SACRAMENTO – In 1,000 years, our bodies will turn to dust, but the legend of Jermaine O’Neal will live on.
O’Neal feels creakier than a cheap door hinge these days, the result of logging 30,000 total NBA minutes and counting. His days as a perennial All-Star are history, but the big still thinks he can make a difference on the court.
“18 years later (from the start of my NBA career), you’re definitely not as athletic as you used to be, you’re not as fast as you used to be, you don’t jump as high as you used to,” O’Neal told Sports Out West while wrapped in ice on Wednesday. “When I started my career I was a pretty high flyer (and) very mobile. You tend to become smarter as a player, know what your limitations are and try to outthink guys when your athletic ability is dwindling.”
At 35, O’Neal’s primary job is to rebound and defend the low block for the Golden State Warriors. Despite battling an injured right wrist, the veteran is playing extended minutes in the recent absence of Andrew Bogut (shoulder). O’Neal is producing 6.1 points and 4.9 rebounds in 22 games this season, a far cry from his 20-and-10 averages a decade ago.
Back when Will Smith was cool in 1996, O’Neal was drafted out of Eau Claire High School eleventh overall by the Portland Trail Blazers. In his first four seasons, the lottery pick made only 211 appearances and 18 starts while earning 11.5 minutes a night. Partly due to team depth but content with his work ethic, O’Neal became frustrated and was traded to the Indiana Pacers for Dale Davis in 2000.
In Indianapolis, O’Neal was given rope by rookie head coach Isiah Thomas and the unknown answered with 12.9 points, 9.8 boards and 2.8 blocks per game in 80 starts. He won the Most Improved Player Award but was just initiating his ascent as he collected six-straight All-Star nominations while carrying the Pacers to the playoffs from 2001-2006. Nonetheless, injuries to his shoulder and legs began to derail his career in the 2005-06 season, and O’Neal was flipped to the Toronto Raptors in June 2008.
The Raptors hoped O’Neal, Chris Bosh and Andrea Bargnani would form one of the league’s best frontcourts, but the ex-Pacer looked slow and deliberate with his moves and hardly showed the consistent touch he was known for. He was shipped mid-season to the Miami Heat, where he had a relatively healthy season in 2009-10 for a rebuilding squad, but it seemed the end was near. O’Neal spent the next two years in Boston getting acclimated to the medical staff before deciding to follow the steps of other decaying players with a stint in Phoenix. One desert revival later, O’Neal now finds himself on a contender.
Comeback aside, O’Neal has piled on more damage than some NFL veterans, which raises the question when he’ll call it quits.
“I take (retirement) year to year. I plan to finish this year strong, and evaluate exactly how I feel. My daughter (who’s an elite volleyball prospect) and son are getting older. I want to spend more time with my family and coach my son’s basketball team which I had an opportunity to coach when I was home for the All-Star break.”
“If I had to make a decision right now, I’d probably say this would be my last year.”
Regarding his legacy, O’Neal could care less if young fans never know him as the two-way big who could score with an impressive arsenal. His concerns run closer to home.
“As a parent, you just worry about what your family thinks about you. That’s why I don’t read papers, I don’t listen to talk shows, I don’t listen to social media. I couldn’t even tell you what goes on in the world.”
Aside from a haymaker, O’Neal has no regrets. The pivot can look back on his career and appreciate the experiences of an NBA lifestyle.
“I’ve put everything I had on the line, and I’ve been able to see every aspect of professional basketball at the highest level, and that’s one thing nobody can ever take away from me.”
Father Time perhaps, but let’s not get technical.
Photo Credit: Jeff Chiu / Associated Press