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O'Neal Revival Continues in Return to Indiana With Golden Sate Warriors

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

March 4, 2014

The tattoo on Jermaine O'Neal's right bicep keeps renewing itself, adding depth to his NBA career.

“The Year of the Resurrection,” it reads.

O'Neal sprung for the etching skin during the first incarnation of his NBA career, with Portland. He hadn't played much his first three seasons in the NBA, and hoped for a revival when he signed a new contract with the Blazers heading into his fourth season.

That turned out to be a false hope, but it became true early early in his career with the Pacers, who acquired him in a landmark trade for Dale Davis in 2000. He lived up to it during the 2001-02 season, when he was voted the NBA's Most Improved Player and an All-Star, and again in the 2003-04 season when he finished third in the MVP voting and was a second-team all-NBA selection. And it applies now as well, in his 18th – yes, 18th – season with Golden State.

Resurrected again, O'Neal is playing his best basketball since the 2009-10 season when he was with Miami, the fourth of the seven teams for which he has played. He's averaging 7.6 points on 50 percent shooting and 5.5 rebounds as the backup center for Golden State. He recently had 23 points on 10-of-13 shooting and 13 rebounds against Brooklyn, and followed with 16 points and 10 rebounds against Detroit. That made him, at 35, the oldest Golden State player ever to record consecutive double-doubles.

It's an uptick ending, so far, for someone once considered the cornerstone player of the Pacers' franchise. Remember?

O'Neal was voted to six All-Star teams, more than any other Pacers player, although he played in just five games. He came the closest of any NBA Pacers to being voted the league's MVP, and the only to earn second-team all-league honors. He was the second of four Pacers to earn the Most Improved award. He averaged 19 or more points in six consecutive seasons. He ranks third on the Pacers' all-time scoring list, nine ahead of Danny Granger, third in all-time scoring average (18.6) and first in all-time rebounding average (9.6) and blocked shots (1,245). Nobody then thought he would wind up his career as a glorified journeyman, playing for seven teams.

“You can't take away the production that I had,” he says.

Which is true, and yet there's the lingering feeling among many fans, and some media, that he underachieved. Or, at least, fell short of expectations. The seven-year, $126 million max contract he signed in 2003 raised expectations to a new level, and became the filter through which all subsequent accomplishments were judged.

The, uh, incident in Auburn Hills in November of 2004 and nagging injuries took their toll on O'Neal's body and psyche, and led to a trade to Toronto for a draft pick that became Roy Hibbert in 2008. He seemed a shadow of his former self at the time, and has been fighting to maintain a respectable – and healthy – level of play ever since.

O'Neal's appearance with the Warriors at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Tuesday might turn out to be his last. He's hinted as much, although I'll believe it when I don't see him in another uniform again. He's traveled to Germany for treatments on his knees for the past two summers, upon the advice of Kobe Bryant, and feels better than he's felt in some time. He'll go again this summer, and see how he feels afterward before deciding whether to retire.

So, how do we judge O'Neal's eight seasons with the Pacers?

Athletes go through stages of perception. They tend to be overrated on draft night, when hopes run high, underrated in the present tense unless they're leading a team to a championship, then gradually appreciated more as the years go by. Maybe even overrated again. Time has a way of rinsing away the negatives.

O'Neal will be remembered fondly, no doubt, in years ahead, but there will always be lingering doubts among those who knew him as a Pacers player. He produced plenty, but often left people wanting more because of his vast athletic potential. I remember his 55-point game against Milwaukee, which dared to guard him one-on-one, and his subsequent $55,000 donation to victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami. I remember him grabbing a defensive rebound in Cleveland, finding nobody to outlet the pass to, dribbling the length of the court, then backing down and scoring on a turnaround jumper. I remember game-winning shots with both the left and right hand in the paint. I remember him turning the ball over at midcourt, then running back to block a layup attempt from behind.

I also remember a young player having a leadership role thrust upon him for which he was unprepared. O'Neal didn't grow up like Miller, in a two-parent, disciplined, rock-solid home. He was raised by a single mother and had no relationship with his father. He didn't have a college experience to help him mature gradually. While Miller was always the first player to arrive for home games, O'Neal was usually the last. He didn't have the built-in respect for authority that Miller had, and sometimes chafed at coaching. He was prideful to the point of being, at times, arrogant, in the eyes of some. The “diva” word got tossed around often as the seasons went by.

With pride and ego come cooperation, though, and O'Neal can talk – often and eloquently. In 2004, on behalf of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, I presented him the Magic Johnson Award, which goes annually to an elite NBA player who shows exceptional cooperation with the media. O'Neal still does, offering three-minute answers to basic questions. I talked with him for nearly 20 minutes before a game last season when he was with Phoenix, and again on Tuesday with a few other local reporters. Merged, the conversations were enlightening.

He's at the point in his career now when he appreciates everything more. Like an old man sitting on the porch and watching the butterflies, he said. The bus rides to arenas he might never visit again, the relationship with teammates past and present, all the perks and opportunities that go with being an NBA veteran … all of that means more now.

O'Neal's home is in Dallas, meaning he's apart from his family throughout the season. He kept his 15,000-square foot home in Indianapolis until shortly before the 2011-12 season began. His 15-year-old daughter, he says, is a nationally-ranked volleyball player. His eight-year old son is starting to show interest in basketball.

He has varied business interests. He met with Magic Johnson seven years ago for advice on building a business career. Now, he's part owner of Steak 'n Shake franchises in San Antonio, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Monaco. He's part of a group that owns 55 percent of Tropical Smoothie. He's invested in Drive Nation, which manufactures shoes, purses and other apparel. He's taking business books with him on road trips, preparing for a future after basketball, whenever that comes.

He was close to a championship with the Pacers, and thought he had chances to win one in Miami and Boston. Golden State, which has the sixth-best record in the Western Conference, is regarded as an outside contender. But he's at peace with his career.

“Sometimes you wish things would have been different,” he said. “People still talk about the teams in Indiana. People can't believe we didn't win a championship. You can look back on a lot of things and things that could have been changed, but ultimately those things make you who you are. It builds character. I'm OK with that.”

Still, there are regrets. If he could do it all over again, O'Neal says he would have taken better care of his body before it started to betray him. And, he would have taken more of a leadership role with the Pacers teams that were legit title contenders. Teams that included Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and Jamaal Tinsley.

“We had a lot of personalities; strong-minded personalities,” he said. “One thing that was mutual, when it was time to come to work, we worked. Guys worked very hard. The biggest issue was once we left (the arena).

“From a basketball standpoint we were very aggressive, we played angry. Sometimes in professional sports you need that. Look at the Seattle Seahawks. They talk it, they walk it and they play like wild animals. Sometimes you need that to win. I wish we could have met more and talked more about that. If I could do something better, we'd have had even more meetings about decisions and choices that we make away from the playing surface.”

I remember O'Neal saying before a Pacers game once that he would be retired by the age of 30. I reminded him of that Tuesday, and he admitted he once felt that way. That's another regret. He shouldn't have assumed he'd accomplish everything he wanted by then, shouldn't have taken the blessing of a long career for granted.

“If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't have said that,” he said. “But I like where I'm at mentally, the experiences that I've had.”

Eighteen NBA seasons. That's literally half of Jermaine O'Neal's life. He grew from a player who came off the bench for four seasons to a six-time All-Star, and then remodeled himself as valuable reserve. He fell short of some of his goals and, certainly, of the expectations of others. But on the whole it's been quite a resurrection. A few of them, actually.

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