Caught in the Web Indiana Pacers blog: Now a grizzled role-player, O'Neal will always identify with Pacers

by Jeff Tzucker
by Conrad Brunner

January 26, 2012

O'Neal will always identify with Pacers

Jermaine O'Neal defends the player he was traded for, Roy Hibbert. (NBAE/Getty Images)

January 26, 2012 - It is difficult to think of Jermaine O'Neal as a grizzled veteran playing out the final chapter of his career and yet the facts demand acknowledgment. Though he is just 33 years old, O'Neal is in his 16th NBA season, content to play a supporting role in Boston.

Four years and three teams removed from his last season in Indiana, O'Neal knows his basketball identity was forged in those seasons here.

"That is who I am," he said by telephone Thursday afternoon from Orlando, where the Celtics were preparing to face the Magic. "I was in China on business this summer and people still have my Pacers jersey. People think the Pacers drafted me. They don't even know I played for Portland. My DNA was built through that city.

"I don't know if I could go anywhere around the world and people could recognize me if it wasn't for the Indianapolis culture, community, the Pacers, the Simons. A lot of my success away from basketball in the business world is partially because of the support I got as a person and as a player in that community and that organization.'

A six-time All-Star, three-time All-NBA selection and the Most Improved Player winner in 2001-02, O'Neal was the centerpiece of the team that set a franchise record with 61 victories in 2003-04 and appeared set to contend for a championship for years to come. But that one November night in Auburn Hills, Mich., changed everything. The Pacers slipped out of contention and into the lottery. O'Neal battled numerous health problems, missed significant chunks of his final four seasons and eventually was traded to Toronto in 2008, the post-draft deal that brought Roy Hibbert to Indiana.

With Hibbert playing a vital role, the Pacers are once again contenders, carrying a 12-5 record into Boston for their third matchup of the season with the Celtics Friday night.

"I love the fact that they're back doing well," he said. "To see them perform the way they're performing, I couldn't be happier because that city deserves to have a winning product. To see them back competing at a high level, playing well, the arena's starting to get full again and that's what it's all about. Even though I don't have a personal relationship with (Pacers President) Larry (Bird) I think he has done a very good job making trades, rebuilding the team and getting a product out there that's successful and the people of Indiana can be proud of."

The Celtics, on the other hand, find themselves in the unusual position of looking up at the Pacers in the standings, thanks in no small part due to Indiana's two victories in the previous meetings. With the core of Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett intact and healthy, the Celtics fully expect to be a championship contender.

"I think we're getting there," O'Neal said. "We're a little bit older than other teams and (Coach) Doc (Rivers) believes in resting the team so we've probably had five real regular practices, if that. We're having to adjust and improve in the games. We feel good about our opportunity. We know we're not far away. The games we've lost it's been a lot of self-inflicted wounds, not that teams have just come out and pounded us.

"We turn the ball over a lot, or we don't do certain assignments and it's very uncharacteristic of a Celtic team which has always been very disciplined on the defensive end and very unselfish on the offensive end. We're playing better basketball. We're built for the long run and we're built for the playoffs. We believe when the playoffs start it's a possession game, it's a halfcourt game and we like our chances against anybody."

The starting center -- the fifth Beatle in this band of superstars -- O'Neal's role is to defend, rebound, block shots and score every once in awhile if needed. For a guy that has spent the bulk of his career as the first option, the adjustment hasn't come easily but it's one O'Neal is making happily.

He credits the example set by Reggie Miller during their time together with the Pacers. Miller stepped into a supporting role in the latter phase of his career as O'Neal emerged as the team's next major star.

"Reggie taught me a lot about being able to adjust, how you've got to adjust your game to where you're at in your career," he said. "Mentally, when you get injured, you hurt your knee and then you hurt it again, your thought process has to be different whether you want it to or not. It's a very difficult pill to be swallow, to be honest, but if you don't start transforming that thought process from a go-to guy, from a marquee guy to a role-player then I think you’re absolutely cheating yourself, your teammates, your fan base and your organization.

"I love the game. My wife yells at me when I say this, but basketball has been my girlfriend since I was 7, 8 years old and she's been very good to me in a lot of different ways and you don't want to mistreat her. I'm at peace with it, to be honest. I understand where I'm at. Even in Miami, I was able to get low-post catches, isolation catches. In Boston it's totally different. It's one of those rare systems where you're given a role and I haven't seen that on the pro level up until now. It was tough to not be able to get low-post catches, it's tough not being involved, some games not at all.

"But I know what the team needs from me: to block shots, score when given the opportunity, take charges, hold down the defensive end, help a lot with rotations and pick-and-rolls, so those are the things I concentrate on and I try to do my job to the best of my ability. It's not an easy task but at the end of the day it's all about one thing and that's winning a championship. That's the reason I chose to come to Boston."

O'Neal said this might be the last season of his career, and he is preparing himself for life after basketball. He is building a home in Dallas in order to retire to the life of full-time dad.

First, however, he remains focused on fulfilling his role as elder statesman with the Celtics, as odd as that may seem.

"The first time I heard a guy say 'I watched you when I was in seventh grade,' it was Michael Beasley in Miami," he said with a laugh. "And last year when I got to the Celtics, Avery Bradley said I was his favorite player and he used to buy all my shoes. And I thought, 'Wow, I'm playing with these guys and they were watching me in the sixth or seventh grade.'

"It happens pretty fast, to be honest, and it really doesn't dawn on you until you get with a team like the Celtics that has a lot of older guys. Kevin, myself and Ray, we all grew up in South Carolina together so we have all these talks about the hey-days and you really feel like you've been around awhile. You're sitting around like old men on a porch somewhere in the South reminiscing about the past."

When he does, O'Neal's mind invariably drifts back to Indianapolis, to his glory years, to a city and franchise he will always hold close to his heart.

"My love for the people there is at a level I don't think they understand," he said. "For the people that were behind me, I truly appreciate it. And for the people that were negative towards me for whatever reason, I tried to do everything I could do.

"Whether they liked me or not, I'll always love that city, I'll always love the people there."

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