Posted on Mon, Jan. 24, 2005
Miami Herald http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercu...0719534.htm?1c
J. O'Neal, soft-spoken before brawl, has kept demeanor intact
BY ISRAEL GUTIERREZ
Knight Ridder Newspapers
MIAMI - (KRT) - There's wisdom to Jermaine O'Neal, a depth and sincerity recognizable upon encountering the soft-spoken 26-year-old.
It would be easy to assume the Pacers forward only developed these qualities, only became this insightful person after Nov. 19.
It would make all the sense in the world to believe the unforgettable brawl between Pacers players and Pistons fans, in which O'Neal took a vicious swing at an instigative Detroit supporter, is what provided O'Neal his perspective, what made him the mature individual he is.
But O'Neal was a man long before the life-altering event that permanently stained sports and temporarily affected his image.
``I think there was a lot of uncertainty about who I was as a person,'' said O'Neal, who is to Indianapolis what Alonzo Mourning was to Miami with his efforts in the community. ``People that knew me, they knew that it was just an out-of-control situation. I don't want to cause harm to anybody.
``I've lived a life where I've struggled. I've lived a life where I felt nobody, outside of my mother and my family, cared about me. So I've tried to show people that I care about them because I know the position.
``Now, taking this situation and saying, `He's an animal, he's crazy, he wants to beat people up.' I'm far from that.''
O'Neal was suspended 25 games for his part in the melee, a punishment that was later reduced to 15 games by an arbitrator and upheld by a federal judge.
Since the incident, O'Neal has set two goals: Restore an image that had been damaged by one angry swing of his fist, and provide his basketball team with enough of a physical and spiritual lift to make a season out of a potential catastrophe.
It sounds like difficult, draining tasks. But O'Neal knows how to approach them - by doing all the same things he did before Nov. 19.
``I need to just continue to live my life, do what I've been doing,'' O'Neal said. ``I am a good person. Forget basketball. I live my life the correct way. One situation doesn't determine who I am.
``I wish it would have never happened, but I can't go out and knock on everybody's door and say, `Hey, this is who I am.' People will believe what they want to believe anyway, so I'm just going to continue to do the things I've been doing, be the best father I can be, be the best community leader I can be, just be effective in people's lives and running my family the way I run it. After that, I can sleep easy.''
O'Neal probably has no trouble resting these days, not after all the heavy lifting he has done. With Ron Artest, his teammate who jumped into the stands after a fan hit him with a cup, out for the season and without Stephen Jackson, who was suspended 30 games for his part in the brawl, O'Neal has been forced to carry more of an offensive and defensive load than he ever has.
Since returning to the Pacers lineup on Christmas Day, O'Neal has averaged 29.5 points and 9.5 rebounds, helping Indiana to an 8-7 record in that stretch despite the absences of Artest and Jackson.
The role of team savior is never one O'Neal has had to play alone, but it's one of which he has developed an understanding.
``I do believe Jermaine understands that, as the best player and the franchise player, his job is not only to carry the team in terms of an offensive load, but he has to make guys around him better,'' Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. ``That's why last year, he took a quantum leap from a guy that was viewed as a top player in the East to an MVP candidate because he really did make the guys around him better players.''
One of those players O'Neal helped improve was Artest, who became an All-Star alongside the 6-11 forward. But there are some who say that O'Neal is better off going at this alone, without the distractions Artest concocts for his team.
If it's not his volatile temper getting Artest in trouble, it's his thirst for attention, as evidenced by his request to take time off earlier this season to promote an R&B group he produced.
O'Neal has done his best to get his team through any disruptions Artest has caused, but Artest seems to come up with new challenges.
``You always have one family member that goes and does things, or in certain situations is not agreeable with the team or with the organization,'' O'Neal said. ``As far as him being here and not being here, I leave that up to management. But while he's here, if he doesn't do things that I feel is right for the team collectively, I'm going to say something, and he knows.
``Even with the CD thing, I told Ron, `I'm not mad at you, but we don't need extra distractions for this team. There's more than one way to sell a CD.' He's a guy that just needs people to talk to, just like anybody else. When you feel like nobody understands you, nobody's listening to you, you kind of go out and do things on your own. But Ron is a good guy, and as long as he wears a Pacers uniform, I'm behind him.''
But defending Artest in the Detroit melee has not only brought about professional challenges for O'Neal, but personal ones, too.
``All of a sudden, people assume that he's a thug,'' O'Neal's brother, Cliff, said. ``He can win a championship, and they'll still say he's a thug. This year was supposed to be Indiana's year, too. That was another thing that bothered him.
``All that hard work he put in this offseason, and it's almost basically taken away.''
Those close to O'Neal, though, say the forward doesn't necessarily need to distance himself from Artest.
``To me, he doesn't even need to concern himself about that,'' said George Glymph, O'Neal's high school coach and now an assistant coach with the New York Knicks. ``I think the image he has projected shows he's nowhere near Ron Artest. That's something Isiah Thomas told him years ago: `You have to develop your own persona.'
``I think if you look at the All-Star balloting, at one point, he was over 400,000 votes behind Grant Hill. Now, he's less than 100,000 votes behind him. That means people still think of him as a good person.''
That good person wasn't built during the past two months. That good person was there all along.
``I think the way he's handled everything since the brawl has shown a lot of people what he's about, not only as a player but as a man, as a guy with a lot of depth, a lot of class, a lot of understanding of what went on and why it can't happen again,'' Carlisle said. ``I don't think his image has suffered.
``I think now, he has grown into a man that has learned to deal with the most difficult of times.''
© 2005, The Miami Herald.