Jermaine O’Neal has reached the playoffs in thirteen of his seventeen years of NBA service. And while all of the fans of the Golden State Warriors expect this to be O’Neal’s fourteenth trip to the NBA Playoffs, last week at Media Availability in China during the 2013 NBA Global Games, he told me that this is likely his last season.
“I trained probably as hard as I’ve ever trained in my life this summer. This will probably be my last year. And I’m approaching this as if this is my last year,” O’Neal said, “I’m gonna leave it all out on the court this year and hopefully things pan out. Hopefully I can get to the Finals and have a chance on winning it, and if not, then I’ve had a great run.”
One need only peruse O’Neal’s Wikipedia page to see that these last seventeen years have, indeed, been quite a run:
- 1997-2000: As a member of the Portland Trailblazers, O’Neal reached the playoffs, albeit while sitting on the bench, in every year in the beginning of his career with the Blazers, including Western Conference Finals losses to the heroics the San Antonio Spurs‘s Sean Elliott, as well as the 15-point 4th-quarter meltdown with then-newly-acquired Scottie Pippen to the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers.
- 2001-2008: As the new face of the Indiana Pacers after Reggie Miller retired (O’Neal spent one season with Miller), O’Neal won the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award, made the Eastern Conference All-Star team, and was named to All-NBA Second and Third Teams. In doing so, he averaged a double-double during his stint there. His first three seasons as a Pacer all resulted in first-round exits, but he led the team in 2003-04 to a league-best 61-21 regular season record and lost the Eastern Conference Finals to the eventual NBA champions, the Detroit Pistons. The year after was the infamous “Malice At The Palace”, in which Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson were lost for the remainder of the season due to suspension, but the Pacers still managed to make it to the Conference Semifinals, losing to the Pistons again after a tough-fought seven-game victory over the Boston Celtics. In 2005-06, O’Neal battled injuries and the Pacers got eliminated in the first round by the New Jersey Nets. The injury-riddled O’Neal missed the playoffs his last two seasons as a Pacer from 2006-08.
- 2008-13: O’Neal lost in the first round the next two years as a member of the Miami Heat (the first half of 2008-09 was with the Toronto Raptors). Then after signing with the Celtics, O’Neal lost in the 2nd round of the playoffs to the newly-formed “Super Friends” version of the Heat in 2011. He did not make the playoffs on 2012 as he was released by the Celtics following season-ending wrist surgery, nor last year as a member of the Phoenix Suns.
O’Neal has embraced the veteran leadership role on the Warriors.
“We don’t have a whole lot of playoff experience and we only have a couple guys that have been to the first round. I’ve been on teams who are very good, who were projected to win it all, but couldn’t win it all, for whatever reason,” said O’Neal, “My biggest thing for this team is telling them, ‘Hey, I’ve seen this before in Indiana.’ We were projected to be up there every year. Once you become that team, you have to do things a certain way. And mistakes that you make, will show up.”
Avoiding the pitfalls that young players make is something that the nascent Warriors such as Festus Ezeli, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and Kent Bazemore are eager to learn. They’ve already been over to O’Neal’s house and had lunch with him to discuss those things.
“The thing about this team, they ask a lot of questions. They want to be good. They want to have knowledge about, ‘How do you do this?’, and that’s very impressive, considering this team is fairly young,” said O’Neal.
Yet the youthful Warriors isn’t a team where you have to take aside and explain a lot of things. The 2013 NBA Global Games‘ preseason outings in China are a great example.
“They understand the objective of this trip,” O’Neal said of the off-the-court bonding experience, “Trips like this is what really sets the tone. You’re basically brothers. We live together, basically, throughout the NBA season. If you can depend on them away from basketball, you can depend on them during basketball. It falls into place just like that.
It’s my job to help them understand that talent doesn’t always win. Hard work will beat out talent if talent doesn’t work hard. We have work to do. People have a lot of expectations for our team this year but we can never achieve those things if we don’t do the necessary things to go to the Finals.”
“If you’re worrying about shots, then we’re never gonna win. You gotta say, ‘Okay, well if I’m not in the game, I have to trust that the person behind me can get the job done.’ That’s the only way you can win a championship,” O’Neal explained, “Your focus has to be about basketball and basketball only. And it has to be a huge sacrifice that all of us have to have.”
One of the biggest sacrifices O’Neal has had to make during his now eighteen-year career is being there to support his fourteen-year-old daughter Asjia, an eighth-grader who, at an athletic six-foot-two, is one of the top volleyball players in the country. In fact, J.O. had to leave the Suns last February to tend to her heart surgery. He also has a seven-year-old boy and laments missing out on father-son days at school.
“(Basketball) creates great lifestyles for our families,” said O’Neal, “(but) you know, we can’t get this time back. So this is kind of a tough situation, a double-edged sword where you have basketball which is a love of yours and also you have kids and a family which is a love as well.”