INDIANAPOLIS - Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen provided the blueprint for what Jermaine O'Neal hopes to accomplish as a Toronto Raptor.
O'Neal, a six-time All-Star who has said he's being traded from the Indiana Pacers to Toronto, said he watched as Garnett and Allen sacrificed personal statistics to win their first championships after being traded to Boston last summer. By taking the same approach, O'Neal hopes to shake the drama that followed him as a Pacer and win his first ring.
"I think you've got to be able to do whatever you need to do to make the team successful," O'Neal told the AP in a telephone interview, admitting he was a bit jealous of the Boston stars. "I watched Kevin and watched Paul (Pierce) and watched Ray win a championship, and it's probably the most emotional I've ever been watching a game in my career. I felt the burden being lifted off their shoulders."
O'Neal still carries the burden of having a solid individual career that lacks the ultimate team accomplishment. He was third in the MVP balloting in 2003-04, when he averaged 20.1 points, 10 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. He averaged a career-high 24.3 points per game in 2004-05, then averaged 20.1 and 19.4 points the next two seasons.
Critics say O'Neal is too old to return to top form. He'll be 30 before the season starts, and he's missed 122 regular-season games the past four years, mostly due to injuries.
O'Neal hears the doubters, and hopes to prove them wrong.
"If I dominate and do things I'm supposed to do, and it's at an All-Star level _ that's what matters," he said. "Get in the locker room, get guys ready, bring an emotional presence, a defensive presence that I'm supposed to bring. If I can bring those things and the bitterness that I have right now _ because I am bitter _ I know where I need to get back to, I know who I am. I know I'm focused on this."
O'Neal is excited about playing next to Chris Bosh, an All-Star forward who averaged 22.3 points and 8.7 rebounds per game last season. He likes point guard Jose Calderon, a pass-first court general who emerged last season.
Mostly, he's looking forward to playing for a contender in front of loud, loyal fans, things he had as a Pacer before the November 2004 brawl between Indiana players and Detroit Pistons fans. In the fallout, most of the key elements to the team _ Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and now O'Neal _ were sent elsewhere.
Off-the-court problems involving other Pacers further tarnished the team's image, and the once popular franchise ended last season with the lowest attendance in the league.
"The support just wasn't there," O'Neal said. "As a player, you want that stuff to be there, and rightfully so, it shouldn't have been there. The negativity should have been there, the perception should have been there because we didn't give ourselves a chance to look any differently."
The Pacers had an NBA-best 61-21 record in 2003-04, the year before the brawl. The past two seasons, they failed to make the playoffs.
"That probably was the hardest part for me, to go from talking about what we need to do to win a championship to coming into a situation where we're talking about what we need to do to make the playoffs," he said. "It's hard to watch some of my peers win championships every year."
Though he missed 53 games in the past two seasons to injury, O'Neal was popular with Pacers fans when he could play. He was third in fan balloting for the franchise's 40-year anniversary team, trailing only Reggie Miller and Mel Daniels.
He hopes fans don't forget his better days.
"Hopefully, at the end of the day, I can one day be looked at as one of the all-time greats to play for the Pacers."
O'Neal said he thinks the Pacers did well with trade, which brings them point guard T.J. Ford and center Rasho Nesterovic and the rights to the No. 17 overall draft pick, center Roy Hibbert of Georgetown.
His departure leaves Danny Granger and Mike Dunleavy, both coming off career years, as Indiana's new leaders.
"Those guys understand now how to carry a team," O'Neal said.
For O'Neal, however, this time is about a fresh start.
"I'm going to be back next year, and whatever happens, hopefully it makes the city of Toronto and the country of Canada really happy," he said.