Bob Kravitz: Former Pacer Jermaine O'Neal was (and is) oh-so-good
Bob Kravitz, IndyStar 9:46 a.m. EST March 5, 2014
For someone who produced for Pacers and city, he got a bum rap after the brawl
If we're going to be honest about this, the chance that Jermaine O'Neal's No. 7 Pacers jersey will hang in the Banker's Life Fieldhouse rafters someday is the longest of long shots. For better or worse — mostly worse — he got caught in the wash of The Brawl and the post-Brawl hysterics, unfairly becoming a representative of everything that had gone wrong with the Indiana Pacers in 2003-04 and beyond.
And that's a shame. Because O'Neal is not only one of the best players ever to don a Pacers' uniform, but one of the very best people to come through this town. From the time he arrived in 2000 as a skinny kid to the time he was dealt for the rights to draft Roy Hibbert, O'Neal gave body and soul to this organization. And if the Brawl hadn't happened, if Ron Artest hadn't gone up into the stands in Detroit, there's a pretty good chance O'Neal could have delivered a championship.
"I would appreciate (having the jersey hang in Bankers Life),'' O'Neal said before Tuesday night's 98-96 last-second Pacers loss to the Golden State Warriors. "Funny, I was talking to some people earlier today about the perception of some people in the city, like I gave up on them. I don't know what was said after I was gone, but there was one meeting I had with Larry Bird, Donnie Walsh and Herb Simon, and we all mutually agreed we wanted to put the team in the best position to move on to the next chapter.
"You're talking about a situation that just wore on everybody. And until you clean the shelves you just can't move on. But my love for this city, I think I proved that. The amount of money I put into this city, the food drives, the Christmas gifts — I didn't get sponsorships for any of that. My love for this organization to this day is still the same. I'll always be considered a Pacer. People ask me who I want to retire as, it'll be as a Pacer, there's no doubt.''
In the end, it's unlikely O'Neal's jersey will join the likes of Mel Daniels and Reggie Miller. The harsh memories of that day in Detroit are still too fresh, still too recent having happened nine years ago. He was the marquee player on that team, and when that team fell apart — and it fell apart the year after the Brawl with several off-court incidents and Artest's trade request — it somehow shone a negative light on O'Neal.
Which was hugely unfair.
Statistically, O'Neal rates as one of the best Pacers ever. players ever to don a Pacers jersey. He was a six-time All Star. He was the 2001-02 Most Improved Player. He was three-time all-NBA. He finished third in the MVP voting in 2004. He's the franchise leader in blocked shots and third in all-time scoring average, ahead of even Reggie Miller.
"I would like to think I'd be considered one of the best Pacers who ever played,'' O'Neal said. "Numbers don't lie. If that's the case (the Pacers retire his jersey), great, and if not, I promise you I won't be bitter about it because that experience, that situation got me to where I am now.''
For all his excellence, though, he is remembered for being the centerpiece of a team that imploded.
Did he play a role in the Brawl? Absolutely. When two idiot fans walked onto the floor looking for trouble, O'Neal took a running start, thankfully slipped (or he would have killed somebody) and punched the interlopers in the head. His actions, though, were forgivable. By then the whole thing had gotten treacherously out of hand, and two fans had taken it upon themselves to walk onto the floor in front of the Pacers bench.
"It's not something I like to talk about,'' O'Neal said. "…The Brawl divided the whole city. It became a cultural issue. That's the biggest issue I had with the whole thing. And remember, people made bad decisions after that. But you can't condemn a culture for what happened. A person for what they did, yes, but the problem was it became a cultural issue, it became a big conversation piece. Then the tattoos, the headbands and the braids became too much. That's the issue I had.
"But I completely understood a change was needed. And you've got to accept whatever role you played in it.''
Now he was back in town with the Golden State Warriors, taking a victory tour of the NBA in what will likely (not surely, but likely) his 18th and final season. And Tuesday, he wasn't just taking up a spot on the bench, playing more minutes (30) than all but two Golden State starters while scoring seven points, grabbing four offensive rebounds and blocking two shots.
It's strange to think about the skinny kid who came here in 2000, the spindly guy with the impossibly long arms and legs, only to see him now, a man in full, the father of two, a wizened sage of a player.
He was asked if he was looking at this as his last game at Bankers Life, which was Conseco back during O'Neal's days.
"Absolutely,'' he said. "I look at every arena different now, (Madison Square) Garden the other night, every bus ride is different. It's like having a girlfriend you've loved so much for so long. Then when you're coming to the end, it becomes very emotional and you tend to slow down and appreciate everything a little bit more. The opportunity to play this game has been fantastic, the good, the bad and the ugly.''
O'Neal will not always be a uniformly beloved figure in this town — he got appreciative but lukewarm applause when he entered Tuesday night's game — and that's kind of a shame.
He was always one of my favorites, even when we had our occasional verbal sparring sessions.
Always will be.
Bob Kravitz is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star. Call him at (317) 444-6643 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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