Doc Rivers alternated between big compliments and little jabs about Jermaine O’Neal. Just moments before Game 2 of the Los Angeles Clippers–Golden State Warriors first-round matchup, Rivers considered recent Boston history.
“I don’t know if you remember the series the year before we signed J.O. — he was with Miami and we played them in the playoffs,” Rivers said. “He went oh-fer in the series. Literally, I don’t think he made a basket.1 He was struggling with his knees when we got him. [Initially] he wanted to do what we asked him to do, [but] then toward the end, he wanted to score more, obviously. That’s human nature. Then I guess he went to Germany with Kobe, and [now] he’s feeling a lot better.
“He’s been amazing [with the Warriors]. He’s played great,” Rivers continued. “I thought he was probably one of the, if not the, most important players in Game 1.”
Only a short while later, O’Neal and Rivers received technical fouls for arguing with one another in the second quarter. “This league is about trying to smell where the weakness is,” O’Neal said. “I don’t care if it’s the scorekeeper. There’s going to be scenarios where you’re trying to find an edge and you’re trying to get yourself going. Yes, I played for [Doc] and I know him personally. But it’s just one of those things where he was intense and I was intense and things were said. You move on.”
They no longer bothered moving the ice machine. Jermaine O’Neal always needed it. It was anchored in the middle of his living room, beside the couch, like another piece of furniture. O’Neal sat solemnly, sullenly, for hours, with his leg propped up on the machine. He had been an NBA player nearly half of his life, from teen prodigy to team star, a pillar of the community and an infamous league villain. He had arrived in Boston four years earlier to provide interior presence and restore the Celtics to their recent glory. Instead, his career had appeared to end ingloriously, with a whimper, under the low hum of that machine. O’Neal always seemed to be between surgeries, the trainer’s table, and doctor consultations. Maybe it was time to call it a career.
“Those two years [in Boston] were very difficult for me, because not only did I feel like I was wearing down physically, I was wearing down mentally,” O’Neal said. “That was the first time in my life I felt myself starting to break away a little bit.”
On the many bad days, O’Neal’s teenage daughter, Asjia, would plop down beside him on the couch. She comforted him, blanketing her dad with encouragement as he rested that leg on the ice machine. “She grew with me,” O’Neal said. “She was like my best friend, but I was still trying to raise her. She was my drive every time I felt like I was winded. I never can fathom the thought of just laying down with my daughter watching me. Showing her what it takes to be successful is something that I really think about.”
O’Neal, now 35, did not hang it up. He’s now patrolling the middle for the Warriors, two years after that trying Boston stint. He’s playing more minutes than nearly anyone envisioned after Andrew Bogut’s rib injury sidelined the Warriors center indefinitely at the end of the regular season.
“I think it was the part of me that always wanted to prove people wrong,” O’Neal said. “That’s changed. It’s not about proving people wrong. It’s about answering the call and looking in that mirror [knowing] that I can do something that man says you can’t do.”
The Warriors may be outmanned in their first-round playoff series against the Clippers, but O’Neal is bumping, banging, and occasionally outwitting Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, leapers who were in grade school when O’Neal broke into the NBA in 1996. “I’m a player that has sat, literally, on every side of the good, of the bad, of the ugly,” O’Neal said.
Jermaine O’Neal met his father just once. By then, the younger man was well on his way to becoming the best player out of George Glymph’s famed basketball program at Eau Claire High School in Columbia, South Carolina. O’Neal had harbored anger about his father — sometimes he could barely contain his rage. O’Neal’s brother, Clifford, and Glymph helped him channel that fury into the game, while his mother, Angela, worked two jobs to support the family.
O’Neal had loved football first, but a summer growth spurt nudged him into basketball, perhaps prematurely. He could look down at his opponents, but that was about all he could do.
“I couldn’t even chew bubble gum and walk at the same time,” O’Neal said. “I wasn’t very coordinated.” But he had confidence. “Hey, Glymph,” he declared one day. “I’m gonna be the best player you ever had.” Glymph already had state championship banners hanging from the rafters; he didn’t need a junior varsity football player boasting about his nonexistent credentials. “I thought he was an arrogant little creep,” Glymph recalled. “I said, ‘Son, first of all, to you, my name is Coach Glymph or Mr. Glymph. If you can’t call me one of those, then you don’t ever have to call me anything else.’”
O’Neal started on junior varsity as a 6-foot-4 perimeter player, and his game started to grow. “That was in September,” Glymph said. “By January, he was 6-9. He just sprung up. He knew how to play on the wing, but now he can work in the paint. That was instrumental in his development.” During O’Neal’s run, Eau Claire claimed three state championships and O’Neal was named South Carolina’s Mr. Basketball. Shortly thereafter, his father materialized, looking to connect with his son. But O’Neal shut him out, a rejection returned in kind.
College coaches packed the stands at O’Neal’s games. Soon, NBA personnel were spotted among them. Another South Carolina product, Kevin Garnett, had declared for the NBA out of high school only a year earlier, and O’Neal was having trouble gaining college eligibility. Despite protests from his mother and Glymph, who feared his star center wasn’t ready for the league, O’Neal joined a draft class that featured two other high school players: Kobe Bryant and Taj McDavid.
Bob Bass, the Hornets’ general manager, had been particularly critical of the teenager’s decision to enter the draft, according to O’Neal. “He wrote the most vicious article about me,” O’Neal said. “I’ve never met this guy a day before in my life. He never attended a game of mine, and he talked about me like he knew me personally. I told my mother; she was bitter and emotional about it. I said, ‘Mom, don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it.’”
Portland possessed the 17th-overall selection that year. One year earlier, president and general manager Bob Whitsitt had unsuccessfully tried to move up to select Garnett. This was still during the dawning moments of the NBA’s prep-to-pro generation, and many general managers were reluctant to gamble on hard-to-project high schoolers. But Whitsitt had experienced success in the area before, taking Shawn Kemp when team after team bypassed the player in 1989. Kemp briefly attended Kentucky and a community college, but never played in a collegiate game before declaring for the draft. Whitsitt, then with Seattle, took him — coincidentally, 17th overall. Kemp blossomed into a star.
Whitsitt saw a similar opportunity in O’Neal. He was tasked with reenergizing an aging core that had been ousted from the first round of the playoffs for four consecutive years. Whitsitt wasted little time, trading for Isaiah Rider and Rasheed Wallace and signing Kenny Anderson. He drafted O’Neal, planning to develop him behind Wallace and veteran center Arvydas Sabonis.
“When we drafted him, no one had even ever heard of him in Portland,” Whitsitt recalled. “There was zero expectation that this guy was going to come in and be the guy, so it was an easier way to develop and grow — we kind of gave him his college experience.”
The transition from South Carolina to Oregon proved as jarring as the jump from high school to the NBA. “That would be a big transition if you were a 35-year-old, just moving cross-country,” Whitsitt said.
O’Neal became a millionaire overnight and spent his first few weeks in Portland living in a hotel room with his brother and his cousin Levar. He was shy around his new teammates. He became the youngest player to appear in an NBA game.2 Still, he seldom played, and the downtime damaged his dimming confidence. P.J. Carlesimo, the team’s coach, suggested O’Neal talk to a therapist. O’Neal missed his first 17 games with a knee injury his rookie season and largely appeared in the mop-up minutes of 45 games. “Going from a situation where you’re the best player on the court every time to the fourth-best player in your position, it humbled me,” O’Neal said. “Those four years were the hardest four years of my life. I’m not going to lie.”
During those years, the Trail Blazers and O’Neal grew together. Whitsitt kept adding — the acquisition of Brian Grant in 1997 nudged O’Neal further down the depth chart when Mike Dunleavy inherited coaching duties. “There were a lot of veterans mixed in with the young guys, and everyone was talented,” said Steve Smith, an analyst for NBA TV who joined the Trail Blazers in 1999. “It was a treat to watch Jermaine O’Neal — a young Jermaine O’Neal — go up against Rasheed and Sabonis and Brian Grant. You usually don’t get that type of talent at the 4 or 5 spot.”
But few outside the organization noticed O’Neal’s progression. He hardly played. As Kobe Bryant flourished, O’Neal became a rallying cry for the opposition, those who preached the sanctity of college over the allure of the NBA. The Trail Blazers advanced to the Western Conference finals in 1999 with O’Neal performing in little more than a cameo role. But O’Neal had used the time to become comfortable with Portland and himself. Whitsitt had hired Glymph in ’97, and he was there to ease the transition. The team’s veterans shielded O’Neal, taking him out to dinner on the road or simply playing video games with him in his hotel room. O’Neal could pick and choose whom to emulate and how. He watched Wallace and Sabonis — two skilled if different post players. He listened to Kenny Anderson’s advice about how to manage his finances off the court.
“I went to a fantastic city in Portland, a fantastic organization in the Trail Blazers, who were fully prepared for me,” O’Neal said. “I want people to understand this: fully prepared for a 17-year-old drafted out of high school, who [had] to learn life skills on his own. I think that is the absolute biggest mistake that teams make with players now. I don’t care if you go to school for four years. There’s no university in the world that’s going to give you what the NBA gives you. To the Trail Blazers, I was [like] a second son.”
But it took a birth for O’Neal to really grow up. He first met Mesha Roper at Adidas headquarters when she was still a student at Portland State University. The two began dating, and it wasn’t long before O’Neal told Roper the same thing he’d once promised his mother: He wanted to be a father as a young man. As with his early entry to the NBA, he knew he wasn’t prepared, but he was ready to throw everything he had into parenthood. “I knew I was going to be the best father that I could possibly be,” O’Neal said. “I just felt like that was one way for me to get out all the hurt, anger, and pain that I had toward my father — because he wasn’t around, because he didn’t care enough to support me and treat me like a kid’s supposed to be treated.” Asjia O’Neal was born in 1999.3
O’Neal had served his apprenticeship in Portland, but he still couldn’t unseat the players in front of him. Portland again advanced to the Western Conference finals in 2000, before falling to the Lakers, so Whitsitt decided to make a big move in an effort to push the team into championship contention. “A lot of people don’t understand how much chemistry plays into sports,” Smith said. “We had great chemistry. We had that first year together, and obviously we did lose to the Los Angeles Lakers, but [the front office] kind of jumped the gun and tried to go out and make it even better. It turned out a little bit worse for the Blazers at that time.”
Whitsitt traded O’Neal and Joe Kleine to Indiana for Dale Davis, an All-Star. “When we traded him to Indiana, he was ready to play,” Whitsitt said. “It was just that our coach didn’t like to play young guys and I made a commitment to Jermaine. It doesn’t do the team any good or the player any good if after a certain amount of time you’ve developed him and you won’t even play him. We were in a go-for-it mode and our coach didn’t want to play him, so we traded for a veteran player and got him in a situation in Indiana where he could play every night.”
Whitsitt also traded for Kemp, but his former wunderkind’s play had begun to decline. Dunleavy said he was opposed to both trades.4
“They basically said [O’Neal] wasn’t getting enough playing time, the agent was unhappy, so let’s do a trade,” Dunleavy said. “I was saying, ‘I get why he’s unhappy. He’s a young kid. But two years from now, Sabonis will be retired. Jermaine will be getting 40 minutes a night.’ Anyways, they still made the deal. We traded Brian Grant and Jermaine for Dale Davis and Shawn Kemp. Kemp had a $125 million contract and weighed 325 pounds. I couldn’t believe it.”
Indiana, like Portland, was in search of one more piece to inch closer to a championship. The Pacers were a blend of veterans and young players, also fresh off a loss to the Lakers in the 2000 Finals. Indiana executive Donnie Walsh recalled closely watching one of O’Neal’s workouts before a Portland-Indiana game earlier that season. “I could tell what he could do,” Walsh said. “He could play inside, outside. I was very impressed with him. Plus, he had size and athleticism.” Walsh and Isiah Thomas, Indiana’s first-year coach, agreed to take a gamble on the little-used O’Neal. They traded Davis — an Indiana staple who had led the Pacers in rebounding for seven straight seasons — for O’Neal, an unknown quantity.
For the first time in his career, O’Neal was far from the team’s youngest player. Indiana had drafted high schoolers Al Harrington and Jonathan Bender in successive years to pair with veterans like Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, and Travis Best. “When we got him, it was just the beginning,” said Miller, who is serving as a TNT analyst during O’Neal’s series against the Clippers. “His offense caught up to him, but defensively he was head and shoulders a much better player.”
Thomas had followed O’Neal since the latter’s career at Eau Claire. He compared giving O’Neal an opportunity to a teacher spotting potential in a troubled student. They lived near one another in Indiana and O’Neal spent many hours at Thomas’s home. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have some great teachers who saw beauty in me, and I’ve been fortunate enough to gain some of their wisdom and be able to see beauty in others,” Thomas said. O’Neal’s minutes skyrocketed in Indiana, from 12.3 per game in his final season in Portland to 32.6 per game in his first year with the Pacers. He started 80 games and averaged 12.9 points and 9.8 rebounds, while leading the league in blocks (228) and the Eastern Conference in double-doubles.
And O’Neal performed well in the face of tragedy. He was the first on the scene in 2003 when his stepfather, Abraham Kennedy, shot himself in the head. It was a trying time, but one Thomas said O’Neal was equipped to deal with.
“Once you sit down and have a conversation with him, you quickly realize the intellect and the intelligent person that you’re dealing with,” Thomas said. “Placing that type of responsibility on him at a very young age, I was confident that he could grow — and he did.”
In Indiana, O’Neal ascended to become one of the league’s premier interior talents. He was a rare find, a 20-10 big man who mixed athleticism with savvy. O’Neal finished third in the league’s 2003-04 MVP voting behind Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan. “For a guy of his ability to block and change shots for his size, he’s also probably one of the best charge-takers out there,” said Mike Brown, then an assistant coach in Indiana. “To me, that takes some intelligence, to know when you should go try to block or change somebody’s shot, or when you know you can’t block it, you’ve got to get there in time to set your feet and take a charge.” O’Neal re-signed with the Pacers in the summer of 2003 for seven years and $126 million, passing up a potential pairing with Tim Duncan in San Antonio. Walsh surrounded him with an athletic, hungry roster that included Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson. Rick Carlisle joined as coach, and the Pacers appeared primed to improve upon a loss to Detroit in the Eastern Conference finals in 2003.
The evening of November 19, 2004, altered the trajectory for many involved in the Malice at the Palace, when a tense rivalry between the Pacers and Pistons devolved into one of the NBA’s darkest nights. If there is one lasting image of the fight beyond Artest scaling the Palace seats, it is O’Neal gracelessly slipping while attempting to land what would have been a devastating punch on a fan who had walked onto the court.
O’Neal drew a 25-game suspension, though he did win a federal court decision and arbitration that reduced the punishment by 10 games. The arbitrator cited O’Neal’s “character, community involvement, and citizenship.”
“People always ask me about the brawl and do I regret my actions in it,” O’Neal said. “No, because at that time, it was a situation that had nothing to do with basketball. It was about our livelihood. And to prove that, I took the NBA to court and won.”
But he still had to be accountable to Asjia, who was 5 at the time.
O’Neal didn’t immediately address the incident with his daughter. He was taken aback when she brought it up, comforting him by saying that he only threw one punch. “For her to say that, your breath gets taken away,” O’Neal told USA Today in 2005. “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.”5
The Pacers squad unraveled after the melee. Artest, then in his prime, was suspended for 86 games. O’Neal paced the team with averages of 29.6 points and 9.6 rebounds in his first 15 games back, memorably scoring a career-high 55 points in a game against Milwaukee, while integrating himself into the Indiana community. But the Pacers finished just 44-38 in 2004-05 and again fell to Detroit in the playoffs. Injuries struck O’Neal over the next three seasons. He missed 40 games in 2007-08 from lingering pain in a torn knee ligament that had been surgically repaired a year earlier. Meanwhile, fan support in Indiana turned from enthusiasm for a rising team to apathy toward a troubled squad. Once upon a time, O’Neal envisioned ending his career in Indiana. He called the city home, had launched his career there, and was named an All-Star six times with the team. But with one year left on his deal, O’Neal would soon be gone.
Indiana traded O’Neal to the Raptors in the summer of 2008 with a pick that would become Nathan Jawai, for T.J. Ford, Maceo Baston, Rasho Nesterovic, and another 17th-overall pick, a center prospect named Roy Hibbert. O’Neal averaged 13.5 points in his first season in Toronto, but his days of headlining a franchise were behind him. Toronto acquired O’Neal to provide support for their up-and-coming star Chris Bosh. Jay Triano, then the Raptors’ coach, said O’Neal’s presence was like having another assistant coach. O’Neal had mastered making the transition from superstar to veteran role player. “It’s the acceptance of understanding who you are as a player,” Triano said. “Knowing what you still can contribute to your team and wanting to play for the love of the game, instead of trying to stay in at the level you once played.”
The Raptors traded O’Neal to Miami in February 2009; in 2010, he signed with Boston at the age of 32. Until last year, O’Neal lived near Paul Pierce in Las Vegas. Before signing, he thought back to a 2008 dinner he’d had with his friend, where he’d taken note of a change in Pierce, how winning a championship in 2008 had eliminated his negativity. Pierce had experienced it all in the NBA — brutal losing streaks, personal attacks, and failures on the grandest stage. But with a championship came comfort. O’Neal wanted the same. Instead, he played in a meager 49 games during his two seasons in Boston. He had surgery on his left wrist. His knees swelled from tendinitis. He became friendly with that ice machine. He was never the Jermaine O’Neal the team expected.
“I think you go through scenarios for a reason,” O’Neal said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that my stay in Boston — and people might not understand this — but my stay in Boston was solely for my daughter. Because she saw her father being beat down. Mentally beat down from what he was going through. She saw her father continue to get knocked down, but gradually, slowly but surely, getting back up to get knocked back down again.”
Then he got an important phone call after the 2011-12 season. It was Kobe Bryant, his fellow high school draftee, who suggested that O’Neal undergo the platelet-rich plasma therapy that had strengthened Bryant’s right knee in 2011. In the procedure, a small amount of blood is extracted from the patient and then spun until its components separate. The platelets are removed and injected back into the patient in an effort to accelerate healing. Hell, I’m at the end of the rope now, O’Neal thought. If it doesn’t work, it just doesn’t work. I can call it. He traveled to Germany for the operation.
“After the first day, I felt the difference,” he said. “People think that it’s something mentally that you kind of trick yourself. It really wasn’t. And then the third day, I knew I was back in business … When I got back home, all of a sudden, I was able to do leg presses, box jumps, stuff that I haven’t been able to do in like five years because my knee would just blow up.”
The time in Boston represented one of O’Neal’s toughest stretches as a professional. He says he’d do it all over again if given the choice. Here’s why:
O’Neal knew Asjia had a heart murmur. He has one, too. The family monitored her condition with regular medical checkups. One visit revealed a minor leak in a valve in her heart. They would keep an eye on her, O’Neal was told by doctors, but the leak posed no immediate threat. O’Neal and Mesha decided to have Asjia reexamined in Boston. They were shocked to find that the leak was more dangerous than first thought — their daughter needed open-heart surgery.
Last season, O’Neal played in Phoenix amid tempered expectations under the care of the team’s renowned medical staff. His career regained its footing, and he became a solid contributor to a team with few bright spots. “Last year is when I saw him make his turnaround in Phoenix,” Rivers said. “You could see, he was doing things he couldn’t do with us.” But despite the rebirth, O’Neal left the team in March to be at Asjia’s bedside at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“It was one of the hardest things a father can go through, when you see your child hooked up to anything,” O’Neal said. “But I think her watching me [helped]. What I went through — the surgeries and injuries, the days sitting on the couch for six, seven hours, not moving, not really talking much, but still trying to be the best father I could be, the best possible husband I can be. Even though it seemed like the world was falling apart for me, I think that helped her.”
O’Neal remained at his daughter’s bedside for more than a day, talking to her constantly. Asjia opened her eyes and looked at her father. “Asjia, listen,” O’Neal recalled saying. “You’re going to have to get out of the bed. You have to push yourself.”
Her hands and feet started to wiggle. “You’re going to get out of here as fast as you allow yourself to move,” O’Neal said. “You have to get up and be active.” Each hour seemed to bring the removal of another machine, the disappearance of another wire. O’Neal encouraged her to walk around the ICU. She cried. She got up. She took a step. She cried again. “Do you want to turn back?” O’Neal asked. No, she replied. She cried some more. She took more steps.
“She was out of the hospital in three days,” O’Neal said. “The doctor said this was the fastest he’s ever seen anybody — not even a child, but an adult — heal, recover, and exit the hospital.
“I know the purpose of me going [to Boston] wasn’t even about basketball,” O’Neal continued. “I’m not sure if the average fan can even understand that statement, but if you’re a father, brother, uncle, whatever it is, you understand exactly what I’m saying.”
He looked through the pictures on his iPhone. He had snapped pictures of Asjia in the hospital, bedridden with her eyes closed, connected to all those monitors and tubes.
“I keep these pictures with me to always remind me and also to remind her when we think the issues that we go through are real issues,” O’Neal said. “You look at what she went through to put it into perspective.”
O’Neal joined the Warriors last offseason, hoping to provide a defensive presence, a veteran voice, and, again, a final piece in a championship puzzle. “He’s a guy that I’m thrilled to death for because if he calls it quits when this run is over with, it’ll be on his terms,” said Warriors coach Mark Jackson. “Because he’s proven that he can flat out still play the game of basketball and still impact it.”
O’Neal played in 44 games this year, averaging 7.9 points and 5.5 rebounds. Jackson paced O’Neal through the regular season, though his knee flared up at times and he underwent surgery on his right wrist. Still, the missed games have been a blessing during the playoffs and O’Neal is relatively fresh while subbing for Bogut. He offers his youthful Warriors teammates the same advice he would have given his younger self.
“My sole regret was thinking that I had tomorrow to do what I should have done today,” O’Neal said. “When you’re young, sometimes you get sidetracked with all the Nike commercials, all the ads, the max dollars … Sometimes your mind gets diluted on what’s important.
“Just to clarify what I’m saying: Basketball has always been important. I’ve taken every game very seriously. I’ve trained my body very seriously in the summertime. Winning was the sole thing. But if you don’t have a This is it, this is my time mentality, then that’s what can get lost. And that’s what I tell my team. It’s not guaranteed that you’re going to be healthy next year. It’s not guaranteed your coach is going to be there next year. [Maybe] they’re bringing in another coach and his style doesn’t fit your style or your teammates’ style. Trades, whatever it may be, the game and the business has changed a lot, so if you have an opportunity to do something special, you need to take the bull by its horns and ride it until it can’t go no more.”
No more will come one day — possibly soon, if the Clippers oust Golden State. Jackson replaced O’Neal with Draymond Green in the Warriors’ starting lineup after the third game of the series. O’Neal had five points in 10 minutes in Game 4, down from his 13 points in 25 minutes to open the series. But the Warriors won. If he does retire, O’Neal will go on to new things and proudly pass the torch to the next generation. Jermaine Jr. is 7 and just starting to become interested in basketball. Meanwhile, Asjia is flourishing in another sport. “My daughter, she’s had a lot to say about my life,” O’Neal said. “My biggest fear is for my daughter and son to not be proud of me. Showing my kids success is the only thing I live for.”
Father and daughter sat down to watch the Olympics a couple summers ago, and settled on volleyball. Asjia had never played before, but the game seemed like fun. She picked it up quickly. Asjia’s in the eighth grade now and already garnering attention from college coaches around the nation.
“When I was 15, 16 years old, I was starting to play basketball, wasn’t very good,” O’Neal said. “Then I started getting better and the letters started rolling in. And all of a sudden I got ranked as a player — it’s almost identical to what she’s going through. She just got better and better and better, and then toward the end of the year, she was one of the top players in the country as a seventh grader. It’s almost a mirror image of what happened to me. There’s not going to be any high school–to-the-pros for her, though.”