An hour after last Friday's game against the Chicago Bulls,
Indiana Pacers forward Jermaine O'Neal stood in the players'
parking garage at Conseco Fieldhouse showing off the newest
entry in his car collection, a silver Mercedes G500 SUV. As
teammate Jalen Rose stopped to admire the vehicle--"I ain't
gonna lie, I might have to copy you and get one of
these"--O'Neal beamed like a proud father, which it turns out he
Strapped into the rear seat of the G500, her hair threaded into
alphabet beads and sporting a tiny leather jacket, was
Jermaine's favorite topic of conversation, his two-year-old
daughter, Asjia. Once Rose had finished admiring the Benz and
moved on, Jermaine returned to the discussion he'd been engaged
in. "You see," the 6'11" Jermaine said earnestly as he leaned
against the truck, "we can get her to use the diaper, but for
some reason she won't go in the toilet. I tell you, potty
training's harder than you think."
Incongruous as these dueling preoccupations--hubcaps and
Huggies--seem, they're representative of O'Neal. Though he's
only 23 years old, he has a been-there, done-that appreciation
of NBA life, the result of more than five seasons in the league.
That's as long as Allen Iverson (who already has an MVP award)
and Kerry Kittles (who already has had three knee operations)
have been in the NBA. It's also the same tenure as that of Kobe
Bryant, who, like O'Neal, entered the league out of high school
in 1996. That's what frustrates O'Neal. While Bryant almost
instantly became a star with the Los Angeles Lakers and has two
championship rings, O'Neal spent his first four years serving a
pine-time apprenticeship with the Portland Trail Blazers, for
whom he never averaged more than 4.5 points per game for a
season. His sole claim to fame was as the answer to a trivia
question: Who, at 18 years and 53 days, was the youngest player
ever to appear in an NBA game?
So forgive O'Neal if he objects to being called an overnight
sensation. It's not youthful bravado when he talks of becoming a
leader and passing his wisdom on to the "young guys" on the
Pacers--even if one of them, rookie point guard Jamaal Tinsley,
is eight months older than O'Neal. As much as any 23-year-old
NBA player, O'Neal has waited for his opportunity. "Everybody
knew the talent that he had, but in Portland he couldn't
showcase it," says Bryant. "Now he's playing like a monster.
I'll see him in Philly at the All-Star Game."
He certainly will. After a breakout season in 2000-01, during
which O'Neal averaged 12.9 points and 9.8 rebounds and tied for
the most blocks in the NBA, with 228, he has gotten even better.
He spent the summer working on his post moves with former Dallas
Mavericks and Detroit Pistons forward Mark Aguirre and has
evolved into the most complete big man in the Eastern
Conference. With 18.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.49 blocks per
game through Sunday, he was one of only four players (with Tim
Duncan, Dikembe Mutombo and Shaquille O'Neal) averaging a double
double and more than two blocks a game. As a result the Pacers
were 21-17 and in fourth place in the conference.
More impressive, on a club with a potentially combustible mix of
youngsters and veterans, even the team's elders are pushing
O'Neal to take charge. "He's our star now, but at times he still
holds back," says 14-year veteran guard Reggie Miller. "I want
him to let people know that he's as versatile and as talented as
guys like Duncan and [Kevin] Garnett." Indiana coach Isiah
Thomas has even bigger plans. "Jermaine not only has
extraordinary talent," Thomas says, "but he also has all the
tools to become a leader of this franchise and this community."
O'Neal is quietly confident he can do just that. Then again,
he's always had confidence. When he was a spindly 6'4"
ninth-grader, he announced (though not so quietly) to George
Glymph, the basketball coach at Eau Claire High in Columbia,
S.C., that he was going to be "the best player you've ever
coached." Glymph dismissed the boast but had to reconsider after
O'Neal sprouted five inches, to 6'9", in half a year. Glymph was
soon basing his defense--which he called the Hey, Jermaine--on
O'Neal. "It was simple," says Glymph, now director of player
development for the Pacers. "When your man got by you, you'd
holler, 'Hey, Jermaine!' and he'd block the ball."
More important, Glymph helped instill discipline and humility in
O'Neal, the child of a single-parent home who had plenty of time
to find trouble on the streets while his mother, Angela, worked
two jobs, as a hotel maid during the day and a customer service
representative for a bank at night. Under Glymph, O'Neal had no
choice but to behave. "We had a tradition," says Glymph, who won
five state championships with Eau Claire. "We didn't bitch at
the officials, and there were no braids, no earrings and no
O'Neal bought in to those strictures--so much so that after his
senior season, when his mother gave him his first earring, he
asked Glymph's permission before putting it in. (The coach
grudgingly gave his blessing.) After four years of phone calls,
late-night talks and tough love, O'Neal had come to see Glymph
as a father figure. "He was always there for me, and he never
gave up," says O'Neal. "I know some coaches are like that with
their best players, but not George. He was like that with all
When it came time to decide between college and the NBA, Glymph
advised O'Neal to go to school. O'Neal, though, hadn't done well
enough on the SAT and would have had to sit out his freshman
year, so he opted for the pros. On June 26, 1996, he and 80
friends and family members gathered in a rented ballroom in
Columbia and cheered when the Trail Blazers made him the 17th
pick in the draft.
It would be just the first of many evenings O'Neal spent as a
spectator over the next few years. Stuck behind Rasheed Wallace,
Arvydas Sabonis and Brian Grant on Portland's depth chart, he
played only 11.2 minutes per game in his first three seasons.
Nevertheless, before 1999-2000 he re-signed with the Blazers for
$24 million over four years, believing he'd be getting more
playing time from Mike Dunleavy, Portland's coach at the time.
"I thought I would get to play, I liked the guys, and I thought
we had a shot at a championship," says O'Neal, who went so far
as to get a tattoo that read year of the resurrection on his
right arm. "That didn't exactly work out." He averaged only 3.9
points in 12.3 minutes that season.
O'Neal made his discontent clear by not playing for Portland's
summer league team. Sensing an opportunity, Thomas and Pacers
president Donnie Walsh flew to Columbia, where in
near-100[degree] heat at the Eau Claire gym they watched as
O'Neal sailed through a bevy of guard-oriented drills. "I was
blown away," says Thomas. "He could dribble with his left hand
and play out on the floor. He was about as good a big man as I'd
seen in a while."
Good enough that Walsh offered All-Star forward Dale Davis, a
favorite in Indianapolis, to the Blazers for O'Neal. "All the
fans thought I was nuts," says Walsh, who was in the midst of
overhauling a team that had made it to the 2000 NBA Finals by
replacing stars like Antonio Davis, Dale Davis, Mark Jackson and
Rik Smits with young prospects like O'Neal, forward Al
Harrington and swingman Jonathan Bender.
As impressive as he was last season, O'Neal was still raw
offensively. That's where Aguirre, who though only 6'6" scored a
large chunk of his 18,458 NBA points off post moves, came in.
"Isiah sent me films of Jermaine, and I told him, 'I can make
this guy better real quick,'" says Aguirre. "He had no idea what
he was doing. He was relying on athleticism."
Last summer at the Peachtree Center Athletic Club in Atlanta,
Aguirre taught O'Neal the tricks of low post: how to use the
lower body to gain leverage, how to lock a fronting defender by
hooking a leg around his back leg, how to "push the refrigerator"
(that is, use the outside leg to get position). "Before, he was
waiting for the defender to make a mistake," says Aguirre, "Now
he knows how to make him make a mistake."
O'Neal's go-to move has become a soft jump hook, which he can
shoot with either hand. (After Jermaine broke his right hand
playing sandlot football in junior high, Angela made him learn
to do everything left-handed, including writing in cursive, so
he wouldn't fall behind in school.) He also has extended the
range on his jump shot to 15 feet. "He's playing hard, making
strong, aggressive moves," says the other O'Neal, Lakers center
Shaquille. "He'll be the dominant big man one day--after I leave."
As heady as such praise is for Jermaine, some of his
buddies--namely the 21-year-old Harrington and the 20-year-old
Bender--worry that he may be taking this grown-up thing a little
too far. "I don't know if it's all the minutes or what, but he's
got old man's syndrome," says Harrington with a smile. "He's
always complaining about this or that. He's like my grandpa,
hootin' and hollerin' to keep it quiet."
Bender, who's as reserved as Harrington is outgoing, tries to
clarify. "He's not getting the big head, but he's maturing a bit
now that he's got the girl out here," he says, referring to
Asjia's mother, LaMesha Roper, who recently moved to
Indianapolis to live with Jermaine after finishing her
architecture degree at Portland State. "These days he's home
watching Shrek, watching Bambi."
Such is O'Neal's bond with Harrington and Bender that, though
construction is almost done on his $2.5 million house in
suburban Indianapolis, he says, "For me to stay here, Al and
J.B. need to be here." The Pacers have no intention of breaking
up the threesome. Harrington signed a four-year extension on
Nov. 1, and Walsh says he plans to retain both Bender and O'Neal
when their contracts come up after the 2002-03 season.
In the interim O'Neal, the baby-faced grizzled veteran, will
continue dispensing advice to his teammates--and talking about
Asjia to anyone who will listen. "You know what?" he said last
Friday, after he'd finished explaining the trials of toilet
training. "She can already spell her full name. And watch this."
He turned to his daughter. "Who do you look like, honey?"
Asjia paused, then smiled shyly and answered, "My daddy."
"Yeah, you do," O'Neal said, grinning like a rookie.
says Aguirre. "Now he knows how to make him make one."