Heat's O'Neal hopes good health will recapture the good times

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The black ink on Jermaine O'Neal's right arm, just below the shoulder, displays a menacing superhero type of character, crouched and springing forward. It is surrounded by the words "The Year of the Resurrection," a proud proclamation of impending renewal.

In a career that runneth over with resurrections, the theme is as appropriate now as ever as O'Neal enters his 14th NBA season. Can someone win the Most Improved Player twice in one career? O'Neal could be a candidate this season, and it will need to happen for Miami to be heard in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

"He makes a ton of difference," Heat forward Udonis Haslem said after O'Neal turned in an efficient and energetic performance against his former team, the Pacers, last week. "Anytime you can have an inside presence it makes everybody better, even Dwyane."

That's "Dwyane" as in Wade, the Heat superstar who needs a difference-making big man to balance his perimeter magic.

"The work he put in this summer is coming through," Wade said of O'Neal.

Back in the summer of 1999, three years after Portland had made him the 17th pick in the draft, O'Neal made his primary statement with that tattoo. He had endured three mostly sedentary seasons while backing up Rasheed Wallace and Brian Grant, but the franchise reiterated its faith by signing him to a four-year contract worth $24 million. O'Neal was so confident the next season would bring his breakthrough that he put it in writing, ink on flesh. But it didn't happen. He averaged 3.9 points in his fourth season, less than he did as a rookie.

The resurrection -- the first one, anyway -- finally came in his fifth season, after a trade to the Pacers, when he started and averaged 12.9 points. Further revival came the following season when he averaged 19 points and a career-high 10.5 rebounds and was voted the Most Improved Player in 2002. Two years later he was still blossoming, a second-team all-NBA selection who finished third in the MVP voting after averaging 20.1 points and 10 rebounds on a 61-win team that reached the conference finals.

O'Neal at that time was one of the best and still most promising big men in the league. He was on track to become an Olympian. He was in the midst of six consecutive All-Star selections, one more than Pacers legend Reggie Miller achieved in an 18-year career. His greatness as a player and community-minded citizen seemed summarized by the few days in January, 2005, when he scored 55 points against Milwaukee and then announced two days later he was donating $1,000 for each of those points to the victims of the Thailand tsunami.

But then it happened. Exactly what happened was complicated and glacier gradual, but O'Neal not only lost his place among the league's elite big men, he lost the trust of Pacers fans. After playing at least 72 games in his first four seasons with the franchise, he played just 44 games in 2004-05 (missing 15 because of his role in the brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills) and then 51, 69 and 42.

Beyond that, his health became a constant source of drama. Some fans and media members had the impression he milked each sprain and strain for maximum effect. Some mornings he said he wouldn't play that night, but did. Other mornings he said he would play, but didn't.

Beyond that, he didn't appear to live up to his leadership responsibilities. He always said the right things, but he seemed to physically separate himself from his teammates. He was often the last to arrive at the arena for games, and made it a point to be the last to take the floor for pre-game and halftime warm-ups.

Beyond that, he developed a reputation for talking the talk but stumbling along the walk. Whether looking ahead to the next season or the next big game, he too often promised greatness and delivered mediocrity. And when he eventually made it clear he didn't want to be part of a rebuilding program after the franchise was ruptured by the Palace brawl and subsequent trade demands, Pacers fans regarded him as a traitor.

So, his trade to Toronto before the '08-09 season elicited a mixture of relief and glee in Indianapolis, where O'Neal had once assumed he'd finish a Hall of Fame career. O'Neal proclaimed great confidence in another renewal in Toronto, where the plan was for him to join Chris Bosh in a mobile, versatile twin towers pairing along the lines of Tim Duncan and David Robinson. O'Neal, true to form, called it a "rebirth," and proclaimed "I have no doubt in my mind this will be a healthy year for me."

When that didn't work out either, and the Raptors traded O'Neal to Miami at mid-season for Shawn Marion's expiring contract, it appeared O'Neal was still riding that slow-moving train to nowhere. Even late last season, when he averaged 13 points and 5.4 rebounds in 27 appearances with the Heat, he looked like a player in decline, unlikely to recover his previous greatness.

O'Neal has a simple explanation for both his descent and latest resurrection: his knees. He suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee early in the '06-07 season, but continued playing -- a mistake, he admits now. He had surgery in the summer of '07, but re-injured the knee the following season, continued trying to play, and eventually had to shut down again.

Now, thanks to his most rigorous off-season training program yet, he's healthy again. He spent seven weeks with the Heat training staff following last season and then eight with famed Chicago-based trainer Tim Grover, who came highly recommended by Wade. From July until about a week before the start of training camp, O'Neal worked with Grover's staff for four or five hours per day, five days per week, while his wife and two children stayed at their Las Vegas home.

"Not all of his muscles were firing, and there were some imbalances, some strength issues, some range of motion stuff," Grover said. "Over the years of playing he had lost a lot of his power, which is very common among athletes who have that many years on his legs.

"His dedication was off the charts. He never missed a workout. He didn't ask many questions. He just did it."

O'Neal saw the summer as his make-or-break opportunity. He would either revive his career or confirm the suspicions of all those who thought he had misplaced his dedication amid his pile of wealth.

"I was in position going into the summer to kind of define myself," he said. "If it was going to happen in my career to come back, then this is the summer I was going to come back.

"I didn't want to have any more regrets. I found myself looking over my shoulder the last couple of years. That part of my life is over, there's nothing I can do to change that. I want to write the ending to my story."

It's too early to verify O'Neal's comeback, but the early returns are promising for him and for the Heat. Five games in, he was averaging 14 points on 58 percent shooting and 8 rebounds.

"He's healthy," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after O'Neal finished with 22 points and 12 rebounds in the Heat's victory in Indianapolis last Friday. "The energy, the liveliness you see in his legs, is a residual of the time he put into sweating and working in the summer. He's allowed us to establish something (inside)."

O'Neal's resurgence isn't all in his legs, however. It's in his head as well. He admits he wore down psychologically as well as physically in recent years. He appears to have greater peace of mind and less ego than in previous years, the result of the hard-won maturity gained from his recent trials. That was put to the test in his return to Indianapolis, where he still owns the 18,000 square foot home on four acres that he thought would be his personal mecca until retirement, if not longer.

O'Neal has a history of over-reacting to personal statement games and failing to live up to his intentions. His first few returns to Portland after his trade to the Pacers were disappointing because he tried too hard. His first game back with the Pacers after his suspension in the '04-05 season, against the Pistons, didn't go particularly well. Last season, in his first game back in Indianapolis with the Raptors, he had two points and seven rebounds in 17 minutes.

But last week, in the first game against the Pacers in the first season of his latest resurrection, he brought a different approach. No grim-faced, fist-pounding declarations this time. He appeared to be at peace.

"I'm just trying to have a good game without having any real emotions about it," he said before scoring 22 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in 32 minutes. Afterward he smilingly and repeatedly refuted the allegations that he had quit on the Pacers, and offered verbal bouquets to the franchise and city that had allowed him his first resurrection.

"I'm at a very comfortable place in my life," he said. "If I don't make a dollar after this season, as long as I played and had fun, that's all I'm looking forward to."

Ah, but O'Neal will make a dollar after this season if he continues to play at a high level. He's in the final year of a contract that pays him nearly $23 million this season. Skeptics will argue that his off-season dedication was the result of concern over his earnings potential rather than his basketball legacy, because at 31 he has time for another major long-term contract.

O'Neal's rebuttal is that this was the first summer he was physically able to handle such a demanding conditioning program. In previous years he had either faced surgery or needed substantial recovery time before he could begin working out.

Whatever. None of that matters now. O'Neal is reveling in his latest resurrection, hoping to make it his last.