After all the false alarms, injury scares, and subtle hints that his career may be reaching its conclusion, Jermaine O’Neal is still here, still making an impact on the NBA, still chasing a championship with the Golden State Warriors.
A member of the famed draft class of 1996, O’Neal has been in the NBA nearly half of his life. While one classmate, Kobe Bryant, has played just six games this season and another, Steve Nash, seems on the verge of retirement, O’Neal remains an impact player despite a plethora of injuries that nearly ended it all.
He has had major surgery on each wrist. His tendinitis-laden knees were unable to give him any lift and they constantly swelled. His stint with the Celtics ended with surgery and he seriously contemplated walking away after the 2011-12 season. O’Neal, 35, said a conversation with Bryant changed his entire approach.
Bryant convinced O’Neal to undergo plasma-rich therapy on both knees in Germany, a procedure that has extended the careers of several professional athletes.
“Going to Germany gave me a different outlook on things,” he said. “When you tried everything, every shot possible, you’re like, ‘OK, well, maybe it’s just time.’ I had the knee surgery, fought back, had the wrist surgery, had to fight back, and it was just like, ‘I’ve got to give myself one more shot at it.’
“I wasn’t going to give myself one more shot until Kobe called me. It was something we talked about. I met him over there, and after the first day I picked Phoenix [in free agency] because I knew they had a great training staff and there were no expectations whatsoever. And it really allowed me to see what I had left in the tank.”
After playing just 49 games in two seasons with the Celtics, O’Neal logged 55 last season for the Suns. This season he chose the Warriors over the Dallas Mavericks in free agency, hoping to provide a defensive presence. In 29 games, he is averaging 7.9 points and 5.4 rebounds in about 21 minutes.
“[Golden State] just made sense. It just felt right,” he said.
O’Neal is never short on motivation. His daughter Asjia, now 15, underwent open heart surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital last March and has re-emerged as one of the top volleyball prospects in the country. O’Neal left the Suns briefly last season to travel to Boston for Asjia’s surgery and rehabilitation.
“She bounced back, almost a mirror image of how I bounced back,” he said. “She’s been able to see and understand and be knocked down and get back up. These are the reasons why you keep doing it. You keep doing it for your kids. It ain’t never as bad as it seems.
“This is physically the best I’ve felt in a long time. I haven’t had any knee issues. [Golden State] is a perfect place for me, on and off the court.”
Warriors coach Mark Jackson played until he was 39 and has a healthy respect for O’Neal’s journey.
“I’m certainly aware as you close out your career, having the opportunity to play for it all,” Jackson said. “I will say this, he’s a guy that will be able to end it on his own terms. If he wants to stop playing at the end of this year, it will be on him. If he wants to continue to play, he’s a guy who has proven with his play on both sides of the basketball that he has some left in his tank.
“I am sensitive to the fact of the dues that he has paid, the miles he has on his body and how professional he is. It’s refreshing. Jermaine is a guy who appreciates how he is treated. He is impacting these [young] guys. He has a responsibility and he has the ability to leave this team and this league where guys are better basketball players.”
In Boston, O’Neal was supposed to team with Shaquille O’Neal as a formidable center tandem and push the Celtics back to the NBA Finals in 2011. But it didn’t work out that way. Shaquille lasted just 37 games because of Achilles’ tendon issues while Jermaine appeared in only 24 games and needed knee surgery. Having played just 25 games in 2011-12 because of an ailing wrist, Jermaine’s Celtics tenure ended.
“I told my daughter this, my Boston years were probably the hardest years I’ve had in a long time,” he said. “And sometimes you ask God, ‘Why did you bring me here?’ If I don’t come here, experience the Celtics, and my daughter got another checkup here and they said she needed surgery. So the difference of opinion was something as serious as open heart surgery for a 12-year-old.
“It taught me to keep fighting because I almost felt like enough was enough. But I didn’t want to end the way it ended.”
The Celtics sent Asjia a room full of balloons following her surgery, while coach Doc Rivers and team president Danny Ainge called Jermaine to offer well-wishes. There were so many balloons crowding Asjia’s room, she and Jermaine walked the hospital’s children’s ward and offered some to other patients. “There were babies that were in there by themselves,” Jermaine said.
The Celtics’ support moved the family.
“That shows the class the organization has, that shows the class Doc has and the support. It wasn’t what we all pictured it to be but [the fans] always showed support and I respect that and I honored that. I know they are in a transition mode now but I have no doubt with the regime they have, they are going to get it right.”
Numbers mounting, James can see summit
Dominique Wilkins had some strong words on Twitter following LeBron James’s 61-point effort last week against the Bobcats. While Wilkins applauded the numbers, he criticized Charlotte’s defense and its lack of pressure on James at the perimeter.
Wilkins was asked recently about James’s place in the game, especially after the avalanche James created when he named his top four all-time players, his Mount Rushmore.
“When you win two titles back-to-back, that puts you at your own special place in history, no question about it,” Wilkins said. “To their credit, [Miami’s Big Three] still gotta play. You still gotta be on the same system. You still have to buy into a system so it really doesn’t matter. They are going to go down as one of the great teams if they win it again.”
James named Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and Oscar Robertson as his top four players and said he would eventually replace one of those players on the NBA’s mythical Mount Rushmore.
“As a competitor, you gotta put yourself in a position to think you’re the best,” Wilkins said. “That’s just competing. I’d do the same thing. I deserve to be on there. He’s just doing what any other superstar would say.”
When asked his top four, Wilkins said: “It’s hard. But you gotta put Bird and Magic up there. Wilt Chamberlain, who a lot of people forget about. It’s amazing how many people forget how great he was. Not good. How great Wilt Chamberlain was. I don’t care what era you come from, when you can average 50 [points] and 30 [rebounds] in a season, that’s not possible anybody will duplicate anything like that.”
James did not back down from his goal of being the greatest player in league history.
“That’s my goal,” he said. “Any time I bring up a subject or ask a question, guys like to dissect it or make it bigger or smaller than what it is, those are my personal goals. My personal goal is to be the greatest of all time. I don’t really care what other people say, where they put me, how they define me. If you have a poll of 100 people, that’s not for me to care about. I have the opportunity to maximize my career and be the greatest of all time and I feel like I can do that. That’s my personal goal.”
Kevin Durant and James are the two primary candidates for league MVP this season. James has no issue giving credit to his biggest competitor.
“That’s what this league is about, it’s not a one-man show,” he said. “It’s never been a one-man show because you have so many guys who can do special things and we all try to represent where we’re from and our names with the utmost respect.”
When asked what it would take to be considered the best ever, James said: “Just continue to do what I’m doing. Stay injury-free. Continue to be productive to my team and we’ll see what happens.”
James could be reaching a point where his accomplishments are being overlooked because they are so customary.
“I noticed that in the Finals game when I had a triple-double and it wasn’t enough for people,” he said. “And that’s OK, but I understood what I did, I had put myself at such a high standard that some numbers are just not enough and you’ve got to be special every night. It’s not much more pressure than I put on myself because I want to be special every night but I understand [where the sentiment is]. I’ve always let my game speak for itself and wherever it puts me or lands me, then so be it.”
Pacers still have big need for Bynum
The Pacers made some proactive moves before the trade deadline, including adding mercurial center Andrew Bynum. He has yet to play since signing Feb. 1 and Indiana is in no hurry to thrust him into action. Although Bynum was in relatively good shape with the Cavaliers, the Pacers decided to examine his surgically repaired knees to determine whether they are suitable for the NBA rigors after Bynum missed the entire 2012-13 season.
“We knew he was going to be a ways away,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. “We knew before we signed him that, ‘We were going to be sure not to rush you in there, you’re at your best before we throw you out there.’ And we knew it was going to take some time because he had been off for so long. We knew it was going to be a process.”
What helps Bynum is the presence of Roy Hibbert, another lumbering, physical center. The two have been battling in practice in preparation for Bynum assuming the backup role. Ian Mahinmi has been the Pacers’ reserve center for the past two years but Bynum, when healthy, is a better post player and imposing defender.
“We’ve got a plan and a scheme on both ends of the court with Roy Hibbert that fits his style of play,” Vogel said. “Once [Bynum] gets healthy and in great condition, the transition is going to be fairly seamless. So he’s going to just fit in. We’re going to use him the same way we use Roy.
“We’re not putting a firm timetable on it. The trainers are doing some things to strengthen the area around his knees so when he becomes an everyday player for us, the soreness that he’s experienced the last couple of years is minimal, and while we’re doing that, there’s the process of getting him back in game shape. We’re just taking our time with that.”
The Pacers have been struggling of late and are in danger of losing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference to the rival Heat. The difference, Vogel said, between the team that lost to Miami in seven games last spring and his current squad is experience. He is banking that experience could win a potential Game 7 in Miami.
Vogel is hoping is the addition of Philadelphia’s Evan Turner to a backcourt of Lance Stephenson, Paul George, and George Hill will give opposing teams matchup issues. They can all play point guard. And the addition of Bynum should bolster the frontline. Indiana is not traditionally known for making midseason moves, but the opportunity to overtake Miami was just too irresistible to stand pat.
“I think we have a better bench, especially adding Evan Turner, but Luis Scola and C.J. Watson have given us a huge lift this season,” Vogel said. “Ian Mahinmi has played at a much higher level this season and we haven’t even seen Andrew Bynum yet and we haven’t seen Chris Copeland much yet, so the depth is much better than it was last year and our experience is greater come playoff time. Paul George and Lance Stephenson were third-year players last year and that’s pretty ripe going into a conference finals.”
The Big Ten Network visited Celtics practice last week for an interview with former Ohio State center Jared Sullinger, who talked about ex-teammate and Buckeyes senior guard Aaron Craft. Craft will be the focus of “The Journey,” a program that features Big Ten athletes and teams. Craft is considered one of the best defensive guards in the country but may present a quandary for NBA clubs because he is a combo guard who likely would have to play point at the next level. Craft is projected as a second-round pick . . . Arizona State guard Jahii Carson announced recently that his sophomore season would be his last in Tempe. Carson is a high-scoring, smallish guard in the mold of the Sacramento Kings’ Isaiah Thomas, and Thomas’s NBA success likely will help Carson’s chances of being drafted . . . While Keith Bogans is listed as a pending free agent, he has two more nonguaranteed years on his contract with the Celtics, making his deal very attractive to trade this summer. Since the additional two years, at $5 million-plus, are nonguaranteed, a team could acquire Bogans and then waive or release him without financial repercussions. That’s the only reason the Celtics have allowed the veteran guard to leave the team without releasing him for his roster spot. He is not expected to return this season . . . The Chinese Basketball Association season is currently in its playoff semifinals, meaning a slew of former NBA players could be available as free agents in the coming weeks. There has been interest in former Celtic Lester Hudson, who scored 40 points in Xinjiang’s victory over Dongguan. Former Sacramento King Bobby Brown tallied 45 points in that game. Other ex-NBAers in China are Shelden Williams, Delonte West, James Singleton, Donte Green, Yi Jianlian, Dominique Jones, and Hamed Haddadi . . . If the season ended Friday, the Celtics would have two of the first 16 picks in the June draft. But they are not the team with the best scenario. Not only do the Magic have their own projected top-five pick, they have the Nuggets’ first-round pick, giving them potentially two of the first 12 selections.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.