O'Neal, Jefferson Renew Fieldhouse Acquaintance
A few days after the Pacers added a third young center to their roster — another big man who should have a decade or so of NBA seasons ahead of him — a couple of former Pacer centers passed through Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Players come and players go, the older ones with sore knees and hard-won perspectives and the young ones with still-fresh legs and dreamy ambitions. If only they could meet in the middle, if not a back hallway, to refuel and remind one another.
Jermaine O'Neal and Al Jefferson were in town for the Big3 League games Sunday. Jefferson played for the Triplets in their victory while O'Neal, a member of the Tri-State team, had to sit out because of an irregular heartbeat. The building brought back memories for both, mostly fond ones, because of their experiences a decade apart.
O'Neal played eight seasons for the Pacers, by far the best stretch of his seven-team, 18-season career that ended in 2017. He was a six-time All-Star in that period and finished third in the league MVP voting in 2004 while earning second-team All-NBA honors.
Jefferson played the final two of his 14 seasons with the Pacers, past-his-prime seasons in which he ranked second on the team in the efficiency rating as well as in scoring and rebounding on a per-minute basis.
Both qualify as old-school centers — or in O'Neal's case an occasional power forward — who played mostly with his back to the basket. Not like the whippersnapper centers of today such as Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, and the newly-drafted Gago Bitadze, each of whom can step out and hit 3-pointers with guard-like accuracy.
So, while the ex-players can teach the young ones a thing or two about the job, the reverse also would be true. Consider that O'Neal attempted 95 3-pointers in his 1,011 regular season NBA games, and hit just 14, and that Jefferson attempted 66 3-pointers in his 915 games and hit eight. Turner, meanwhile, has attempted 482 threes in 280 games, and hitting 175 of them.
Jefferson, who hit a 3-pointer on his way to 11 points on Sunday, could have been with the Pacers this past season if he wanted. He had a team option on the third year of his contract and was invited to return, but declined it. Nothing against the franchise, he just wanted to finish his career playing and contributing rather than sitting and watching, as he had mostly done in the 2017-18 season when he played in just 36 games and not at all in the playoff series with Cleveland.
"I wanted to play at a high level," he said. "I knew coming back to the NBA, not just the Pacers, I wasn't going to have minutes again, so I wanted to get it out of my system."
It didn't work out. He played 10 games in China for a team that had just defeated the league's dominant team when he was asked to step aside so another player could be given a look, with the possibility of being brought back. He wasn't interested in that and returned to the States.
He's 34 now and has put on a few pounds after going off his vegetarian diet, but looked in fine form on Sunday. His type of skill set ages well, with his nimble feet and soft hands, and it seems he could even find a place in the NBA again if he wanted.
But, no. He feels pride and gratitude for playing 14 NBA seasons, and three-on-three halfcourt games are all he wants.
Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images
"I'm retired," he said. "When I left Indiana to go to China, I kind of knew that was going to be my last run. I just wanted to get that out of my system and play at a high level. Even though China sucks and didn't work out for me, when I came home I decided to just hang it up and be good."
"Don't put that on the record," said Triplets teammate Jannero Pargo, who was seated next to Jefferson. "China does not suck."
"Not China, but the team I was at sucks," Jefferson clarified. "My experience sucks. I love China. Sorry."
Jefferson, who now lives in Atlanta, has no desire to take a coaching job and no immediate plans to involve himself in basketball other than to travel around the NBA next season and drop in on some of his former teams — he has enough of them to keep busy — and offer clinics.
He attended one Pacers game last winter and was a welcome sight in the locker room, where he had been a majordomo the previous year, an essentially semi-retired sage who performed when called upon. Before that game he challenged the left-handed Sabonis to hit a shot with his right hand. When Sabonis did, he made a point of looking at Jefferson seated on the baseline and smiling.
"Like a proud big brother," Jefferson recalled of his reaction.
Jefferson also took pleasure in seeing Turner's development into the NBA's leading shot-blocker.
"Myles only got one way to go: up," Jefferson said. "This year he proved he can be the top defensive player in this league. He's going to continue to get better and better."
Jefferson had worked extensively with Sabonis on post moves after practice and before games. He worked less often with Turner, but is open to doing so in the future, just as he would like to do with anyone who asks for his help.
"I told Pargo when he becomes a head coach I'll come in and work with the young guys, because by the time he becomes a head coach the game will change back to the back-to-the basket center and I'll be happy to come in and help the young guys out."
O'Neal could do the same if he wanted. He was ambidextrous around the basket, hitting game-winning jump-hooks with each hand in one brief stretch for the Pacers. He also once scored a Fieldhouse-record 55 points against a short-handed Milwaukee team in the 2004-05 season by unleashing his entire arsenal of attacks against a defense that refused to double-team him, or perhaps lacked the personnel to do so. He left the game with 1:44 remaining, unconcerned with surpassing Reggie Miller's NBA franchise record of 57 points or George McGinnis' ABA franchise record of 58.
O'Neal is 40 years old now, and immersed in businesses and other activities. He believes the stress from his ventures led to his recent heart issues, but he expects to be cleared to play in Big3 games again when he meets with his doctor on Tuesday.
Perhaps it was appropriate that he was unable to play on Sunday. He missed a lot of games while with the Pacers, too. He averaged 51.5 games over his final four seasons, and played in just 42 in his final one in 2007-08.
He hung on, however, to play six more seasons in the NBA, with Toronto, Miami, Boston, Phoenix and Golden State. He finished his career with the Warriors in 2013-14, and contributed to the early steps of their dominant run. He started 13 games that season, such as in the April 1 contest at Dallas when he joined Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and Draymond Green in the lineup and scored 20 points in 33 minutes in a two-point victory at Dallas. He was only able to go 4 1/2 minutes the next night in San Antonio, however, an indication of his battle-weary body.
His current health concern is far more important than a knee strain, but he looks forward to rejoining his Big3 teammates the rest of the season if cleared by his doctor.
Time has a way of filtering out negative memories and healing old relationships, though. O'Neal has become close friends with Ron Artest, with whom he clashed occasionally while playing for title-contending teams with the Pacers, and he welcomed the opportunity to revive memories at The Fieldhouse on Sunday.
"It's always going to be a special place for me," he said. "Even walking out there for the (introduction of) lineups, you get that tingling feeling. So many great memories on that court. I'm older now and can sit back and look at it and say, 'Look, here's where I came to at 20 years old and grew as a young man."
O'Neal recalled his first day in Indianapolis after he was acquired in the trade for popular power forward Dale Davis in the summer of 2000. Sitting at a table at the Champps restaurant, he overheard patrons at a nearby table who had recognized him as the replacement for Davis.
"We're going to see what he has," they agreed.
"That moment always stuck to me," said O'Neal, who despite his injuries outperformed Davis by a wide margin.
One of his first conversations with Miller also stuck.
"Reggie sat me down in the locker room and said, 'Whatever you're going to be, I'm going to give you that opportunity to be it.' It would have been easy for him to say, coming off a Finals appearance, 'Look, we don't want the youth movement.'"
The Pacers' current youth movement of Turner, Sabonis, and Bitadze could benefit from that kind of mentorship today. They could do worse than connecting with Jefferson or O'Neal to get it.
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