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Sure sounds like JO has played a huge part in this team's unselfishness.
By Conrad Brunner
Upon gathering a group of the NBA’s elite players, volunteering summer vacation time to represent their country, Larry Brown made one thing perfectly clear: the only stars for this United States team would be on the uniforms, not in them.
It might seem a difficult concept to impress upon players who have benefited from the star treatment most of their basketball-playing lives but, as it turned out, it wasn’t really all that hard. For one thing, Brown had a motivated audience. The United States had been embarrassed the previous summer in the 2002 World Basketball Championship, losing three games. Thus brought an end to the perceived invincibility of the U.S. that developed immediately upon the introduction of NBA players to international competition. Until that summer, their record had been 58-0. And so this group had something to prove, and accepted the challenge.
Leading the way was Jermaine O’Neal. Part of the 2002 WBC team, he took that experience very personally. He discarded all of his memorabilia from the event because he didn’t want any reminders. And he promised to do whatever necessary to help the U.S. regain respect in the Tournament of the Americas, an Olympic qualifying tournament in San Juan, Puerto Rico, this past summer.
The results were impressive.
The U.S. went 10-0 in the tournament, winning by an average margin of 30.9 points. Along the way came two victories over Argentina – which had shocked the world with the first conquest of the U.S. in the WBC – including a 106-73 rout in the gold-medal game. O’Neal played a major role. In fact, he was one of two U.S. players (the other was Tim Duncan) named to the All-Tournament team. Clearly, his impact went far beyond his averages of 11.2 points and 6.2 rebounds.
“We talked about it from day one: these guys are all stars and the roles you have on your teams are much different than the roles you’re going to have here with us,” said Brown. “And it’s going to take a commitment on everybody’s part to go from being an All-Star team to a team, and they did that. And he was a big part of it. He defended, he rebounded. Nobody shot the ball a lot but he shot a high percentage (.623 from the field).
“The biggest thing I noticed about him is he wants to get better, he cares about his teammates and he improved every single day. It was fun for me to be around him. You know how I enjoy coaching young guys. I’m really looking forward to having the chance to coach him again. Each day we enjoyed him more.”
But the experience became more than basketball and national pride for O’Neal. It was something of an epiphany. If Vince Carter, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and Jason Kidd could keep their egos submerged in order to pursue a collective goal, why couldn’t the Pacers?
“I had a long ride from Portland to New York for the first day of (USA Basketball) training camp and I was thinking about the year before and how we failed and how this team is a lot better,” O’Neal said. “But we had a lot of guys that are premier players and I was wondering about the ego process. From start to finish, everybody checked their ego at the door and they played for one ultimate goal. We got so close that we were calling each other to figure out what we were wearing to dinner.
“If a team like that sets a goal, and checks all the egos at the door, then goes out and does it, why can’t we (the Pacers) do it? You’re talking about the premier players in the NBA on one team – no problems, everybody cheered for each other, everybody wanted each other to do well. In order for us to be successful – what made us successful in the first half of last season – is that everybody applauded each other and everybody was for each other. For some reason or another, in the second half of the season it didn’t happen that way. We all of a sudden began caring more about ourselves than about this team. If we (stay together) this season, no matter who’s on the court, we should win.”
That's precisely what has happened. For the second season in a row, O'Neal was voted into the Eastern Conference starting lineup for the NBA All-Star Game on Sunday in Los Angeles. The team has the best record in the conference and serious postseason aspirations.
Of course, the team was in the same situation this time last season. What happened thereafter has been an object lesson for O'Neal and his teammates in what to avoid in the regular season's final two months.
Though the 2002-03 season was the best, individually, of O’Neal’s career, it also was the most vexing. He was one of three NBA players, and the only one in the Eastern Conference, to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. He became the first Pacers NBA player to record a points-rebounds-blocked shots triple double (18 points, 10 rebounds, 10 blocks against Toronto on Jan. 22, 2003). He began assuming the role of go-to player down the stretch and responded with three game-winning baskets and numerous other big shots. He became the second Pacers player voted into the starting lineup of the NBA All-Star Game (Reggie Miller was the other), then went out and produced a double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds), adding four blocked shots. He was named to the All-NBA third team for the second year in a row.
But it wasn’t exactly a dream season. The Pacers were 34-15 at the All-Star break, then won their next three games and were sitting atop the Eastern Conference with a 37-15 mark on Valentine’s Day. But things went quickly downhill from there. The Pacers dropped 12 of 13 to begin a startling collapse that dropped them to fourth in the conference and ended with a first-round playoff loss to underdog Boston. Though O’Neal played heroically in the series, averaging 22.8 points, 17.5 rebounds and 3.0 blocked shots, it wasn’t enough.
Though personal tragedies intertwined with basketball issues (his stepfather, Abraham Kennedy, was hospitalized last February with a gunshot wound to the head but has since been released) O’Neal refused to make any excuses about the collapse. Instead, he looked inward, studied his own performance and found it lacking.
“I was able to elevate my play but I wasn’t able to elevate my teammates’ play and I think that’s the difference between being a really good player in this league, an MVP-type player, and an average player,” he said. “A lot of guys can motivate themselves to get big numbers. It’s easy to do that. It’s a lot harder to get in the locker room and make your teammates better and focus your teammates’ minds. We’re in this thing together. I was able to come in and do my job, personally, and go home, rather than come in and do my job and be more of a team leader to get these guys going. That’s the biggest negative I can take out of that whole situation last year: I didn’t really do my job. Hopefully, I can get it done this year.”
As quickly as he has progressed since being acquired by the Pacers from Portland in the summer of 2000, O’Neal has one more step he’s still in the process of taking: to the MVP level. He longs to become the kind of player whose presence raises the level of his teammates’ play, and the international experience may have shown him the way.
“That (MVP) really isn’t my concern,” he said. “My concern is getting the monkey out of the back and getting out of the first round. Once we get out of the first round we can really make some things happen, but it’s a lot tougher to do than to say. If we do that, then I can be considered with the rest of those guys (MVP candidates). If I’m not able to put my team at the top of the conference in the regular season and get them out of the first round of the playoffs, I can’t be considered an MVP because an MVP is a guy that can make his team a championship-style team.”
Coach Rick Carlisle, in fact, said he believes O’Neal already is mentioned, deservedly so, when any discussion of possible MVPs arises.
“I think his name is getting mentioned with those guys,” Carlisle said. “That’s my feeling about it. Do I think he has room to grow? Absolutely. And I think he will.
“A lot of what we do offensively (revolves) around him – either getting him opportunities to score or getting him opportunities to get his teammates great opportunities. It’ll be interesting as the year moves forward as to how teams play him and what their approach is going to be about defending him. Because one thing I’ve seen about Jermaine is that he’s extremely unselfish. He’s a guy who is one of the better low-post players in the game right now but he’s very, very willing and enthusiastic about getting shots for his teammates.
“I really believe his experience the past couple of summers with USA Basketball has probably given him a unique perspective on the game. He want through a tough experience last year in the World Games and this year went through a very positive experience and had a really great tournament. I just think those types of experiences have been great for him and really helped him as he continues his quest to keep growing as a player.”
The gold medal in the Tournament of the Americas was a nice start for O’Neal and the U.S. team, but it didn’t represent the ultimate goal. The gold that matters most is the one on the line in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.
"I won't feel redemption until I have an Olympic gold medal around my neck,” he said. “Once I have an Olympic gold medal, then it'll be solidified."
He is taking much the same approach with the Pacers as he tries to drive home the lessons learned in international competition.
“That team was a great experience,” O’Neal said. “I can’t think of one negative thing, outside of bodies being worn down from the training camp, that I can get from the experience. Everything was great, from the way we played, to the way we stayed together on and off the court. It was just the best experience for me.”
I can't argue with that logic... nor can I argue with a Purple Hippo doing a slap dance anyway!
Why do the things that we treasure most, slip away in time
Till to the music we grow deaf, to God's beauty blind
Why do the things that connect us slowly pull us apart?
Till we fall away in our own darkness, a stranger to our own hearts
And life itself, rushing over me
Life itself, the wind in black elms,
Life itself in your heart and in your eyes, I can't make it without you