O'Neal raises game; redeeming image harder
By Tom Weir, USA TODAY
INDIANAPOLIS — For Jermaine O'Neal, the worst moment of the 15-game suspension for his part in the biggest slugfest in NBA history came while sitting at home, talking to his 5-year-old daughter Asjia.
Having kept his role in that Nov. 19 brawl secret, O'Neal was startled to hear Asjia say, "Daddy, you only threw one punch."
But in a basketball-crazed city like Indianapolis, it was inevitable that children at Asjia's school would talk about seeing her father punch a fan amid the riot that broke out between the Pacers and spectators in Detroit.
"For her to say that, your breath gets taken away," says O'Neal, 26. "I knew once I got back I had to go out and do more things on the court and really live my life the way I think I should."
Since returning Christmas Day in a rematch with Detroit, O'Neal has played some of the best basketball of a pro career that began straight out of high school and saw him finish third in last year's MVP voting.
In 15 games since his return, O'Neal is averaging 29.6 points and 9.6 rebounds as the short-handed Pacers cope with the stiffest penalties dealt an NBA team. Reigning defensive player of the year Ron Artest, averaging 24.6 points, is banned for the season. The 30-game suspension for swingman Stephen Jackson, who had been averaging 15.3 points, ends Wednesday.
But the 6-11 O'Neal says repairing his image will extend far beyond his nightly count of slam-dunks.
"It was something that shouldn't have happened," O'Neal says of the melee, for which he faces assault and battery charges. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Tuesday. "There really was no right or wrong person in this situation. It was lose-lose, and everybody had to be penalized for being involved in it."
And with the hundreds of times the violence was replayed on TV, O'Neal readily acknowledges, "There's a perception now of who I am as a player and as a person. So you want to come back and show them, show your team, your city and all NBA fans, that not only are you a great player but that you're also a great person."
Good deeds part of his nature
O'Neal did both with a 55-point game against Milwaukee on Jan. 4. Besides being his career high and the NBA season high, O'Neal designated that as the game he would contribute $1,000 a point to UNICEF's relief fund for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami.
O'Neal had said he would base his contribution on a game against San Antonio but changed it because the game against the Spurs produced only 32 points.
His drive to do good deeds didn't begin with the riot aftermath. His "character, community involvement and citizenship" were cited by arbitrator Roger Kaplan as key reasons for reducing O'Neal's original suspension of 25 games to 15.
O'Neal won the NBA's Community Assist Award in December 2003 after he made a hospital visit and persuaded a boy to get out of his wheelchair and take his first steps since being hurt in an accident.
He also sponsors all-star games for Indiana high school players. And when female all-star Janese Banks of Indianapolis last year half-jokingly asked if O'Neal would take her to her senior prom, he said yes.
He had a game that afternoon and suffered a facial cut that required stitches but still showed up. "He was totally respectful," says Banks, a freshman starter at Wisconsin. "We talked basketball, we talked about school life, personal life. He said to just always work hard and be the one who is dominating the floor."
But his favorite community involvement is the Christmas party O'Neal has sponsored for three years for underprivileged children in Indiana, in conjunction with the Indiana Black Expo and the Indiana Housing Authority. This year's party provided gifts for 800 children. In addition to a $25,000 contribution, O'Neal also arranged matching donations from Indiana businesses.
"Jermaine has been our gift," says Alpha Garrett, the Indiana Black Expo's director of communications. "A lot of kids wouldn't be able to have a good Christmas if it weren't for what Jermaine does."
Life's lessons through a coach
Growing up in the South Carolina capital of Columbia, O'Neal didn't have a lot of great Christmases. His father abandoned the family while his mother was pregnant with O'Neal. To support O'Neal and his older brother Clifford, his mother worked two jobs.
"I grew up in the housing authority, and I know what people go through," O'Neal says. "You want toys at Christmas, you want clothes for Christmas, you want food for Christmas."
O'Neal's elementary school years were filled with truancy, fights and suspensions. "I think growing up I was really angry because I didn't have a father."
Whether it was parent days at school or Pop Warner football games, O'Neal says, "You see other kids, and they have both parents. I don't want my daughter to feel like she's not good enough to have a father, and that's really how I felt growing up. It's a feeling no one should have to deal with. "
Fortunately for O'Neal, his coach at Eau Claire High was a disciplinarian named George Glymph. "He was a guy who demanded his players not only played a certain way, but acted a certain way," he says of Glymph, whose five state titles included three with O'Neal. "He wouldn't allow certain haircuts. He wouldn't allow earrings. He wouldn't allow baggy pants."
Glymph, now an assistant coach with the New York Knicks, says that after his first encounter with O'Neal, "I thought he was one of the most arrogant young men I had ever met."
Then-freshman O'Neal's first words to him were, "Hey, Glymph, I heard you're the basketball coach. I'm going to be the best basketball player you ever had."
O'Neal quickly learned he was to say "Mr. Glymph" or "Coach Glymph." He also learned how to do "The Worm," a Glymph ritual for any player who got a grade of D or F. Players had to get in the push-up position, then do laps of the court, propelling themselves with only their arms. It was three laps for a D, five for an F.
"All Jermaine wanted to do was to be recognized as a good person," Glymph says. "I just gave him the discipline. ... He really wanted to be a role model."
Glymph notes that O'Neal has given the Columbia Housing Authority $1,000 for every point he scored in his three All-Star games and he has been organizing a renovation of the gym he played in in Columbia.
After the Detroit violence, Glymph says, "I was devastated. I was really down, and he was down. But I didn't pass judgment. You have to put yourself in that position and ask what you would have done. I don't know what I would have done. Nobody can say what they would have done."
Glymph says O'Neal's drive to repair his image intensified after the conversation with Asjia.
"That really opened his eyes, his little daughter talking about what he did," Glymph says.
Actually, Asjia isn't so little. At 5, she is 4-1. Her mother, Lamesha Roper, has lived with O'Neal for several years, and the two plan to marry this summer.
"She always held her bottle herself because her hands were so big," says O'Neal, who announces Asjia's height with pride and adds she is showing promise on the bowling lanes with her Tweety Bird ball.
"A lot of things can change in my life, but the fact I'm a father will never change," O'Neal says. "And the way my daughter perceives me can never change. That's why I've got to live my life a certain way."
Keeping Pacers competitive
The Indiana Pacers were 5-10 during Jermaine O'Neal's suspension and are 8-7 since his return. He is averaging 29.6 points, 46.1% shooting from the field, 9.6 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in his 15 games back:
Date Opponent FGM-A Reb. Blk. Pts.
Dec. 25 Detroit 7-19 7 5 21
Dec. 27 New Orleans 7-15 11 1 16
Dec. 29 Charlotte 9-24 17 2 24
Dec. 30 New Jersey 13-25 7 1 31
Jan. 4 Milwaukee 18-28 11 2 55
Jan. 6 San Antonio 12-30 9 1 32
Jan. 8 Dallas 11-19 3 0 32
Jan. 9 Phoenix 6-15 5 1 16
Jan. 11 Memphis 12-23 12 1 35
Jan. 14 Phoenix 13-29 12 6 29
Jan. 15 Orlando 12-29 15 2 38
Jan. 18 Houston 12-26 7 2 27
Jan. 19 New Orleans 10-23 11 1 24
Jan. 21 Miami 8-23 14 3 26
Jan. 22 Washington 14-28 3 5 38