JERMAINE O'NEAL has a question. He finds himself asking it often these days, because even two months later the brawl remains the defining moment of this NBA season and legal proceedings continue and, well, the question has a way of disarming those inclined to criticize. "What would you do?" the Indiana Pacers' forward says, and anyone inquiring about that night has to stop then and at least pretend to think--especially after O'Neal is quick to acknowledge that he was wrong for slugging a fan in the face. "I'll take my punishment with open arms," he says. "And I hate that for the rest of my life, when they look back at the worst suspensions ever, my name will come up. I hate that." So, yes, O'Neal feels remorse. But he also asks you to put yourself in his place. ¬∂ He knows: It's hard to imagine being on court in The Palace of Auburn Hills on Nov. 19, when a basketball game turned into a riot. Video footage showed everything but what it felt like. Two of O'Neal's teammates, Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson, responded to a hurled beer cup by going into the stands, punching and getting punched, before belligerent Detroit Pistons supporters stormed the court. Artest swung at one, and then O'Neal saw his teammate, Anthony Johnson, on the ground. He ran over and floored someone named Charlie Haddad with a right hand while Haddad's arms were pinned by security guards; at the moment of impact O'Neal slid onto his butt like a newborn colt hitting a patch of ice. Making for the tunnel, he was the target of curses, beer, popcorn and a folding chair.
"There's 12 of us with Pacers jerseys on, against thousands," says the 26-year-old O'Neal. "If you listen to some of those 911 calls? People were afraid, right along with us. I don't think enough people actually sat back and said, 'What would I do?'"
By the time he finishes, the question has done its job: You find yourself uncertain and shake your head in better-you-than-me sympathy. It becomes easier to focus on more concrete matters, like the fact that, since returning from his 15-game suspension on Christmas Day, the 6'11" O'Neal has played the best ball of his nine-year career, keeping Indiana in the playoff chase and returning his name to the Most Valuable Player short list. Or the fact that, while his panicky cheap shot is often served up as another reason to dismiss NBA players as thugs, an arbitrator reduced O'Neal's sentence from 25 games because of his record of "character, community involvement and citizenship." Or that, even after suspensions wrecked the Pacers' title hopes, his teammates, coaches and bosses describe O'Neal in terms normally applied to a church deacon. "We're lucky to have him here," says coach Rick Carlisle. "He's one of the kindest, most generous star players I've ever been around."
Besides, the brawl is only the latest dizzying turn O'Neal's life has taken. His father abandoned the family before Jermaine was born, then showed up to get acquainted when his son became a teenage star in Columbia, S.C. Shortly before his career-making senior year at Eau Claire High, O'Neal had to cope with a dubious statutory rape charge. Two years ago O'Neal walked into his mother's Indianapolis condo and found his stepfather, Abraham Kennedy, lying on a bed after he'd shot himself in the temple.
O'Neal can smell the gunpowder from that March evening still. He normally didn't like his mother's suitors, but he was close to Kennedy, who'd married Angela Jones three years earlier; O'Neal even got him a job working security at Conseco Fieldhouse. Just moments after dropping Angela at home, O'Neal answered his cellphone, heard his mother's faint voice and the word shot: He U-turned across four lanes and raced back. O'Neal walked into a guest room and found Kennedy's body, twitching. The bullet had torn through his head. "We're talking about blood everywhere, major blood, membranes, his head swollen," O'Neal says. "It was so bad, I walked in and had to turn around and look out the door right away and ask God just to help me."
O'Neal steeled himself and went back in. There was an open Bible on the bed. He stood next to his stepfather and took his hand. Kennedy couldn't speak. All O'Neal could think was: Keep him awake. "He was breathing real hard and looking at me like he was sorry, like he had made a mistake," O'Neal says. "I told him he was going to be O.K., and every time he closed his eyes and his breathing slowed, I just told him to wake up."
After 15 minutes the paramedics arrived. At the hospital the doctor told O'Neal and his mother to make funeral plans. Jermaine pressed him for an option, and the doctor described a procedure, highly risky, that could save Kennedy, or kill him, or leave him a vegetable. Angela was too distraught to respond. Suddenly, the decision was on O'Neal.
He looked at the doctor. "What would you do?" he said.
"Do you want the chain off?" Jermaine O'Neal asks, preparing to pose. He starts to remove the silver rope, complete with a diamond-studded crucifix the size of a hood ornament, from around his neck.
"No," says Judy Klipsch, vice chairman of Klipsch Audio Technologies. "I want the chain. Because that's you."
The photographer lines up the shot. Klipsch flits about, trying to keep things loose. It's not necessary: O'Neal is nothing if not cooperative. He can smile on command or twist his baby face into a menacing scowl that, along with his braided hair and inked-up arms, would work for the cover of a rap album. O'Neal is aware of the power of that menacing image; just a few days before he had sat in front of his locker and said that the outcry after the brawl was largely due to the predominance of African-Americans in the NBA. "I hear people saying our league is too hip-hoppish,'" O'Neal said. "That doesn't sit well. Tell me what that means. I have plenty of tattoos, but I love my family. I believe in living my life the right way because I have a daughter and she looks up to me, and I have fans who look up to me.
"The baseball player breaking a lady's nose with a chair because [her husband] was talking--they didn't talk about that for weeks, did they? Every day for six weeks, you'd see something on TV about us--but they didn't talk about the hockey player trying to kill his agent. Kill his agent. But these are people who are not black. It's totally unfair for this league to be judged off this one incident. I saw some tapes in court, hockey players flattening people [in the stands], but you don't hear, 'This guy listens to heavy metal music, or rock and roll music; he's a bad guy.'"
This afternoon, though, O'Neal doesn't have to worry. When Klipsch Audio, a company based in heartland Indianapolis, signed up O'Neal last summer to serve as a national spokesman, it wasn't interested in a buttoned-down shill. "We're trying to get away from that old stereotype," says marketing coordinator Tom Meyer-Klipsch, who wanted to reach the under-30 crowd, white, black and every other color under the sun, and saw O'Neal's edgy persona as a plus. "Now that we're out in Best Buy and mass-merchant retail, Jermaine's face is the one we want out there." After the brawl Klipsch never made a sound about backing away from O'Neal. Part of their resolve was based on the old saw about any publicity being good publicity. But it didn't hurt that Judy lives across the street from O'Neal, and that Tom and Jermaine spent New Year's together. It took time, but they got to know O'Neal.
"I've seen a lot of maturity in Jermaine in the last year and a half," says Larry Bird, who took over as head of basketball operations in July 2003. "He got engaged. He's family oriented. He's done everything we've asked him to do. What people saw on TV that one night? That's not Jermaine O'Neal. He's totally different."
Bird isn't just talking about O'Neal's longstanding devotion to fiancée Lamesha Roper and to their five-year-old daughter, Asjia. He's talking about how, since guard Reggie Miller began telling him three years ago that the Pacers would go only as far as he would lead them, O'Neal has shouldered more and more responsibility, assuming blame for losses, thanking his teammates for wins--and, in the locker room, blistering them for poor effort. O'Neal was the one who confronted Artest after his early-season request for time off to promote a CD threatened to disrupt the team. He also served as the players' point man in discussing Artest's behavior with management just days before the brawl.
"It's my team," O'Neal says. "If I've got something to say, I'm going to say it. Ronnie knows that last year I was his personal p.r. guy pushing him for the All-Star Game, for defensive player of the year. When people work hard, come to the gym and do what they're supposed to do, I'm there for them. But as soon as you start stepping toward the fine line you shouldn't cross, I'm going to say something every single time."
The idea of O'Neal as sheriff has its ironies. He had spent two months in the fall of 1995 dangling while the Columbia district attorney's office mulled whether to prosecute a rape case against him after O'Neal, then 17, was discovered in bed with his 15-year-old girlfriend. The girl insisted it was consensual, but her father pressed charges; in South Carolina it was a felony for anyone 16 or older to have sex with someone younger than 16. If convicted, O'Neal faced up to 20 years in prison. After a whirl of negative, statewide publicity and calls from some parents for his suspension from the basketball team, the D.A. finally declined to prosecute, instead referring him to a program that would allow him to expunge the charge from his record.
The situation humiliated him, but he never hid from it. When the story broke in Columbia, O'Neal had been set to run a race for his school's cross-country team. His basketball coach and mentor, George Glymph, told him to skip it; he could avoid the cameras and questions by not showing up. "I'm going," O'Neal told Glymph. "If I don't go, they're going to be all over you. You've been with me, I'll be with you."
The Portland Trail Blazers drafted O'Neal 17th out of high school. Back in Columbia after his rookie year, O'Neal verbally clashed with a mall security guard, was charged with disorderly conduct and missed an appearance before a magistrate. Sentenced to 100 hours of community service, he found himself picking up garbage and digging ditches under the July sun. But when his bosses suggested letting him go after he'd served only half his time, O'Neal insisted on finishing up. "They shouldn't have arrested me," he says. "They were totally wrong, but that's [the sentence I got], and I was going to serve it. I had to deal with it. I've always got to be able to deal with it."
His mother worked two jobs when he was young, and they lived in Section 8 housing. His older brother, Clifford, worked a night job in high school and would give Jermaine the paycheck and tell him to buy the sneakers he wanted so bad. Since he was 18, O'Neal has been supporting his family. He bought his mother and grandmother houses, an aunt a car; he gave Clifford $1 million a few years ago. He's never seen it as a burden. "What I go through is only temporary," O'Neal says. "For every bad day, there's going to be three good days. My mother always said that, and I truly believe it. I've taken my bumps and bruises, but you've got to be willing to get knocked down and pick yourself up. You can't get discouraged. You can't lose sight of what your goals are. I know I'm a good person. I know I can play basketball."
O'Neal is not bitter, he says, about the brawl, the arrest, his lack of playing time during four seasons in Portland. He will readily criticize the judge or commissioner David Stern for the penalties they imposed, and he will say that he cares what people think of him, but he does so with an odd lightness, as if nothing anyone says can touch his sense of himself. "I'm not a killer," O'Neal says. "I'm not a beastly guy. Everybody goes through situations where they got to say, 'Man, I wish that didn't happen.' But does that make you a bad person?"
Abraham Kennedy lived. O'Neal gave the go-ahead for surgery; Kennedy went under the knife. The good news ends there. The bullet took part of Kennedy's brain and all memory of the day. He can't say why he tried to kill himself; sometimes he doesn't believe it happened. Afterward, Angela collapsed and lost 20 pounds within a week, and the marriage crumbled. Within a year the two were divorced.
After Kennedy's surgery, O'Neal spent the first night sleepless, scared his stepfather would die, scared his mother would die, too. She seemed better the next day, but Indiana management made it clear that O'Neal should take as much time off as he needed. The Pacers boarded a plane for a four-game road trip to the West Coast. They were in their seats when O'Neal came walking across the tarmac, carrying his bag. "My teammates need me," he told one coach when he arrived. He could feel their eyes on him. He would lift his head, and everyone would look away. "I just felt ... obligated," O'Neal says. "I'm obligated to my team, I'm obligated to my family, and it's something I can't ever turn my back on. No matter what."
O'Neal played his first game at Golden State, washing away tears with the sweat: He couldn't stop thinking about all he'd seen. In the months that followed, his appetite all but disappeared. Each night he'd wake every few hours with a start. Each morning his sheets were soaked with sweat. It didn't matter. That April he was the Eastern Conference's player of the month.
So, really, it's no shock to hear that, during his recent suspension, O'Neal would call Carlisle during halftime to suggest adjustments or to have him instruct certain players to drink more water. It's no shock to see O'Neal, who finished third in the MVP balloting last year, come back from this season's suspension looking to shoulder even more responsibility. With Artest, Indiana's leading scorer, suspended for the season and Jackson banned for a 30-game stretch that ends this Wednesday, O'Neal knew he'd have to produce even more. He poured in 55 points against the Milwaukee Bucks, the most in the league this season. He scored 35 and buried the winning free throws in the Pacers' first-ever win in Memphis. At week's end he had averaged 29.0 points and 9.4 rebounds in the 14 games since his return. "He's been unbelievable," Miller says.
"Running, dunking, making defensive plays--he's the real deal," says Orlando Magic forward Grant Hill. "As long as he's out there, they have a chance to beat anybody."
But the Pacers can lose to anybody, too. They may have beaten the Heat in Miami and the Rockets in Houston earlier this month, but they also lost to the lowly New Orleans Hornets. The night after O'Neal's monster game against the high-flying Phoenix Suns--29 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks--Indiana spent the whole game chasing the very beatable Magic at home. O'Neal finished with 38 points and 15 boards but had already missed five free throws when, with 58 seconds left and the Pacers down by three, he stood doubled over between the key and midcourt, waiting to take two more. Come on, he urged himself. Big players make big shots. He went to the line and missed again. Indiana lost by one.
In the crowd, a fan wore a FREE RON ARTEST T-shirt, but O'Neal didn't complain about the Pacers being shorthanded. Because no matter how tough things get, no matter how painful his troubles, O'Neal is sure that it only makes him stronger.
"It's hard," he says. "But I can never say it's too much, because back when I was in Portland I didn't have enough. And I know that when I walk away from the game, people are going to say, 'He was one of the best.' Right now there's not a whole lot teams can do to slow me down; you've got to hope I'm hurt or having a bad shooting night. If I keep learning on the run like I'm learning now, it's going to be impossible to stop me."
"What I go through is only temporary," says O'Neal. "For every bad day there's going to be three good days. My mother always said that, and I TRULY BELIEVE IT."