By Conrad Brunner
Oct. 5, 2004
After his first summer without international competition in four years, Jermaine O’Neal is bigger, stronger, fresher and healthier than he's been since joining the Pacers.
Considering what he’s been able to accomplish under less inviting circumstances in the past three seasons, it could mean bad news for the rest of the Eastern Conference.
“I think the rest this summer is going to give me the opportunity to accomplish anything I want to accomplish,” O’Neal said. “I feel great. I’m not sitting down with the team and saying, ‘My back is hurting, so I’m going to have to crawl my way through training camp.’ I’m happy. I’m definitely stronger. And I still feel like I’m quicker. My legs are under me right now.
“It’s a big year for us. You can’t win 61 games, go to the Eastern Conference Finals, and have a dropoff. I’ve got to come in and play at a high level. … I feel better for my chances to play at a high level this year, at an MVP level and also a championship level.”
O’Neal reported to camp weighing 260 pounds, more the result of heavy lifting in the weight room than any relative lack of activity in the offseason. The hyperextended left knee he suffered in the Eastern Conference Finals wasn’t fully healed until August, when he was cleared to return to the court. Not long after that, scrimmaging with Reggie Miller and Austin Croshere in the Los Angeles area, he suffered a foot injury that put him in an air cast for a few weeks.
But that was just a minor malady and he was at Finish Line Practice Court Tuesday morning for the first practice of training camp.
“Jermaine’s situation is unusual,” said Coach Rick Carlisle. He’s one guy who needed to have a lighter workload for a summer. He’s really played three straight years of rigorous international play and NBA seasons sandwiched in between, which is very difficult. I know he feels recharged, refreshed. He’s got a couple of little dings, but he’ll work hard to get through those. It’s a new beginning for him.”
A strong commitment to USA Basketball has contributed to O’Neal’s wear and tear. He represented the United States in the 2001 Goodwill Games, the 2002 World Basketball Championship and the 2003 Tournament of the Americas Olympic qualifier. The knee injury prevented him from competing in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, but it could allow O’Neal to take his NBA game to new levels.
Even with the busy schedule and the variety of nagging health problems, O’Neal averaged 20.0 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.39 blocked shots in the past three seasons combined, establishing himself as one of the pre-eminent low-post player in the league. Is there still another level to his game?
“My body’s been a real issue coming into the last couple of seasons, and I’ve actually had a chance to get strong and concentrate on a lot of things that I needed to,” O’Neal said. “It’s going to help me. I’m very excited about our chances this year. We’re not even looking at getting into the championships, we’re looking at winning. That’s our goal. We as a team are very experienced right now. We’ve been through pains the last four years, and now, we’ve got to feel that it’s our time.
“Obviously, Miami has Shaq, and he’s the most dominant player in the game, but we have a better team - a team more seasoned to win more championships. It’s not about the best individual players; it’s about the best team. We want to be in that position this year.”
O’Neal bulked up two years ago, reporting to camp weighing 250, but enjoyed mixed results. He had trouble maintaining the weight throughout the season and ultimately returned to his norm of 242. This time, with a personal chef on his staff and a renewed commitment to weight training, O’Neal expects the extra strength to not only help his game, but enable him to be stronger late in the year.
“I’ve trained myself this summer,” he said. “Even though I haven’t been able to do a lot of court work I’ve done a lot of training, weight-wise. I’m a lot stronger, I’m a lot heavier than I’ve ever been in my career. I feel good about my size, my ability and my durability.”
“When you see him, it’s obvious that he’s put on a lot more bulk,” said Reggie Miller. “He’s really been in the weight room and, if anything, that’s going to be a key for him staying healthy: staying in the weight room and conditioning, as well as bulking up his body.”
O’Neal plans to carefully monitor the progress of his foot injury early in camp, to see how it responds to the practices. He hinted he might sit out the first two or three preseason games but just as a precaution.
“I don’t really want to push it too hard,” he said, “because I don’t want to miss any regular season games.”