While Crying Inside, O'Neal Becomes The Man

by Conrad Brunner

March 17, 2003

Conrad Brunner
Indianapolis, March 17, 2003 - Life is easy when you're winning. The game is like a dance, the rim looks like a hula hoop and all the world's your buddy.

When you're losing, however, everything changes. The dance becomes a rumble. The ball weighs like a planet. And those friends? Suddenly they don't have quite as much time for you.

In victory, it is easy to celebrate a team and its players, but often difficult to judge their true character. In defeat, with all flaws exposed, you learn much, much more.

What the Pacers have learned, in the past month of futility, are some valuable truths about Jermaine O'Neal. He can be a leader, both in voice and deed. More than that, he can be the rock upon which a team is built.

While the team has fallen on hard times, losing for the 13th time in 15 games, 95-88 at home to Portland on Monday night, O'Neal has shown himself to be much more than just a great player. Not only has he maintained his level of performance, he has raised it against the toughest opponents - 31 points and 13 rebounds in Boston, 28 points and 11 rebounds against the Lakers, 25 points at Portland. In the rematch, he put the Pacers on his back and produced 31 points and 12 rebounds. In the final 9 minutes, he was the only Pacers player to make a meaningful basket, scoring 10 consecutive points for the home team before fouling out with 57 seconds remaining.

And he's done it in circumstances that would cause lesser men to buckle. His stepfather, a truly kind and gentle man named Abraham Kennedy, a security guard at Conseco Fieldhouse, has been hospitalized since March 1 with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. O'Neal missed two days of practice to be at the hospital, but did not miss the team flight for a critical four-game Western Conference road trip.

"I've learned how to cry inside," said O'Neal, who can't stop the memory of the moments right after the shooting from replaying in his mind. "I've really been hurting, mentally, the last two to three weeks. It's been extremely tough for me. As a leader, I didn't want my team to see me emotionally down. When I'm home by myself, I kind of zone out a little bit. But I still have a goal. Even though my personal life is kind of shaky right now, overall my goal is still the same, and that's to try to compete for a championship.

"We've been losing so many games and my stepfather being in the position he's in, I just pray and ask God to give me the strength every day I wake up. A lot of nights I can't go to bed till 4 or 5 o'clock because I can't sleep. Mentally, I'm thinking about the whole situation. But the times in this locker room, even when it's tough, it brings me joy. It's my time away from my house and my situation. I've put it all in God's hands and hopefully he'll continue to heal my heart."

Lest you think he was speaking from frustration after a defeat, O'Neal's comments actually came late after a 20-point rout of Utah on Friday night, one of the few uplifting performances the team has produced in the last month.

He has dealt with physical pain, as well. He rolled his left ankle on March 9 in Sacramento but didn't miss a game. He suffered a bone bruise on his right elbow last Tuesday night against New Orleans. Through it all, he just kept coming back.

"I would hope that all our players would use him as an example in terms of how to handle adversity and show strength and character through tough times," said coach Isiah Thomas. "Because through these times he has been a rock. You see it more in his person, and his play has elevated. It's been very solid. But the times he's going through and the things that he has seen, he's gone way beyond anything we could've expected from him in this period of time."

He is 24 years old, in his seventh NBA season, which means he knows what it's like to be a boy among men. Those first four seasons in Portland were at once tortuous and wondrous, sitting on the bench watching all those stars win all those games while knowing, deep inside, he could help if only given the chance. Then came the unleashing in Indiana. The first season he became a player. The second he became a star. This season, he has become something much more important.

He is the man.

"I am totally blown away by the year Jermaine's having, particularly at his age," said franchise President Donnie Walsh. "He came into this year knowing he had to be the go-to guy, and that's a heavy load to put on a guy. And he absolutely has done it. He has been the guy making the last-minute shot, he's been the guy making the big shot. He totally accepted it.

"In addition to that, he totally accepts the fact that when we're losing he has a responsibility that goes beyond everyone else. I don't particularly think that's true but I know he feels that way. He hasn't ducked that responsibility all year. Because we've been missing players night-in and night-out, it's made it very difficult on him. But he's had some great, great games. And even with his own personal difficulty, this guy has stayed and gone out and played a great game every single night no matter what the circumstances were. I have nothing but admiration for him."

Remember all those technical fouls? All the apparent distraction with the officials? In his first 50 games, O'Neal picked up 13 technicals - more than all of 2001-02, when he had 10. Though he hasn't gone totally silent, he has learned restraint. His last technical came 13 games ago. While Ron Artest rages on, O'Neal sets an example.

"He has matured to the point where he doesn't act out on the court because he understands that can hurt the team," Walsh said. "In every single way you can imagine, he's doing everything he can to help this team win."

None of this, of course, comes easily. In fact, this may well prove to be the most difficult period of O'Neal's career. Rather than succumbing to it, he has risen above. No one knows where the team will finish, or how it will fare in the playoffs, or whether his stepfather will recover. He seeks no guarantee that the hard work and personal sacrifice will be rewarded externally.

"My reward is just to be a better man," O'Neal said. "This has brought me closer to my family, brought me closer to my religion, made me look at things totally different. You're so close to losing a loved one ... the ultimate goal is to be a better daddy, a better son, a better teammate."

That, he already has won.