Sunday February 18, 2007
O'Neal's legacy yet unresolved
Pacers' 6-time All-Star remains frustrated by his team's dearth of NBA championship runs
By Mike Wells
Delivering on promiseHis 6-11, still-developing frame towered over most fans attending the 2000 NBA All-Star Game in Oakland, Calif.
Jermaine O'Neal was 21, a bench-warmer in Portland, yes, but one with stars in his eyes. He wanted to see the show, though he was no ordinary spectator, a fact not lost on those who stopped him at every turn.
Scottie Pippen told him the sky was the limit. Fans promised him that, some day soon, he would be an All-Star, too. Isiah Thomas met O'Neal for the first time and told him, "Your time will come."
And so it did.
Six months later, O'Neal was traded to Indiana, where he immediately began to lay the foundation of a potential Hall of Fame career.
Today in Las Vegas, the face of the franchise will make his team-record sixth All-Star appearance, one more than Pacers icon Reggie Miller.
"You can't say you're fully surprised because they traded Dale (Davis) for him," said center Jeff Foster, the only remaining Pacer from when O'Neal was acquired. "I'm not saying Dale was the cornerstone, but with Rik (Smits) leaving and Mark (Jackson) leaving, he was an important piece to our team. For (CEO) Donnie Walsh to trade him for a young kid that hadn't played very much, you knew he had potential. It was just a matter of getting to play, which he hadn't done much of in Portland."
At 28 and in his 11th season, O'Neal now is a veteran in a youth-laden All-Star Game that includes young pups LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony.
They represent the league's future. Yet O'Neal still likes his, even if he isn't exactly sure where it will be.
His seven-year, $127 million contract officially expires after the 2009-10 season. He can opt out after the 2007-08 season but has said he might ask to be traded if he can't lead this team deep into the playoffs. O'Neal plans to discuss his future with Walsh and team president Larry Bird after the season.
"Whatever happens after the season happens," O'Neal said. "My preference is to be here, but if the situation ain't right, it ain't right."
"If I can't get the job done and I don't have the year (I expect), I shouldn't be here," O'Neal said that day. "We have to cut ties."
O'Neal was frustrated with the team's underachieving season.
Frustrated with injuries that limited him the previous two seasons.
Frustrated to the point where he didn't enjoy walking in the locker room every day.
O'Neal vowed to return in top shape and have a career year.
At first glance, his statistics (19.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.0 blocks) don't scream "career year," but his supporters do, particularly in how he has emerged as a defensive force.
"Without a doubt, it is (his best season)," Walsh said. "There might be years where he's put up better numbers and all that, but I judge it by the fact of what you expect out of an All-Star, either on the defensive or offensive end. He's carried the load for us."
Said coach Rick Carlisle: "He has struck a balance in carrying the offensive load and keeping other guys involved from a game and confidence standpoint. One of the signs of a high-level player in this league is his ability to not only play the game at a high level, but raise the level of his teammates. He's doing that."
O'Neal insists it's only the beginning.
"I've only shown flashes of who I am," he said. "The final product has yet to be seen. People always say you lose a step the older you get. Even though my body has taken a beating the past two years from wear and tear, I feel good mentally. I haven't tapped into the area that's going to take me over the top."
O'Neal likely will add to his All-Star appearances -- here or elsewhere. He has led the Pacers in scoring average the past five seasons. He is the franchise's all-time leader in blocked shots.
But there's something missing. He wants to step outside Miller's shadow and provide the city the one thing Miller didn't.
"All those things that I've done are good, but my ultimate goal is to do something nobody has done in a Pacers uniform: that's win a championship," O'Neal said. "I look at the trials and tribulations we've been through the past three years. We have to go through those to get to the ultimate goal."
Will it happen as a Pacer?
IndyStarBird has been around the NBA as a player, coach or decision-maker for 20 years, and he understands O'Neal's frustration with the constant inconsistency.O'Neal's frustrations spilled out last summer as he sat inside an empty Conseco Fieldhouse practice court.
What Bird doesn't understand is why O'Neal went public about his future for the second time in seven months last month after a loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
"I've seen this stuff happen before. He's having a heck of a year, but if he wants to sit down at the end of the season still, we'll sit down with him," Bird said. "Guys get frustrated, but they don't understand what it does to the perception of our fans when they see that stuff."
Questions surrounding O'Neal's future will likely continue to arise as long as the Pacers stay around the .500 mark. He said he doesn't plan to spend what could be his final 30 games here constantly answering questions about it.
"I don't have time for that," O'Neal said. "My concern is what I have to deal with now, and that's winning games. We're trying to get back to where we were before. We can do that. At the end of the day when I hang up my shoes and jersey, I want to be talked about as a champion, not just a great player."
Whether that happens -- and where it might happen -- remains to be seen.