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LAS VEGAS -- Jermaine O'Neal is recovering from an injury. He will miss the Olympics despite earning a spot on the U.S. basketball team after three dutiful summers of international play. One of his best friends, Al Harrington, has been traded to Atlanta.
But O'Neal is happy. He'd be even happier if the Indiana Pacers would find a way to add another big body to lessen some of his physical burden, but he's in good spirits as he begins serious summer workouts and is looking forward to next season with optimism.
O'Neal strained his left knee in Game 4 of the Pacers' loss to Detroit in the Eastern Conference finals in May. That, combined with Jamaal Tinsley's leg injuries, had a major impact on the Pistons' six-game victory, which they parlayed into an NBA championship by beating the Los Angeles Lakers.
O'Neal, who is spending most of the summer at his home in Portland, Ore., while his Indianapolis residence undergoes an extensive renovation, began working out recently. He suffered a slight setback last week when his knee swelled, but he tested it as a part-time participant in a four-day series of workouts that drew more than 50 NBA and college players to a Las Vegas high school. He'll briefly return to Indianapolis this week, then go to Los Angeles to begin earnest preparations for training camp in October. His primary goals are to get stronger and add range to his jump shot.
O'Neal expects his knee to be close to 100 percent by then. Meanwhile, the rest of his body is recuperating during his first summer away from international competition since 2000.
O'Neal discussed his health and other subjects in a recent interview.
Question: Is your recovery from your knee injury on schedule?
Answer: It's like learning to walk again. But I don't have any concerns that I won't be ready by training camp. If I'm not 100 percent by then, I'll be in the high 80s to mid-90s.
This is the first time ever I've started working out in August. It's a plus/minus thing because my body really needed it. I feel great. I feel like I can go 12 -- no, not 12, four -- rounds in a boxing match.
Q Do you feel bad when you watch the Olympic team's exhibition games on television, knowing you were supposed to be on the team?
A No, it is what it is. My obligation is to my country, but also I have to be healthy to help my team win.
Q Do you want to play in the 2008 Olympics?
A That is the goal. I'll be much, much healthier then, after a couple of summers of rest. It's kind of a perfect situation for me. I look at it now and realize I couldn't have made it this summer anyway. I barely made it last year (when he played for the team that won the gold medal in the qualifying tournament). I was taking medication every day, just to play. I haven't taken any medication at all this summer. I think the city will notice a big difference in my game because I'm going to be well-rested.
Q You and Al Harrington and Jonathan Bender had viewed yourselves as the future of the Pacers. Are you disappointed it's not going to work out that way?
A There's so many things that are on a personal level with Al. We've spent so much time together the last four years. I don't know what my dog's going to do because even our dogs had a personal relationship with each other. We both have Yorkies. My daughter's going to miss him. My fiancee and his girlfriend are the best of friends. There's going to be a void there.
But I know ultimately this is what he really wants. This is the best thing for him. We still talk all the time. He's very excited. And we get Stephen Jackson. Me and him (have reconnected) right away. We've known each other since we were juniors in high school. We played on the same team in the McDonald's All-American game. He has some championship experience and leadership that I want, so I'm going to try to piggyback and learn as much as possible from him. It was a plus for both teams and both players.
Q Who should be the starting shooting guard next season, Stephen Jackson or Reggie Miller?
A I don't know. It's what Reggie wants. I'll let him write the end to that story. I love Reggie to death. He's a guy I really look up to. When he's on the court, whether he's 40 or 80, he's still a threat. Reggie understands the situation and he understands we have some guys who can get the job done, but we understand Reggie can get the job done. Any deficiencies that he may have this year, we're going to be behind him. He's a year older, but he's one of the best at taking care of his body.
He doesn't play that much anyway. We're going to let Reggie come into camp and say whether he wants to start or not. Knowing how competitive he is, he's going to want to start and I'm totally with him.
Q What was it like watching Detroit win the championship, knowing you might have been able to beat them if not for the injuries you and Tinsley had?
A I didn't watch it. It was too painful. I watched the (final) game and was totally happy for Rasheed (Wallace). It's a great thing because it brings credibility back to the East. I've kind of been the spokesman for that.
If you look at the history of championship teams, it seems every championship team had to get a break somewhere. Detroit got a break in every round. (New Jersey's) Jason Kidd got hurt, I got hurt, Karl Malone (of the Lakers) got hurt. It was their time. It just wasn't our time. But every year we've grown more from experience and we've gotten better and better. Everybody in that locker room knows what it takes to get to the next level now.
Q How do you like having Shaquille O'Neal in the East now?
A It brings us more credibility. I like having him over there. It's just good for the East. People can stop talking about the West, because I don't think the West is that good. They have some good teams, but we have some good teams.
Q Does it make Miami a contender?
A They're definitely a threat. But it's still us and Detroit. We're the front-runners. And we feel like a healthy Indiana Pacers team can beat a healthy Detroit team.
Q Do you feel the team you have now can win it all?
A I sure hope so. I would love to see us get another big guy; another big strong guy who can score and give me some time to dance around and do my thing and not be the guy who's guarding the best post guy or trying to score every time. I'd love to play weak side and go get a couple of offensive rebounds and do stuff like that rather than coming down and having to bang against everybody and try to get the ball in there and score. That's hard on you.
I've been begging (Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh) and those guys, 'Please get a big guy. Please get a big guy.' My back won't be hurting as much, my legs won't be hurting. I love Jeff Foster . . . but we also have to have another big guy.
Q Such as Erick Dampier?
A It's a tough situation because he's looking for so much money. We don't have that available and we'd have to give up some other guys (in a sign-and-trade). That's just not something you should do. We shouldn't give up core guys to get another big guy.
Q Have you suggested to Dampier that he take less money to play for the Pacers?
A We've talked an awful lot this summer. I told him he should do a one-year deal. The only option out there for him is Atlanta. It's his judgment call. He understands we'd love to have him.
But whether we can get a big guy or not, I really think this team is going to be ready to play. There's going to be so much opportunity this year. Guys know what it takes now. Guys will play hard and it's going to be hard for (coach) Rick Carlisle to make decisions on playing time.
Call Star reporter Mark Montieth at (317) 444-6406.