first selection to the All-Star team, and was named (along with Miller) to Team USA for the upcoming World Basketball Championship in Indianapolis.
O'Neal received 52 of a possible 126 votes from a nationwide panel of sports writers and broadcasters. Detroit’s Ben Wallace, the 2001-02 NBA Defensive Player of the Year, finished second with 16 votes and Dallas’ Steve Nash was third with nine votes. He was the second Pacers player in three years to win the award, following Jalen Rose in 2000.
"The reason we're in the playoffs is because of Jermaine," said Miller. "The last two or three weeks, he's really put us on his shoulders and carried us. If Game 1 is any indication of where this franchise is headed, he has a really bright future."
When O'Neal first came to the Pacers from Portland, he was an unknown quantity being met with some local skepticism because of the popularity and productivity of the player sent to the Blazers, Dale Davis. The team was coming off an NBA Finals appearance in 2000 and, though undergoing the first phase of a renovation with younger players, still had strong veteran leaders in Miller, Rose, Sam Perkins and Derrick McKey.
O'Neal probably deserved to win the Most Improved award that season, when he averaged 12.9 points and 9.8 rebounds, doubling his four-year Portland totals in most significant statistical categories, but received little consideration. He continued his growth on the court this season, when he was one of just three players to average at least 19 points, 10 rebounds and two blocked shots; the others were Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan.
But he also drew criticism for his constant carping with officials (12 technical fouls) and an apparent inability to reign in his emotions on the court, problems that came to a head when he was involved in a fight with Wallace in the final minutes of a loss to Detroit on March 26. He drew a two-game suspension as a result, costing the Pacers their best player at a critical juncture of the season.
It also served as an epiphany for O'Neal, who was wracked with guilt and vowed to return with a vengeance.
"When things happen, you think," he said. "I was up a lot of nights thinking about what was wrong with the team and what more I could do. The bottom line was that being really outspoken toward my teammates was the only answer I had. If that didn't work, I didn't think anything would work with our team."
Neither McKey nor Perkins was brought back this season. Rose was traded to Chicago in mid-February. Clearly, there was a leadership void in the locker room and O'Neal moved to fill it.
"I didn't want to step on anybody's toes (initially)," O'Neal said. "It was like that earlier in the year when Jalen was here and Reggie was the captain, I didn't want to say too much. Once Jalen left, I really put it all on Reggie's shoulders and I think that was unfair. Me being a captain now, I've got to say and do a little more in the locker room."
Any attempt to claim leadership, however, is futile unless someone follows. That, the Pacers have willingly done.
"Leadership is given. It's not taken," said coach Isiah Thomas. "Others basically decide to follow you. Every role that I've been in as a leader, it's been because I've been asked. It's not because I came in and said, 'Hey, I'm the leader, you guys follow me.'
"It's a funny thing; in a group of 10, nine individuals will say, 'I want this guy.' Why that is, who knows? But that's kind of how it goes."
During the season-ending five-game winning streak, he averaged 25.4 points and 10.0 rebounds, hitting nearly 80 percent of his free throws. Then came the 30-point outing in Game 1 against the Nets. When that was followed by 12 points in Game 2, O'Neal took responsibility for the loss on his shoulders.
Though Miller is the name immediately associated with the years of success the Pacers enjoyed in the '90s, O'Neal represents the present and future.
"At the beginning of the season, Reggie Miller made a statement that if we were going to win a championship, it would be on Jermaine O'Neal's shoulders," said Glymph. "So it surfaced right then and there. That's coming from Reggie Miller. It's like he's passing the torch. So you've got to step up and become the leader this organization and Reggie Miller expects you to become. That's where it started. I think the suspension served as a catalyst to what you're seeing now.
"It's comfortable within his makeup. Sometimes you want to defer to other people who've been there longer. I think that's the natural process of evolution as a leader. But sometimes you just have to step up and do what you do, and that's what I think has happened with Jermaine."
Though he chafes at the mention of his youth, O'Neal acknowledges that his place at the head of the team's hierarchy was carved, at least in part, by Miller.
"He doesn't get a lot of credit for some of the stuff he does," O'Neal said. "He does a lot of good stuff out there. He can't do what he did in the '80s, but he can still do a lot. He can get you 30 on a given night. Reggie's going to be Reggie. He wants guys like myself to set the tempo of the game and he can kind of feed of me. Now, I really realize that. He's a guy that's willingly handed things over to me and trusted me to do the right thing with it, and I really appreciate that."
It is still a shared responsibility, and the two complement each other well. Miller has always been a leader by example, a veteran who shows up early and leaves late, keeps his body in spectacular condition and prepares by the book. O'Neal will be more active as a vocal leader, prodding his teammates to do the right thing, motivating them with a well-placed prod here and there.
And this is only the beginning.
"I figure as I emerge as a player, I've got to take on more leadership roles," O'Neal said. "This year was a pretty good year for me. Next year, as far as leadership, it's going to be huge. I'm a real fun guy with the guys when we hang out, but I think the discipline from my leadership point of view is going to be really, really strict and hard next year."
The mantle of leadership can be a heavy burden, but already he's wearing it well.