The adolescent squeals, the squeaking sneakers, the timeout horns that made the gym sound like a clogged Manhattan intersection -- this was the grating ambience in which
Five years ago O'Neal was a member of USA Basketball's core group of players who qualified for the Athens Olympics; the following season he finished third in the MVP balloting, averaging 20.1 points and 10.0 rebounds to lead the young Indiana Pacers to the NBA's best record (61-21). But a partially torn ligament in his left knee kept him out of the 2004 Games. Now, two months from his 30th birthday, the 6-foot-11 O'Neal has spent the most important summer of his 12-year career rehabbing from the persistent knee injuries that threaten his basketball future.
"The fact is, I played on one leg for two years," says O'Neal, whose averages shrank to 13.6 points and 6.7 rebounds in 42 games last season after he reinjured his knee in 2006-07. "You hear people say that you slowed down, that you don't have it anymore -- but
If O'Neal can approach the form that made him a six-time All-Star, his trade to Toronto could prove to be the most significant offseason move in the East. True, Philadelphia signed free-agent power forward
O'Neal didn't come cheap: He has two years and $44.4 million remaining on his contract. But after missing an average of 29.5 games over the last four years, he has accumulated relatively low NBA mileage.
"This is a chance for Jermaine to really make a statement," says Raptors president and general manager
O'Neal was on the block because his career has been in decline since 2005. "I couldn't have dreamed in my worst nightmare that I wouldn't have won a championship by now and that the team we had would go into the dumps," he says. But after Pacers forward
As the Pacers suffered their second straight losing season, O'Neal's relationship with team president
"I had the best conversation I've had with Larry in five years," says O'Neal. "It was really civil, really logical. ... I don't think that we hated each other. I just think so much had happened that it made the job difficult, and the only way for that team to move forward was to move me."
"You hate to [trade] your best player," says Bird. "But he was at the point where he thought a change of scenery would help him."
O'Neal returned to his Indianapolis mansion and packed his things. "We boxed up all of my stuff, and the clothes I didn't want we took to the Salvation Army," he says, which must have been a record day for the store's big-and-tall section. Then he headed to Vegas, his new offseason home, to dedicate himself to the hard work of reinvigorating his health as well as his career.
Before he could make this last stand, O'Neal first had to learn how to stand one-legged on a foam pad and catch a tennis ball -- a simple lesson in helping him regain the balance he had lost over the previous two seasons. Many stars with guaranteed eight-figure contracts might not have gone to such humbling lengths. Not only that, "Jermaine was bad at it," says
Since beginning his summer regimen on May 10 alongside scores of collegians who were preparing with Abunassar for the draft, O'Neal has strengthened his hamstrings and glutes to radically improve his jumping technique and take pressure off the left knee. (He plans to wear a brace next season to prevent hyperextensions, which can lead to painful bone bruises.) He has increased the strength of his torso and legs by doing crunches and balancing exercises while shedding 10 pounds to get down to his current weight of 260 -- no small thanks to nutritionist
"Because he has type A blood, he stays away from red meat," says Falce. "No potatoes, no tomatoes, but he can have rice, egg whites, soybeans and broccoli."
Falce communicates with O'Neal's chef to keep their client from dwelling on the don'ts. But O'Neal did notice he was eating too much fish. "Every single day," he says. "Everything started to taste really fishy." Falce has since shifted him to entrees of chicken and turkey.
In order to complement the 6-10 Bosh in Toronto, O'Neal will shift to center, where his knack for rebounding, drawing charges and altering shots -- he averaged at least two blocks in each of his eight seasons in Indiana -- will strengthen the Raptors' flimsy defense. At the other end O'Neal and Bosh are versatile enough to take turns playing high or low. Together they'll elevate 7-foot
O'Neal's impending arrival has already prompted questions about whether Bosh, 24, should surrender his leadership of the Raptors.
"I'm not brought in to be the new face of the team; I'm brought in to take the team to the next level," says O'Neal. "It's Chris's team, and I'm not coming in to step on his feet or [coach]
Few go to Vegas to recuperate; usually they have to recover
"People who want it to be easy are people who haven't succeeded in life," he says. "Now I'm in a position where I can play pain-free -- and I'm two months away from training camp. It's going to really be scary."
In a good way, he means.