I thought this was reasonably balanced...
His season over, his career at a crossroads, Jermaine O’Neal walked out of Conseco Fieldhouse and into the night. He lingered outside the exit just long enough for his wife, Mesha, to see the nostalgia flicker in his eyes.
O’Neal knew this much: He wasn’t coming back.
As much as O’Neal had grown to love Indianapolis, as much as he owed the Indiana Pacers and their former president, Donnie Walsh, for taking him out of Portland and helping make him an NBA All-Star, his was a damaged marriage with the Pacers. The 2004 brawl in Detroit – resulting in a string of season-killing suspensions, along with four years of court proceedings – had hung over the team, in O’Neal’s words, like a “curse.” Ron Artest rapped his way out of town. Stephen Jackson shot his way out. Jamaal Tinsley couldn’t stay healthy or out of trouble.
The fans weren’t stupid. They stopped coming. What had once been one of the NBA’s great home courts sat half-empty on most nights.
“It was like a morgue,” O’Neal said last weekend. “You walk into that arena every day, and people just knew it was a bad situation. They knew that it wasn’t going to get better anytime soon.
“I was just worn. …I was begging for a change.”
A little more than two months later, the Pacers agreed to trade him to the Toronto Raptors for T.J. Ford, Rasho Nesterovic and Toronto’s first-round pick. O’Neal got his fresh start. He also lost his excuses.
All the off-court distractions, all those missed games and injuries matter not. O’Neal begins anew in Toronto.
“A lot of people have sort of written him off and everything, but he’s ready to play,” said Raptors forward Chris Bosh, O’Neal’s new frontcourt partner. “He’s back to his old self.”
Pacers officials will probably roll their eyes at that. O’Neal always talked a good game with them, but he had long since stopped playing one. Pacers president Larry Bird, ever the gamer during his Hall of Fame career, didn’t mention O’Neal by name when he told The Indianapolis Star last month that the franchise has lacked leadership since Reggie Miller retired, but it was clear to whom he was referring.
“Just because you make the most money doesn’t mean you’re the leader,” Bird said. “…The leader comes from the guy doing the right thing, the guy that’s going to be there every day at practice, the guy that plays through pain without complaining.”
O’Neal, for reasons valid or not, hardly qualified on that front. He sat out at least 30 games in three of his last four seasons in Indiana, an attendance rate that fell far short of justifying his $20 million-plus salary. O’Neal almost always had a smile ready for the cameras. He did good work in the Indianapolis community. But far too often, the Pacers took the court with his jersey still hanging in the locker room.
O’Neal admits as much, directing most of the blame at his left knee. He had surgery to repair a cartilage tear the summer before last season, and was on the floor for opening night. By mid-January, however, O’Neal felt like he was playing on one leg. Tired of crunching Advil – “12 a day,” he claims – he sought the advice of a couple specialists and shut down for the next 2½ months. He returned for the final two weeks, and the Pacers finished one win shy of claiming the Eastern Conference’s last playoff berth.
Because neither O’Neal nor the Pacers wanted to further diminish his trade value, “we didn’t really want to speak much about my injuries,” he said. “Whenever it got to the point where I had to sit out, we just had to call it something else. But over the last 2½ years, that knee was the issue.”
There were other issues, not all of them external.
“Mentally, I was just worn out,” he said. “When you get to that point, you just kind of lose that fire.”
The Pacers could argue O’Neal had 20-odd million reasons to keep burning. But in the end, Bird agreed with O’Neal on one thing: The franchise wasn’t going to improve until it parted ways with its most talented player. O’Neal drew up a list of teams he preferred to go to – the Los Angeles Lakers, among others, passed on a trade – and he was thankful the Pacers found a home for him on the Raptors’ promising roster.
“Everybody knows me and Larry didn’t have the best relationship,” O’Neal said. “We just didn’t have an open line of communication…but this summer we knew exactly what was the best situation and we worked pretty well together. We had some phone conversations that went very, very well, we kind of laughed and joked about some things, and that’s something we hadn’t done ever in my stay there.”
In truth, O’Neal, for all his talent, is better cast as the complementary player than the fragile franchise cornerstone. These Raptors still belong to Bosh. The franchise’s GM, Bryan Colangelo, brought in O’Neal only to help with the heavy lifting, gambling some $44 million over the next two seasons to do so. If O’Neal stays healthy and committed, neither of which he did consistently enough in Indiana, Toronto will have a formidable frontcourt tandem.
To help ensure that, O’Neal relocated to Las Vegas for the summer, and worked out under the guidance of noted performance trainer Joe Abunassar. He strengthened his legs and core to lessen the pressure on his knee and regain, hopefully, at least some measure of his explosiveness. His body, he says, now feels fine. The only practices he’s missed are the ones Toronto’s coach, Sam Mitchell, ordered him to sit out.
O’Neal will technically begin the season as Toronto’s center, though his and Bosh’s roles are fairly interchangeable. Depending on who rebounds or who’s closer to midcourt, one will post low while the other sets up near the top of the key. O’Neal’s defensive capabilities have been a bit overstated in recent seasons, but the Raptors are hopeful he’ll help anchor that side of the floor and improve their rebounding. In a recent exhibition game, he bulled his way around Los Angeles Clippers center Chris Kaman on the block for a couple of early baskets, then drove and pulled up for another shot. Together, O’Neal and Bosh totaled 46 points, 20 rebounds and five blocks.
“Jermaine used to play a little like Chris before he got hurt,” Mitchell said. “Everyone forgets that.”
There’s a reason why everyone forgot, though even most of O’Neal’s skeptics expect to see him improve with the Raptors.
“Bryan Colangelo isn’t dumb; he didn’t trade for an injured player,” said one Eastern Conference scout. “Jermaine will probably dedicate himself this season. He quit on Indiana. I guess if there’s anything to worry about, it’s that he could always do the same in Toronto.”
The Raptors, who watched Vince Carter bail his way toward a trade nearly four years ago, are due some good karma. O’Neal will have to make his own.
The Pacers gave him what he wanted. He got his fresh start. No more excuses.
Johnny Ludden is the NBA editor for Yahoo! Sports.