Jermaine O’Neal knows his time is coming in the NBA. Over his 17-year NBA career, he’s played for five different teams and has played 1,042 career games (regular and postseason). He realizes that his days of picking and choosing where and how much he wants to play are long gone. But, he’s at peace with that. He has embraced the role of father, mentor and contributor.
He’s far from the same 18-year-old who entered the league as the No. 17 pick in the 1996 draft. His days with the Portland Trail Blazers weren’t the best of times. O’Neal struggled for playing time on teams with likes of Rasheed Wallace, Gary Trent, Brian Grant and Arvydas Sabonis ahead of him.
It wasn’t until his time with the Indiana Pacers that playing time (and production) followed. In his first season with the Pacers, O’Neal played more minutes, scored more points, secured more rebounds and blocked more shots than his first four years combined.
2001-02 was Jermaine’s breakout year, as he won the BA Most Improved Player Award. His play helped the Pacers take advantage of a solid front line, with O’Neal, Jalen Rose and Brad Miller. Reggie Miller was in the twilight of his career, but his 16.5 points per game ranked third on the team.
2003-04 was when both O’Neal and the Pacers got the national attention they deserved. O’Neal finished third in MVP voting, with averages of 20.1 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.6 blocks per game. He led his Pacers team to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they would fall to the Detroit Pistons in six games.
Things would never quite be the same for O’Neal after the 2004-05 campaign in which he was a part of the brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills in November 2004. He was ultimately suspended for 25 games and wasn’t the same player when he returned.
His offense rose to 24.3 points per game, but his shot-blocking presence suffered. Then, he’d sprain his shoulder in March and would limp into the playoffs. The Pacers bowed out in the second round of the playoffs after losing in six games to the Pistons for the second consecutive year.
O’Neal would stay in Indiana until the 2008-09 season, when he was traded to the Toronto Raptors. Despite solid production (13.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.0 blocks), he was sent off in another trade mid-season to the Miami Heat.
Miami was a chance for a fresh start for O’Neal and he took advantage of it. In his only full season with the club, he averaged 13.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 70 games. Unfortunately, it didn’t amount to much in the postseason, as the Heat were eliminated in five games by the Boston Celtics.
It was fitting that the 2009-10 season ended against the Celtics, because the 2010-11 season marked O’Neal’s first game as a member of the Celtics.
Over two seasons, O’Neal would play just 49 games with injuries continuing to plague him. His season and tenure in Boston ended by being released after season-ending wrist surgery.
All of those trials and tribulations have brought us to today. The O’Neal that I was able to speak with at practice spoke in a hushed voice, as a humble man who is at peace with his career and his life.
O’Neal remarked about that peace, “The NBA has given me so much. I can go anywhere and be noticed. My businesses, my family, my quality of life; I’m very grateful.”
In a world where athletes are so often judged on their abilities to win championships, O’Neal had a very refreshing stance.
“If I were disgruntled by not winning a championship, that would be selfish.”
O’Neal knows the end is near. he’s happy to be a mentor to the young players on the Suns. He’s thrilled to get to see his daughter dominate on the volleyball court. Even his 6-year-old son has begun playing basketball.
O’Neal finished with his wisest words and the most telling sign of his inner peace when he said, “Whatever happens in the next year, it’s been a hell of a ride. Good and bad, God has really truly blessed me.”