Jermaine O’Neal was born on October 13, 1978, in Columbia, South Carolina. His mother, Angela Ocean, already had one son, Clifford. The boys were the only two men in the house. Their father was out of the picture from the time Jermaine entered the world.
Life in Columbia—a city of more than 100,000 located in the center of the state—wasn’t easy for Jermaine and his family. Angela worked around the clock to support her sons, cleaning hotel rooms as a maid during the day and taking phone calls as a customer service rep for a bank at night. Her crushing workload often left Jermaine and Clifford to their own devices. The boys found their fair share of trouble. But Clifford also looked out for his little brother. During high school, he got a job to help Jermaine buy a pair of sneakers.
But Jermaine also
discovered the joys of athletics. Tall and lanky, he was fast and quick,
but not particularly strong. Jermaine liked football, but basketball was
his favorite sport. One of his heroes was Hakeem Olajuwon, the Houston
Rockets’ All-Star center who possessed skills that Jermaine likened
to his own. He also marveled at the way Olajuwon approached the game,
never barking at an opponent or taunting him.
Jermaine was fascinated by Bill Russell, too. He read books about the Boston Celtics great, and studied video of his most famous games. Nothing thrilled Jermaine more than highlights of the Hall of Fame center blocking and controlling a shot, firing an outlet pass, then out-hustling his man down the court to finish the fastbreak. He also loved watching the legendary battles between Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.
Jermaine played hoops every chance he got. Each summer, he suited up for an AAU team, and wowed onlookers with his athleticism. The youngster’s leaping ability was impossible to miss. Just as intriguing was the fact he was ambidextrous. A natural southpaw, Jermaine learned to use his right hand after breaking his left wrist in elementary school. Angela instructed him to write with his opposite hand, and he soon began doing everything that way.
By his 14th birthday, Jermaine stood 6-4, and was ready to take the basketball world by storm. A self-assured guard who liked to bomb away from beyond the 3-point line, he entered Eau Claire High School of the Arts as a freshman in the fall of 1992. Upon his first meeting with varsity basketball coach George Glymph, he pledged to become the best player in school history.
Glymph was skeptical of Jermaine’s boast. In 20+ years on the sideline, he had built Eau Claire into a powerhouse. Underclassmen didn’t normally make a big impact on the varsity. Jermaine learned that lesson his frosh season, spending the entire campaign on the JV.
Over the next year and a half, the skinny teenager grew five inches, and began to see basketball in a different light. With visions of Russell stamped on his brain, he became a monster in the paint. Glymph jokingly called his defensive system, “Hey, Jermaine.” Whenever a Eau Claire player got beat off the dribble, he’d yell to Jermaine, who would swoop across the lane to protect the hoop.
When Glymph teamed
the junior with 6-10 Leonard “Bud” Johnson, Eau Claire featured
the most imposing frontcourt in the South Carolina. On offense, Johnson
bullied his way to the hoop, while Jermaine ran the break and kept opponents
honest with his outside jumper. In the spring of 1995, behind the unstoppable
duo, Eau Claire captured its third straight 3A state title. Jermaine averaged
18 points, 12 rebounds and nearly nine blocks a game.
The following July, the 16-year-old raised his profile even higher. At an ABCD summer basketball camp, he out-played Tim Thomas, the nation’s consensus #1 prep star. Before long, recruiting letters were pouring in to Jermaine. Kentucky, North Carolina, Maryland, Clemson and South Carolina topped the list.
Jermaine also faced intense scrutiny away from the court. In the fall of 1995, he and his 15-year-old girlfriend were found in bed together. Her father pressed charges, and the D.A. weighed the merits of prosecuting Jermaine for rape. Fortunately for the teenager, the public rallied in support of him. The D.A. eventually dropped the case.
As the intensity of the spotlight increased, Jermaine leaned more heavily on Glymph. He was embarassed by the rape charges, and dealing with the pressure of deciding his future was difficult. Glymph became a father figure to the teen, introducing discipline to his life and making sure his head didn’t swell. Jermaine also benefitted from the advice of a new man his mother was dating. His name was Abraham Kennedy, and he worked as a baggage handler at Columbia Metropolitan Airport. Angela got to know him thanks to all trips she made to and from the airport dropping off and picking up Jermaine for road trips with his AAU team. The two eventually married.
In his senior season at Eau Claire, Jermaine put up big numbers again (22.4 ppg, 12.4 rpg and 5.2 bpg), and was voted First Team All-State, as well as South Carolina’s Player of the Year and “Mr. Basketball.” Named to USA Today’s All-USA Basketball Team, he also earned a spot in the McDonald's All-America Game.
Jermaine remained one of the nation’s top recruits, but his future in college ball was uncertain at best. An indifferent student, he forfeited his academic eligibility because of dismal scores on the SATs. Though only 18, he began to think that his next address would be the NBA. Glymph was one of many who counseled him not to make the jump, but Jermaine increasingly saw the pros as his best option. A year earlier Kevin Garnett, a fellow South Carolinian, had skipped school for the NBA. Jermaine had competed against him more than once, and always held his own. If Garnett could handle the transition to the pros, he felt he could, too.
ON THE RISE
Jermaine wasn’t the only high schooler available in the 1996 NBA Draft. Kobe Bryant, a guard out of the Philadelphia area, had also announced his intention to turn pro. While Bryant was the better prospect, there was plenty of interest in Jermaine, who projected as a power forward or center. Seven teams worked him out before the draft, and most experts predicted he would be selected somewhere late in the first round.
On June 26, Jermaine, his family and 80 friends gathered in Columbia for the draft. Early on things went pretty much as expected, with Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Stephon Marbury and Ray Allen going in the first five picks. Bryant was chosen 13th by the Charlotte Hornets. Seventeen-year-old Jermaine heard his named called a short time later by the Portland Trail Blazers, who took him with the 17th pick. He slotted into the rookie salary structure at $2.38 million over three years.
In Portland, Jermaine
appeared to be in a perfect situation. Although the foul weather and lack
of Angela’s home cooking made him miss Columbia, he was surrounded
by veterans and emerging stars who could show him the ropes. On the front
line for the Blazers were Arvydas Sabonis, Rasheed Wallace and Clifford
Robinson. The backcourt featured a pair of new faces in Kenny Anderson
and Isaiah Rider. In his third season at the helm was P.J. Carlesimo.
After missing the first 17 contests with a bone contusion in his left knee, Jermaine made his NBA debut in Denver against the Nuggets in December. At 18 years, one month and 22 days, he became the youngest player in league history. In three minutes, Jermaine scored two points, hitting his only shot attempt. The rookie appeared in 44 more games, averaging 4.1 points and 2.8 rebounds in 10.2 minutes. He tallied double figures five times, including 20 points in a January loss at Seattle. For the most part, however, he tried to learn in practice and from his seat on the bench.
Portland limped along through the first half of the campaign, then heated up as the playoffs approached and finished third in the Pacific. The team drew the Los Angeles Lakers in first round after ending the regular season at 49-33. Fans at the Rose Garden cultivated thoughts of an upset, but the Blazers fell without much of a fight, losing the best-of-five series in four games. Disappointed in the club’s uninspired performance, ownership gave Carlesimo his walking papers.
Jermaine watched with some envy as Bryant—traded to Los Angeles shortly after the draft—got far more minutes than he did. The two had forged a friendship during the year, brought together by their similar circumstances. When the Blazers visited Los Angeles, Bryant’s parents often had Jermaine over for dinner. At times the 18-year-old questioned his decision to skip college, but he stayed confident, certain he would improve and find his way into Portland’s regular rotation.
His optimism was shaken a bit that summer when he was arrested for disorderly conduct for cursing at police officer at a South Carolina mall. After spending a night in jail, he was released on his own recognizance, and later received a 15-day suspended sentence. Jermaine put the incident behind him, then prepared for his second NBA season. Playing in the FILA Pro Summer League in California, he was brilliant, scoring 20 points and grabbing nearly eight boards a night.
Still, his role on the Blazers for 1997-98 would be limited. The problem was that Portland fortified its frontcourt by signing free agent Brian Grant. For new coach Mike Dunleavy, combining Grant with Wallace and Sabonis in the starting lineup was crucial to competing in the West. With veteran Gary Trent also on the roster, earning meaningful minutes would prove difficult for Jermaine.
As anticipated, Jermaine saw mostly mop-up duty early in the year. Then he landed on the injured list in December with a strained left calf. When he returned, he began to hit his stride. In February, in his first start, he lit up the Nuggets for 21 points and nine rebounds in a 117-82 victory. Two days later he recorded a double-double and added three blocks versus the Golden State Warriors. He ended the best week of his career with 14 points and 13 boards against the Seattle SuperSonics. Jermaine’s final stat line read 3.4 rebounds and 4.5 points per game in 60 appearances, along with 58 blocks. Portland finished fourth in the division, with a 46-36 mark.
When the postseason opened, however, Dunleavy went with experience over youth. Prior to the trade deadline, the Blazers acquired point guard Damon Stoudamire, plus forwards Carlos Rogers and Walt Williams. The move was intended to bolster the team’s chances in the playoffs against bigger, more physical teams. But for the second time in two years, Portland was eliminated by the Lakers in the first round. Again, Jermaine rode the pine for most of the series.
Like everyone else
in the league, Jermaine had plenty of time in the offseason to ponder
his future. Without a collective bargaining agreement in place, the owners
locked out the players, sparking a work stoppage that lasted until January
of 1999. When a deal was finally reached, the NBA scaled back to a 50-game
schedule. Portland was one of several teams that benefitted from the abbreviated
campaign. Boasting the league’s most balanced scoring attack (Rider
topped all starters at 13.9 ppg, while Wallace, Stoudamire, Sabonis and
Grant also averaged double figures) the Blazers sprinted to a record of
Dunleavy, who earned honors as Coach of the Year, led his club into the playoffs with an eye on the franchise’s first title since 1977. After sweeping the Phoenix Suns in the first round, Portland edged the Utah Jazz to set up a showdown with the San Antonio Spurs. With the series tied at a game apiece, the Blazers were deflated by the “Memorial Day Miracle,” a 3-pointer by Sean Elliott with time winding down that gave the Spurs as 86-85 victory. San Antonio went on to win the series and the NBA championship.
For Jermaine, the campaign was a disappointment on multiple levels. Obviously, losing in the conference finals was a huge letdown. From a personal standpoint, he was even more disillusioned. Jermaine’s minutes dropped to fewer than 10 a game, and his contributions to the team were almost nonexistent. When bone spurs in his left ankle sent him to the injured list in April, he became even less of a factor, if that was possible. By the summer of 1999, Jermaine was not sure what to make of his faltering NBA career.
That picture seemed to gain clarity when Portland inked him to a four-year deal worth $24 million. Though Jermaine’s playing time didn’t reflect it, the Blazers apparently were sold on his potential.
The new contract, however, didn’t guarantee him minutes. Portland added more muscle and veteran savvy in the offseason, bringing in Detlef Schrempf and Steve Smith. Again Jermaine was relegated to scrub duty. In 70 games, he averaged 3.9 points, 3.3 rebounds and less than a block a game.
The Blazers, meanwhile, registered the second-best record in team history, going 59-23 in the regular season. But the campaign boiled down to a fourth-quarter collapse in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers in Los Angeles. Up by 15 in the final period, Portland fell apart and suffered an 89-85 defeat. The loss was all the more painful given a personal tragedy the club had endured. Weeks earlier, assistant coach Bill Musselman had succumbed to a six-month battle with a rare disease known as primary systemic amyloidosis.
MAKING HIS MARK
When the final buzzer
sounded on the Blazers’ 1999-2000 season, Jermaine was done with
Portland. He told the media he wanted to be traded, and the team acquiesced
in September, sending him to the Pacers in return for Dale Davis. For
fans in Indiana, the deal was a head-scratcher. Coming off an appearance
in the NBA Finals, their club appeared to be on the brink of a championship.
By getting rid of Davis, however, the Pacers lost their best low-post
presence, sending the message they were in a rebuilding mode. Also on
their way out were point guard Mark Jackson, center Rik Smits and forward
Chris Mullin. To complicate matters, coach Larry Bird stepped down, and
was replaced by Isiah Thomas. With all the changes to the roster, Jermaine
arrived in Indianapolis facing immense pressure.
From the first game of the year, Jermaine looked like a different player. He was relentless on the boards, workmanlike on offense and a terror on defense. After going for 12 points and 10 rebounds in the season opener, he settled into a good grove. In December he torched Kevin Garnett and the Minnesota Timberwolves for 30 points. Against the Houston Rockets in March he swatted away eight shots. In the last game of the regular season he totally dominated the Cleveland Cavaliers with 30 points, 20 rebounds, five assists and four blocks.
For the year, in 81 games, Jermaine averaged 12.9 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks. His 40 double-doubles led the Eastern Conference, and he was one of only 11 players in the NBA to pull down more than three offensive rebounds a game. He also tied Shawn Bradley for the most blocked shots in the league with 228.
As a team, the Pacers struggled all year to adjust to all the new faces on the team. Reggie Miller was still the club’s go-to guy, and his backcourt mate Jalen Rose continued to develop his skills. But Sam Perkins began to show his age at center, Austin Croshere didn’t develop as many hoped he would, and youngsters Al Harrington and Jonathan Bender still had lots to learn. Indiana squeaked into the playoffs at 41-41, drawing the top-seeded 76ers. Though Miller shocked Philadelphia with a last-second basket to win Game One, the Pacers couldn’t sustain their momentum and lost the series in four games.
Jermaine’s breakout season earned him a spot on Team USA for the 2001 Goodwill Games. Helping the Americans to a 5-0 record and the gold medal, he topped the squad in blocked shots and shooting percentage, and finished second in scoring and rebounding. In the championship game against Argentina, a 91-63 blowout, he pumped in 14 points.
Bolstered by his international
experience, Jermaine entered the 2001-02 campaign on a mission. The results
spoke for themselves. Voted the NBA’s Most Improved Player, he upped
his scoring average to 19.0 and his rebounding average to 10.5, the league’s
seventh best mark. Jermaine represented the Pacers in the All-Star game,
tallying seven points and seven rebounds off the bench, and was named
Third Team All-NBA.
Jermaine’s sparkling play changed the personality of the Pacers. With Miller turning 36, the team searched for its next generation of leaders. Jermaine gladly took on the extra responsibility, which helped other youngsters on the team make their mark. Most notably, Harrington and rookie point guard Jamal Tinsley matured into reliable contributors. Behind Jermaine, Indiana showed signs of gelling, especially after a trade with the Chicago Bulls that brought over Brad Miller, Ron Artest, Kevin Ollie and Ron Mercer. Miller and Artest, in particular, were perfect complements to Jermaine’s hardnosed style.
With wins in their
final five games, the Pacers muscled their way into the playoffs, where
they faced the surging Nets. Though the eighth seed, Indiana pushed New
Jersey to the brink of elimination. In Game Five, in fact, Reggie Miller
forced overtime with a heroic three-point bomb. The Nets held on, however,
and cruised all the way to the NBA Finals.
Jermaine spent the summer of 2002 with Team USA, but this time there was nothing to celebrate. At the World Championships in Indianapolis, the Americans played lackluster basketball and finished an embarrassing sixth. Jermaine started five of nine games, scoring seven points a night on 51 percent shooting.
That fall, Jermaine shook off Team USA’s poor performance by helping Indiana break from the gate quickly. The Pacers won 13 of their first 15, and stormed into the All-Star break with the best record in the East. Both Millers—Brad and Reggie—were playing well, Artest established himself as one of the NBA’s top defenders, Harrington improved his all-around game, and Tinsley provided effective enough leadership at the point.
But the season crumbled in the second half. Coming off his first All-Star selection, Brad Miller got hurt, robbing Indiana of important scoring and defense in the paint. Artest, meanwhile, became a problem with his all-too-regular emotional outbursts. The Pacers wound up at 48-34, but with no momentum heading into a playoff matchup versus Boston. Unprepared for the underdog Celtics, they were bounced from the postseason in the first round for the third time in a row.
By the Boston series, Jermaine was running on fumes. Weeks earlier the best season of his career took a bizarre turn when his mother called with news that his stepdad had tried to kill himself. Life had been near perfect up until that point. After Jermaine’s move to Indianapolis in 2000, his family had happily followed him. Jermaine’s brother, his girlfriend, LaMesha, and their three-year-old daughter, Asjia, all lived with him in a sprawling suburban mansion. Many observers felt that being a father had accelerated Jermaine’s development on the hardwood. More mature and thoughtful, he fully embraced the duties of a parent.
Angela and Abraham
seemed content, too. Jermaine put them up in a condo close to his home,
and got his stepdad a job as a security guard at Conseco Fieldhouse. But
when Abraham attempted suicide, everything unraveled. On the court Jermaine
maintained a brave face. Tinsley’s mother had died during the season
and Brad Miller had lost his father-in-law, so the team had already experienced
two tragedies. Jermaine didn’t want to be the source of more heartache.
Doing his best to keep his play at an All-Star level, he averaged 20.8 ppg and 10.3 rpg, making him one of only three “20-10” players in the NBA. He was even better in the playoffs, though he could not push Indiana past the first round. Jermaine was voted Eastern Conference Player of the Month twice, in January and again in April. Not since Detlef Schrempf in February of 1992 had a Pacer claimed the award even once. When the campaign ended, Jermaine was named to the All-NBA Third Team for the second consecutive season. He was also exhausted, both physically and mentally. His burden was eased somewhat when Abraham was moved from intensive care, then started on rehab and counseling.
After the season Jermaine switched his focus back to the business of basketball. A free agent, he toyed with the idea of joining another team in contention for the NBA title. San Antonio presented an interesting option. Coming off their second championship in five years, the Spurs had the salary cap room after the retirement of the David Robinson. Slotting Jermaine next to Tim Duncan was an exciting prospect for San Antonio fans.
But given the ongoing crisis he was facing, Jermaine chose not to uproot his family. When the Pacers came across with a seven-year, $126 million contract, he signed on the dotted line. The offseason ushered in plenty of other changes in Indiana as well, including the hiring of Rick Carlisle to replace Thomas, the exit of Brad Miller and the acquisition of point guard Kenny Anderson. Jermaine was upset by the release of Thomas, partly because the two got along very well and partly because the move came as a total surprise to him.
That controversy, however, was nothing compared to the bizarre scene that derailed Jermaine and the Pacers in November. Late in a game at Detroit, a huge brawl broke out that spilled into the stands. Jermaine was one of several players who fought with rowdy fans. The reprecussions were felt throughout the NBA. Artest, seen as the catalyst for the melee, was suspended for the remainder of the 2004-05 campaign. Jermaine and new teammate Stephen Jackson got booted for 25 and 30 games, respectively. David Stern called the episode one of the sorriest in league history.
At first defiant, Jermaine later apologized, and ultimately had his suspension reduced by 10 games. Still, the impact of the incident on him and the Pacers was severe. Indiana struggled without three of its starters, and finished the year at 44-38, sixth in the East. Jermaine, meanwhile, appeared in only 44 games, his lowest total ever with Indiana. Though he raised his scoring average to better than 24 points a game, his rebounding dropped to less than nine boards a night and he was not the same intimidating presence on defense. At times during the season, rescuing his reputation was job #1 for him. Jermaine was surviving the campaign, not enjoying it.
Things only got worse when he sprained his right shoulder early in March. He played sparingly the rest of the way, hoping to return to full strength for the playoffs. The Pacers drew the Celtics in the frist round, and gained a measure of redemption with a gutty series win in seven games. Clearly, however, Jermaine was less than 100%. He shot poorly from the field, often being pushed away from the low block and forced into low-percentage heaves. Still, he gave Indiana all he had, grabbing clutch rebounds and blocking a couple of shots in crucial situations.
In the next round,
Indiana was bounced by Detroit in six games, losing the last three in
a row. It was a disappointing end to a frustrating season for Jermaine.
He also had a tough time against the Pistons, who battered him with their
deep front court.
Jermaine’s professional agenda now has two major goals. Winning an NBA championship is the first priority. It's an accomplishment that will help restore his good name, too. Item #2 is an Olympic gold medal. Jermaine thought he would collect one as a member of the Dream Team at the 2004 Summer Games, but a knee injury kept him out of the action. (In the final anaylsis, this may have been a lucky break, since the Americans barely eeked out a bronze medal.) Whether he is named to the U.S. squad for the 2008 Olympics remains to be seen.
The major question about Jermaine these days concerns his health. Since a collision with a courtside cameraman in 2001, he has experienced recurring pain in his back, which is normally at its worst at season’s end. Considering the other injuries that have plagued him in recent years, this could develop into an even bigger problem.
Still in his mid-20s, Jermaine is already an NBA veteran, and should have a long career ahead of him—provided his back holds up. But pro hoops, more than any other sport, is predicated on postseason success. To date, that’s the only thing that has eluded Jermaine. As his buddy Kevin Garnett can attest, one-and-done in the playoffs doesn’t cut it if you want to be considered a great player, rather than just a player with great stats.
Jermaine will be the first to admit that he would have benefitted from a year or two in college. His first four NBA seasons were more draining and frustrating than the normal apprenticeship. Had he entered the league with a more polished game he might have made an impact sooner.
It’s also true that Jermaine is still learning. He arrived in the NBA with marvelous instincts, footwork and shot-blocking skills. A student of the game, he patterned himself after Bill Russell, even though he originally played guard. That combination of smarts and athleticism suggests he isn’t a finished product.
Jermaine can score in close with either hand, relies on both positioning and leaping ability to rebound and is as active as anyone in the NBA on defense. His outside jumper, once a question mark, has improved steadily over the years. Jermaine’s range now extends to 20 feet (and still may be expanding), which has opened more opportunities for him around the basket. Fast and sleek, he runs the break extremely well.
Once a homesick kid who wondered if he belonged in the NBA, Jermaine has matured into an accomplished leader who has earned respect leaguewide. Though emotion still gets the best of him at times, he has proved he can raise his level of play when the money’s on the line. His next challenge is to make those around him better.
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