by Conrad Brunner
October 3, 2002
Cincinnati, October 3, 2002 - Set up as parallel platforms from which to jump into consecutive seasons, the scenarios couldn't have produced more divergent results for Jermaine O'Neal.
In the summer of 2001, O'Neal headed to Australia with the U.S. team in the Goodwill Games, emerged as the star of the tournament and brought home not only a gold medal but emboldened confidence.
In the summer of 2002, the plans went awry. O'Neal was named to the U.S. team for the World Basketball Championship but struggled mightily, battling to contain his emotions and control his game. The U.S. team suffered an ignominious sixth-place finish and O'Neal emerged with a sprained ankle, broken nose, sore back and badly bruised ego.
It is the Pacers' hope that rejoining his NBA teammates in training camp this week at Cintas Center on the campus of Xavier University will help O'Neal shake his world championship hangover.
"I talk about it almost every day," O'Neal said. "People want to know what happened. That was one of the toughest experiences I've been through in a long, long time. Getting hurt early in training camp, I wanted to win the gold medal so bad I tried to play through it with a sprained back, a broken nose and then I ended up rolling my ankle. Not to win and get beat here kind of hurt me a lot."
Coach Isiah Thomas, who was a regular spectator throughout the WBC, and Reggie Miller, O'Neal's U.S. teammate, both believe he needs to regroup, more mentally than physically, from that disappointment in both his individual performance and the team's result. O'Neal averaged just 7.3 points and 4.5 rebounds in the worlds. In the two critical losses to Argentina and Yugoslavia, he had more fouls (nine) than field goals (eight).
"Jermaine had a long summer," Miller said. "Playing in the world championships and the disappointment of that, I felt a lot of players both international and on our team, were kind of testing him and I think he fed into that a little bit. A couple of times I had to pull him aside and let him know that he was showing too many of his cards. He had to play with more of a poker face.
"You can't fault him for that because Jermaine is just being Jermaine but sometimes you've kind of got to hide your cards a little bit because they're testing you for a reason: A, they respect you and B, they're kind of scared of you. But if they can figure out what makes you tick, they can use that to their advantage."
Thomas had a deeper, far more philosophical, characterization of O'Neal's offseason.
"I was pleased with the way he finished the NBA season, the playoffs and everything," Thomas said. "I thought over the summer that he lost focus of himself and he started concentrating too much on his game as opposed to his person. For Jermaine O'Neal to be all the things we want him to be and all the things he thinks he can be, not only does he have to be a great player but he has to be a great person. What we've got to get him re-focused on is committing to those values we play with and those things becoming him as a man.
"At 23, with all the success that he's had, you have a tendency to say, 'I want a better hook shot, or I want to have a better rebounding total.' There's a tendency for young men to have their game define their person. What I said to Jermaine is that at the end of the day you cannot be defined by how many points you score, how many rebounds you get and how many blocks you have. When they talk about Jermaine O'Neal, they've got to talk about the person first, and then the player. The way you're going about your life right now, they're talking about the player first and they have no idea who the person is. When they talk about Jermaine O'Neal they've got to talk about a person who has commitment, loyalty and trust. Those are the things you want people to say about you and not necessarily be defined by how many points you score."
On the eve of training camp, Thomas shared those thoughts with O'Neal directly. Though O'Neal admitted it took a while for the words to sink in, he is beginning to understand more completely his coach's message.
"Sometimes losing takes you through many different paths," O'Neal said. "Some days I was in the gym doing a little too much and kind of burned myself out, physically. We talked for like two hours trying to get me to understand. He cannot allow himself to become distracted by officials' decisions or opponents' challenges. He must keep his eyes straight ahead, and not let his focus waver from the ultimate goal.
"In general, for my team to be successful I've got to stay focused," he said. "I can't worry about (calls). I've never seen a call turn a game. No matter what you say, the call's going to stand. So just playing through everything and staying focused for the team is what I want to do this year."
O'Neal's emergence as a player took a giant step last season, when he averaged 19.0 points and 10.5 rebounds and made his first All-Star appearance. One of the goals this season is to enhance his personal growth.
"Obviously, if we're going to make the next step, he has to be my Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett, those kinds of guys," said Miller. "He's the type of player that can do it. I don't want to hear any more talking. I want actions and I want results. We can sit here and talk until we're blue in the face. He has all the skills, and he has the game, who can take all of us to that next level."
Coach Isiah Thomas will open Saturday's practice to the public, beginning at 11 a.m. (Eastern) at the Cintas Center on the campus of Xavier University in Cincinnati.
O'Neal appeared to tweak his back injury when his dunk attempt was blocked by Jonathan Bender on the final play of a scrimmage on Wednesday night, but he was back at practice Thursday morning. He left the court, however, with ice bags taped to both of his ankles.
The first three cuts of camp came after the morning practice on Thursday, as forwards Rodney Smith (Purdue), Andre Hutson (Michigan State) and Rolan Roberts (Southern Illinois) were released. Thomas said no more moves were likely until next week after the team breaks camp and returns to Indianapolis.
Back-to-back birthdays were celebrated with song, albeit the choir lost a few voices. Hutson, Smith, Roberts and Fred Jones serenaded Primoz Brezec on his 23rd birthday on Wednesday night. Only Jones and Nate Green remained to perform the song on Thursday night for Greg Foster, who turned 34.