DALLAS — Jermaine O’Neal has in motion multiple business ventures ranging from technology to restaurants to real estate. A “retirement house” — his words — under construction in an upscale suburb northwest of Dallas is less than a month away from completion. His wife, 7-year-old son and a 14-year-old, nationally ranked volleyball-playing daughter are already settled in their strategically chosen retirement city.
O’Neal, 35, has spent the past six years meticulously planning each detail of his family’s approaching future together beyond basketball.
“Sometimes as a black athlete we get judged by what we can do with our feet and our hands and not enough of what we can do with our minds,” O’Neal said. “I want to show people just how successful I can be away from basketball.”
Still, one nagging detail hovers over an NBA career that started in 1996. O’Neal sought out the team for what is likely his final season as thoughtfully as he went about setting up the next chapter for his life. The Golden State Warriors, a young team bursting with talent and expectation, seemed the logical landing spot for a wise, grizzled veteran to share battle stories and hunt down team glory one last time.
In this respect, O’Neal needs the Warriors right now as much as they just might need him.
“He’s a guy we went and got for that reason,” Warriors coach Mark Jackson said.
“I don’t have very many regrets because the NBA has been a life tool for me in many different ways, but one thing I do regret, and I tell these guys a lot, is not respecting the moment,” O’Neal told NBA.com last week during the stop in Dallas. “The moment is when you get an opportunity to be a great team, have a chance at doing something that’s extremely special, that’s very difficult to do. Not capturing that moment and doing what’s necessary to seize that ability, that championship smell and everything, thinking that you’re going to have next year and the year after and the year after; that next year may never come.
“Here I am in my 18th season still looking for that moment.”
O’Neal, averaging 6.5 ppg and 4.6 rpg in 18.8 mpg backing up starting center Andrew Bogut, reflects on the nonsensical twist his greatest shot at a title with the the Indiana Pacers took as if it were yesterday.
“We were young and we were built to be good for a very long time. You couldn’t have told me at any point that we weren’t going to be able to compete, and then the brawl happened (at Detroit in 2004), I got hurt and then it was all downhill after that,” O’Neal said. “As a player you respect every player that wins a championship, but you envy it sometimes because you know the time you put in, you know the heartache, the blood, sweat and tears you put in over many, many years and you haven’t got the opportunity to taste that champagne, feel the emotions of winning it, having the tears of joy.
“That’s one thing that I’ve always wanted to do.”
Warriors second-year forward Draymond Green figures he was six or seven years old when he first remembered watching a young O’Neal play for the Portland Trail Blazers. Growing up in Michigan, Green watched O’Neal dominate in the Eastern Conference with the Pacers. From 2001-07, the 6-foot-11, six-time All-Star recorded six consecutive seasons of 19-plus points, eight-plus rebounds and at least two blocks. In the first three he averaged a double-double.
O’Neal is one of five first-round picks from the ’96 Draft still going: Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Ray Allen and Derek Fisher. Warriors forward David Lee laughed as he suggested that George Mikan was also in that class. And before Green could answer the question about the first time he recalled seeing O’Neal play, Lee butted in: “I was in my crib” — no slang intended.
That’s OK because O’Neal not only accepts the role of wise, old veteran, he relishes it. He’s been exceptionally vocal in the locker room recently as an already wounded team lost defensive ace Andre Iguodala to a hamstring injury. Adversity has come early in a season that, at 10-8, hasn’t followed a championship script.
“I keep telling the guys these are the things that build the character of a team,” O’Neal said. “You go through the trials and tribulations to start the season and you learn how to depend on your team rather than depend on just two or three guys. We don’t have any conference finals, NBA Finals experience outside of me, so it’s my job to give these guys the stories and sometimes the hard love of what it takes to get to that level because it’s a very difficult thing. And they listen. This is a situation where everybody really likes each other. I was kind of blown away when I got here just how good these young guys were and what the limits were for our team, and the sky’s the limit for our team.”
Following last Friday’s loss at Dallas, O’Neal sat at his locker with ice bags wrapped around both knees and his right thigh. He flexed a sore wrist. All-in-all though, the oft-injured center who recently missed five games with a knee bruise and a groin strain, said he’s feeling pretty good.
He nearly retired two seasons ago. His knees ached so badly he played in just 49 games in two seasons for the Celtics. With two surgeries already on his left knee, O’Neal said he was on the verge of retirement. That’s when Kobe raved to him about the treatments he’s received in Germany, and urged him to try the Regenokine therapy that has yet to be approved by the FDA. O’Neal has gone to Germany the last two summers and swears by the treatment, resuming workouts he said he abandoned many years ago.
Still, this is it O’Neal truly believes. His business ventures are in place. The house is almost finished. His family is entrenched in the Southlake, Texas community, and is ready for him to become a permanent fixture in their lives.
“I tell these guys all the time that I’m one of the rare players that sat on probably every aspect of professional basketball, all the good, all the bad,” O’Neal said. “You look at one point we were rolling — shoe deals, commercials, max deals, whatever it was — to being broken down physically and mentally with injuries; to being rolling with a team, being one of the best teams in the league to basically being devastated by the brawl.”
So now here he sits, knowing this is very likely one-and-done, knocking on wood, telling his stories and hoping for the best.
“If I can get an opportunity to play for that championship,” O’Neal said, “it would almost be storybook-like.”