J.O.: "I Want to be Here"
Editor's Note: In the wake of reports implying he wants to be traded from the Pacers, Jermaine O'Neal sat down for this lengthy Q&A with Conrad Brunner of Pacers.com to clarify his intentions as well as express his thoughts on the moves made this summer and their potential impact on the 2007-08 team.
Q. Let's start with the big one: where do you want to be in 2007-08?
A. I want to be here. I want to be a Pacer. All along, my concern has been the well-being of the team. Obviously, we haven't had the type of years we would expect for quite a few reasons. We've had a lot of distractions. But I have a lot of respect for this city and I hear where they're coming from, as far as wanting a winner. My whole thing, and I had a long discussion with Donnie (Walsh) about it, and also Larry (Bird), is the future of the team. If we're thinking about going extremely young, it doesn't make any sense to keep me because if we go extremely young, as a fan and as an athlete you know it takes years to get back to that competitive level. Out of respect, I know my contract takes up a lot of cap space and, all along, that conversation was just in case we were rebuilding. Do I think we're rebuilding? No. We haven't made the blockbuster move a lot of people expected whether it was me being moved or bringing in somebody else. We made some subtle moves which I think are pretty good for the type of team we have.
Obviously, when you lose, you want to really come back and prove as a team that we're better than we showed. This year is intriguing because we have guys like Ike Diogu, Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy who were thrown into a very tough situation. They came into a very hostile environment and they were taken out of a difficult situation in Golden State. So they never really got comfortable. Now they've had a half a year last year, they've had the summer and they'll have training camp and the preseason and the start of a fresh season to show what they can do. I'm excited about the guys we have. Do we have a championship contender as of right now? No, probably not. But we have just as much chance as Boston, as Miami, as Detroit because the game is won on the court and once you get a team that feels like it's together, that's a very dangerous thing.
Q. It seems obvious this team is being built with chemistry in mind, rather than just assembling as much talent as possible. How do you feel about the change of culture?
A. With the way the cap is and the technicalities of trading and signing guys, it's very difficult. I think Donnie and Larry have done as much as possible as far as trying to go get people. From what I'm seeing on the court, everybody's preparing themselves to do whatever they need to do for this team to be successful.
Q. Every summer you like to either add something to your game or improve a certain facet of it, but that's been difficult the past couple of years because of injuries. Where are you physically and how do you feel about your prospects for the coming season?
A. This is me talking just about my physical standpoint, but I feel really excited about my chances this year to get back to being dominant, to really being considered in that top five again. That's where I want to be. I've trained really hard this summer. It started off slow because obviously when you have surgery you have to go through that rough time but, man, I've hired a skills coach, Jerry Powell, who has an academy in New York and has worked with Al Harrington on his ballhandling and one-on-one skills, and he's tough. I really have trained this year to dominate. I really have. I'm swimming, and I've never swum in my professional career. I'm boxing, which is something I've tried but didn't sit well, but I've really taken it to hear to accomplish that particular skill. We're shooting a lot of jumpers. We're doing a lot of ballhandling stuff. You'll be surprised. I've always tinkered with shooting threes but if you were to go out and watch me shoot threes right now, you'd be like, 'wow.' We make up to 100 threes a day, and we shoot them every day. We shoot a lot of mid-range and we do a lot of stuff off the dribble. For the first time in my career, I'm taking vitamins. I'm on a strict diet with no fried foods. I'm here every single day. I'm making sure every small thing that gets sore is getting treated.
I'm excited. I think the coaches are excited. I had a long conversation with Coach O'Brien and he's a change of speed for us. I like his demeanor, I like his attitude, I like his persona, I like everything about him. Obviously, he hasn't coached me yet but the consensus of the guys that have been here is that we like him. He demands that the team be a certain way and he won't accept less. Not to say anything bad about Rick (Carlisle) because I thought Rick was a pretty good coach but sometimes a change of speed is good for a team. Obviously, Rick was put in a difficult situation with so many off-the-court issues but it's almost like a new life around here, as players and coaches. I think everybody looks at this year as doing a new year and we're going to do our best to win as many games as possible.
Q. Not to disparage Rick in any way but often when a team changes a coach, can't that by itself have a significant impact on a team?
A. Fans live it through the media but we live it in our environment. When so much negative stuff happens, it wears on you. Sometimes you think, 'Is it better in another situation?' You're human. You have those thoughts. Is the grass greener elsewhere? But when Coach O'Brien was hired he sat me down and we had a great conversation for maybe an hour, hour-and-a-half and he let me know he really wanted me to be here, that he was a fan of what I can do as a player. That alone helps you rejuvenate your thought process. Any time you get a staff that has that much confidence in you, it means a lot to a player. To us, it's a new year.
What we want is for the fans to forget about what happened last year. We had a bad year but there's nothing we can do about that. We'd like the support of our fans because we have a great fan base. We have a lot of new guys and we want to be able to go out and put on a show and win as many games as possible.
Q. Is that why it's particularly important to you that the events of the past few days not be misrepresented, misunderstood or misinterpreted?
A. I knew it was coming when I saw the media out there (Sunday in Los Angeles) because there's been a lot of conversation about me coming out there, but they said there's been a lot of speculation about you coming to L.A. or New Jersey and would you allow that trade to happen? I said if the Pacers were to go in another direction and move me to either one of those teams, I would accept a trade with L.A. or New Jersey, if that's what they wanted to do. What they did was dissect it and say, 'Jermaine wants out of Indy.' I don't want out of Indy. I've told them time and time again I want the best situation for the Pacers. I want to be here. I want to be able to retire here, and I want to retire here as a champion. Obviously, everything isn't going to be good all the time. It just doesn't happen like that. You're going to have some tough years, and we've had some. I was blessed to come into a great situation where Reggie had really schooled myself and other young guys in a system that had been pretty well established. When he left, it was in the midst of two of the worst years probably in Pacers history in terms of off-the-court situations. But things happen and you try to be better people about it but we don't have those things going on anymore. It's a new situation.
Normally, when you hear players say something was taken out of context, it really wasn't. But in this case it really was and that's why I want to let people know my mind isn't anywhere else. When the summer first started, I may have gotten a little bothered by some comments about being shopped. I've always accepted that as a professional athlete; it's part of the business. But when you continuously hear it not only nationally but from your own backyard, that bothers you a little bit and you have to really sit back and say, 'This could be a reality.' I took it to Donnie, I took it Larry and I said, 'Let's talk about this. What direction are we going in?' And they said they didn't want to rebuild, they wanted to make the roster better and they made it clear if there was a deal out there that was going to make the team that much better and they had to use me, they would. I was OK with that because I want this organization to succeed, I want this city to be happy. This city, this organization, has given me the opportunity, the Simons, I can't say enough about those guys and Donnie came and got me from Portland, and this city gave me a chance. When I go anywhere in the world, people know me as an Indiana Pacer and that means a lot to me. I would never do anything in a negative way to cause embarrassment to this organization, or to throw dirt in this city's face.
Q. Looking at the roster moves that have been made, bringing in shooters like Kareem Rush and Travis Diener, it appears the intent has been to build around you, to find pieces that better complement you. How do you perceive those moves?
A. I see it that way. When you look at the makeup of our team, with Mike Dunleavy who can come off screens or get his own shot; with Marquis Daniels coming back healthy as one of the few guys that can play multiple positions at his size; with Danny Granger, who can put the ball on the floor or post up or shoot the three; and with Shawne Williams, who can do pretty much the same thing. And when you see the additions of Kareem Rush, who's a perimeter shooter, Diener, who's a shooter, (Stephen) Graham, who's solid on both ends of the floor and Andre (Owens) is a pretty good shooter and a defensive specialist, we patched areas we just didn't have the previous year. If the guys who were here last year come in and do the necessary things for us to win, we'll be fine. From what I'm seeing and what I'm hearing from guys I haven't seen, guys are really working hard.
To me, there's going to be no more discussion about any trades. I've pretty much stayed quiet all summer about it. I don't want to be talking about it because if it's going to happen, it's going to happen. I want to concentrate on the guys we have. As of today, I'm a Pacer. Come Oct. 2, if I'm still here, I'm happy to be here. If I'm not here, it's because the organization has found another situation that can better the team, which is the bigger picture. I don't want this to be about whether Jermaine's going to be here or not. Ultimately, this organization has had a history of really good history of good players and they're going to have a history of even more good players. It's not going to stop with me. I'm comfortable where I am, my family's comfortable and I'm excited about the opportunity we have.
One thing that's been missing – and I think we had a great locker room before the trade because we had a lot of personality and guys were really funny – but the key thing when I look at that losing streak last year is that it never affected the locker room. Guys sat around and talked about what we needed to do and what we needed to stop doing but beyond that, guys stayed friendly with each other. It wasn't one guy over here, two guys over here, three guys over there. Sometimes, losing divides a locker room but we still did stuff together and that's a key sign. Maybe our time wasn't last year. This year, everybody feels like we're going to get the opportunity to do some things and when you bring in a new coach, everybody feels like they have a chance.
Q. You've said for the past few years, when the discussion has turned to running more, that there's a perception that style would not fit you well. But haven't you always welcomed the idea because it would allow you to better exploit your athleticism?
A. The biggest misconception about me running is that we have played in a very structured system over the last four years. When we take the ball out, the first thing we do is look over to the sideline for the play. You cannot run and there's no need to run if they're calling every play. And I was always designated to take the ball out. So when I get downcourt, everybody's already there. Those are two significant things. If we run more, the defense can't set up on me. If we walk the ball down and run set plays, it's easier to guard me, it's easier to beat up on me, to double- and triple-team me. I don't want to be in that position. I want to be in the position where we can get easy transition points. Our fast-break points were so low last year it was unbelievable. If we can get 18 to 20 points a game off transition, that'd be great. That'd be big for us.
And then you look at a situation like Jamaal Tinsley's. As a point guard, he hasn't been given the reins to call the plays and that's one thing that has disappointed him a lot. He's a point guard that can really push it up and get guys the ball. We all know he can really pass the ball. But it really affects his game when he has to walk it down. He's never, ever been given the reins to just come out and call the play. We've talked about it but it just hasn't been that way.
I would definitely say to fans, there is a reason to be optimistic about this year. There's a big reason to be optimistic about this year. Everybody's into a new situation. We're out of a situation, and I'm not saying it was terrible, where it became predictable. All in all, I know people want to know whether I want to be here. Absolutely – especially after losing last year. That was the first time in my career I had to watch the entire postseason and you sit there and you think about that. It's like putting salt on a wound. You feel like you've failed and to a point you have failed. I have no problem taking the criticism. If you're the leader of the team and your team doesn't make it to the postseason, you deserve to take the criticism. No problem. But I'm going to go out and work harder.
The only thing I've asked of my organization is to keep putting pieces together. We would still like to add another big guy. Jeff Foster will run through a wall for us. We've got to have him. David Harrison is still working hard, rehabbing. But we still need one other guy. If we can get a group of three or four of us, I have no problem playing the four spot, especially if we're getting up and down because that's going to force teams to go smaller. But when we get into situations where we have to play halfcourt sets and I'm playing more minutes at the five than the four, then I'd rather have another big guy in there that can absorb those blows. I took a lot of charges last year, I blocked a lot of shots, I led the team in rebounding and I had to score a lot. That takes a toll.
But all in all I'm healthy, finally. Do I think I'm going to get hurt this year? No. I've never walked into the season with the goal of playing 82 games the last three years because I knew what I was dealing with and I knew it was going to be a process of me getting my body together. A couple of times I walked into camp and I was still rehabbing. But this year, it's totally different. I've stayed around here – quietly – every single day. I only leave on the weekends. I'm here, I'm focused and I'm ready. For the critics out there, I appreciate them. I hear what they say. I criticize myself, too. Even though the last six or seven years I've been one of the most consistent 20-nine (points-rebounds) guys in the league, maybe in the top five. To me, that's not good enough. I take it personally when I hear other people being talked about on that elite level and all of a sudden I'm being pushed out of it. That is a major issue to me. This year, I'll be back. So bear with us, support us. Even if you don't want to support me, support the team because the team needs it. Everybody wants support from their friends and family. When you've got that support, the sky's the limit. When you come out and root loudly for us, that's really going to push us to the next level.