It seems happiness was this close — the tiniest distance between the index finger and thumb — for Jermaine O’Neal.
He had finally found a place of comfort in the NBA after a rather forgettable two-year stint with the Celtics. After having both of his creaky knees revived by surgery in Germany, O’Neal was back to productive form with the Phoenix Suns, even though the team has struggled. And though the Suns looked ready to deal O’Neal to the Knicks, a team in desperate need of a defensive-minded center, he stayed in Arizona with his crew of not-ready-for-prime-time teammates.
Yet, with O’Neal, it seems complete contentment is difficult to obtain. One of his more successful seasons on the court has been one of the more tumultuous off it, as O’Neal has dealt with the death of an aunt who raised him, his own irregular heartbeat, and now heart surgery for his 13-year-old daughter Asia, who is scheduled to have a valve repaired at Massachusetts General Hospital next month.
“It’s been a rough year for me personally,” said O’Neal, who is in his 17th NBA season. “With my aunt going through the stroke and the aneurysm and then eventually dying and the irregular heartbeat and now my daughter’s heart surgery, sometimes you’ve got to take a step back.
“Physically, I feel like I can play. The one thing I understood, especially with Lindsey [Hunter] taking over [as coach] is I am in a place where you can really fit your piece, like [Jason] Terry coming to [the Celtics]. People were concerned about whether he fit or not. Systems really matter.
“Seventeen years is a long time. And physically, this is the best I’ve felt in a long time.”
O’Neal, like many NBA players, has to decide when it’s time to depart, and whether walking away without a championship will be unsettling.
“I don’t know if God’s trying to tell me something, because I’m having to fly back to my family quite a bit this year,” O’Neal said. “My grandmother had a balloon put in her chest three days ago.”
O’Neal said he is going to return to Germany this summer to have the Regenokine procedure again on both knees and will prepare as if he is returning next season.
“You finally get a healthy body and it’s family, family, family and you don’t really think as much about basketball,” he said.
“When those guys came to me after the Golden State game [last Wednesday] — and that was in the course of me going to New York, and I knew [the chances] were fairly high — and when they asked me, ‘JO, are you leaving us?’ that means a lot.
“That means more than anything, and I’d rather stay with them those 27 games and fight with them.”
Since he has been contributing — 7.3 points and 4.8 rebounds in 17 minutes per game off the bench — it has been more pleasurable to play. During his two years in Boston, O’Neal was usually injured and sulked. Asia would sit next to him in the locker room and provide support.
“She’s a real warrior, and I believe God is going to make her better,” O’Neal said. “And she’s going to have a fantastic career and she wants to go to UCLA [to play volleyball] and I’m sure between now and then it’s going to change 30 times.”
The surgery will cost Asia two months of volleyball, but O’Neal is more concerned with her long-term health. He will take a few days off next month to visit her in Boston, all the time praying for her health.
“You try to be there for your family and sometimes basketball’s the medicine for your ailment,” he said. “There’s a message somewhere in that because I’ve had a hell of challenge for [my career] to be so sweet for so long and then so sour for so long.
“You try to find a positive. Maybe it’s a story for somebody else, who knows?”
WHICH WAY FOR KINGS?
Stern puts it in board’s hands
Commissioner David Stern was inundated with questions at All-Star Weekend about the Sacramento-Seattle battle for the Kings that is expected to come down to the April 18 Board of Governors meeting.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson has promised to offer local buyers who will make an offer competitive with that of the Seattle-based group led by business tycoon Chris Hansen and Microsoft mogul Steve Ballmer.
This decision could come down to sentiment. It is no secret that Stern regrets yanking the Sonics from Seattle in 2008 and handing the team to Clay Bennett to move to Oklahoma. While Stern was angry at the Washington State Legislature for basically laughing at his plea for a new arena seven years ago, he was uncomfortable with moving a team from a city that had been loyal to the NBA for 41 years.
But he also doesn’t want to penalize Sacramento for having financially struggling owners who have wanted to move the team for years. So Stern’s approach is to mostly remain neutral and shift the decision-making responsibility to the Board of Governors.
“I’ve gotten no read of our owners because they expect to have the [relocation] committee to process it first, and will respect the committee system and league office’s ability to wash through all the things that are necessary under our constitution and bylaws,” Stern said last week in Houston.
“And I don’t believe it’s going to come down to economics because it’s not about, ‘OK, I say 525. All right, I say 526.’ To me that would be economics.
“I think the owners are going to have a tough issue to decide. But I don’t want to get to it because we don’t have the predicate for that tough decision yet. It’s going to wait upon Mayor Johnson making good on his statement that there will be an offer. And it’s going to, I think, be upon, in the Sacramento area, a number of the regional municipalities and the various people who have been saying they’ll give the mayor the support that he needs.
“And we’ll see. And then the owners are going to have to deal with it. This is a good time to be a commissioner and not an owner.”
A new calling for this Collins
He looked identical to Jason Collins, wearing a sweater and slacks on the Celtics bench before Boston took on the Lakers last Wednesday at Staples Center. It was Jason’s brother, Jarron Collins, a scout with the Los Angeles Clippers, who was working the game.
Jarron played 10 seasons in the NBA, mostly with the Utah Jazz, but has retired into the world of scouting and is a part-time college basketball analyst.
The brothers played together in high school and college at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles and at Stanford, and simultaneously in the NBA for 10 years, but the fact that they are no longer playing together is something Jarron has grown comfortable with.
“For me, personally, watching him play, I’m very proud of him,” said Jarron, who watched his brother play his final game with the Celtics before being traded to the Wizards. “He’s in his 12th year and he’s still doing this thing.
“I read the comments by Doc [Rivers] and see he’s appreciated for what he does and what he brings to the team. He’s not the most explosive guy and he’s not going to do things that are necessarily going to show up in the stat sheet, but he does things that help impact the game in a positive way.”
Jarron said he and Jason talk one to three times a day, as they did during their NBA careers. Jason went to two NBA Finals with the Nets while Jarron became a fan favorite in Utah for his workmanlike style.
“It’s different,” Jarron said. “I’ve got three kids here in Los Angeles with my wife, and he lives the family life vicariously through me and I live the NBA basketball life vicariously through him.
“Again, the scouting that I do with the Clippers and the college broadcasting allow me to remain close to the sport I love. Both my brother and myself have been extremely blessed and lucky to have played the game. Through his work ethic and his dedication, he’s doing his thing.”
AT HOME ON BIG STAGE
Irving wasn’t Star-struck
Second-year Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving blended into the All-Star scene last week in Houston like a seasoned veteran, playing most of the fourth quarter and trying to bring the Eastern Conference back as the team’s primary point guard.
Without Rajon Rondo on the team, Irving was the primary ballhandler for the East. Add to that his 3-point shootout championship, and it was perhaps a changing of the guard (literally). Irving may be emerging as a top 10 overall NBA player.
The fact that he played just 11 college games at Duke offered no hint to his meteoric rise, which has been one of the NBA’s more stunning stories the past two years. Irving handles everything in stride, including being among future Hall of Famers at the All-Star Game.
At 20 years old, Irving was playing alongside 36-year-0ld Kevin Garnett and 31-year-old Dwyane Wade, which wasn’t lost on him.
“I’m known as ‘young fella’ and I’m cool with that,” Irving said. “But those guys are amazing. They are all amazing players and they have really not been in this league just sitting on the bench or being in the league and just hanging on — they’ve dominated the league.
“And that just shows you the hard work and amount of success they’ve had. It’s truly like an honor to watch them.”
Karl’s respect goes way back
George Karl was asked about his experiences coaching against Kevin Garnett in his years as coach of the Sonics, Bucks, and now Nuggets and, as usual, his comments were very candid.
“My early run-in with KG was when he was a young player and we [Seattle] played them [Minnesota] in a playoff series and they nearly upset us,” said Karl.
“They were up, 2-1, on us in Seattle and we had to beat them Game 4 in their building and we did.
“You could see the glare and you could see the attitude, and that is when he was younger.
“I think he’s one of the great stories of NBA basketball. He’s developed into kind of a grandpa, a little bit, of the NBA.
“He’s a guy who plays the game the right way every night, well-prepared and well-committed.”
Boston isn’t in the running
The NBA All-Star Game is running in a tight rotation circle, as New Orleans was selected as the host city in 2014, just six years after the Big Easy hosted the midseason classic. Those Celtics fans wishing for the first All-Star Game in Boston since 1964 will have to keep waiting because the city has not submitted a bid. What’s more, deputy commissioner Adam Silver said New York or Brooklyn will host the 2015 game, giving the two rivals something else to compete about.
As the Celtics have shown, NBA teams are going to feast on players who have played in the Chinese Basketball Association this season. As that season concludes, former NBA players who played there become eligible to return. Players such as Ike Diogu, Gary Forbes, Gilbert Arenas, Joe Alexander, Von Wafer, and Quincy Douby are among those who were trying to resurrect their careers in China.
The Warriors apparently gave up on young prospect Jeremy Tyler , sending him to the Hawks Thursday and ending their relationship with the center who skipped his senior year of high school to play overseas and then enter the NBA draft. Tyler seems to have potential, but teams are losing patience with young centers who don’t develop. Former Maryland center Jordan Williams, released by the Hawks after being acquired from the Nets, is out of the NBA after one season. The Celtics moved underachieving JaJuan Johnson to the Rockets after one season and he is now in the NBADL . . . We’re hearing that Kansas’s Ben McLemore is rising up the draft charts and could be the No. 1 overall pick in June after the major knee injury to Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel. The draft is considered weak but McLemore and UNLV’s Anthony Bennett are considered lottery locks as freshmen . . . Former Celtic Antoine Walker, who recently attended his old team’s win over the Bulls at TD Garden, was one of the winners of a charity card tournament at All-Star Weekend in Houston along with NFL defensive lineman Travis Johnson. Walker, who has had well-publicized financial issues, donated his $5,000 prize to the Tamara Jolee Children’s Cancer Foundation. Walker has begun to return to the public spotlight after settling a lawsuit with a Las Vegas casino.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.