— ORLANDO, Fla. - Jermaine O'Neal didn't like it when told popular opinion is that he's in the running for oldest 30-year-old on the planet.
Soaking his left foot in a bucket of ice despite sitting out Miami's second preseason game on Wednesday night, a 90-86 loss at Orlando, O'Neal bristled at the thought. He understands the perception exists that any DNP (did not play), especially one this early, fuels the belief that his career's expiration date looms around the corner. Still, he's equal parts amused and frustrated at the thought his reputation is in shambles.
"Why is that? You know that two years ago, the last time I made the All-Star team, I basically played people on one leg that year. Did you know that? Y'all don't know that. If you guys do the breakdown per minute on my production on one leg to breakdowns per minute on guys' production on two legs, have you done that? Of course you haven't. Writers don't do that. They don't even watch games half the time. I'm not saying you, but I'm just saying some writers don't even watch games all the time. They just piggy back over what someone else wrote, and that's what it is.
"I think it's comedic that people write you off. You guys report on things that you see from afar and what you see other people say. You guys don't take the time to come in and see what actually is going on."
Even though I'm still not quite sure how you actually break down numbers on minutes played on one leg — maybe that's some special secret sauce in John Hollinger's PER formula I'm not privy to — it's the defiant passion O'Neal has responded with since finishing up his first season in Miami that should capture your attention. He believes what he has done the last two years "has to be respected, because people don't average 14, 7 and in the top five in blocks on one leg. They don't do that with two legs." Those numbers are rounded up slightly, but in the vicinity of what he has accomplished since tearing his meniscus in both knees and dealing with an assortment of other nagging ailments. O'Neal believes that if you take the time to "see what actually is going on," you'll find an athlete willing to make every sacrifice to get back to who he used to be.
He'll earn the highest salary in the NBA this season, a cool $23 million for the final year of a pact signed with Indiana in 2003, and he doesn't want to be embarrassed about it. O'Neal wants to earn that money. Then he wants to hit free agency and find someone to give him more, willing to play until his refreshed body truly gives out.
"I worked all summer. I took my weight all the way back down to 253. Cut my body fat down almost 50 percent, which is where I played at most of the years before the last two when I tore the meniscus. My focus is in a different place," said O'Neal, who expects to play in Sunday's preseason home opener after sitting out Wednesday as a result of being kicked in his foot by teammate Joel Anthony early in training camp.
"I found myself slipping mentally and not really being happy with basketball and then physically I was beginning to break down," he said. "I'm in a different place right now and I have given myself every opportunity to excel this year by working all summer.
"There ain't that many people in this league that's going to do that. The very good players in this league, they'll do that, but it's not a huge amount of people willing to dedicate everything, everything that they do... basically seeing my wife and kids three-and-a-half weeks out of the summer. I saw my kids every two weeks, for the weekend, this entire summer. I dedicated my entire time to the gym. I can sleep a hell of a lot easier now, knowing that I did everything I knew I could possibly do physically, to put myself in a position to excel."
Trading leisure time with his family for work with legendary trainer Tim Grover was necessary for O'Neal to get his body in the shape his pride needs it to be in. After all, the checks have been cashing just fine despite the attrition. Be it in Indiana, Toronto or Miami, O'Neal has had to deal with the indignity of talking about bulky knee braces and recovery periods more than wins and on-court performance. It's irked him to no end.
"This summer, there wasn't just motivation from what people think, but motivation from myself. I expect to be a certain way," said O'Neal, referring to the dominant All-Star form he'll kindly remind you he enjoyed just a few years ago. "That's what I expect to be this year, and what if it is that's what God has planned for me? I feel that I put myself in a great position physically to do those things. Those questions that people do have will be answered either way you see it, this year. For sure. I guarantee you that."
Mind you, O'Neal has always been able to talk a good game. His introspective and forthright nature in expressing his perception of things make him an All-Interview team candidate year after year. But All-Interview does not an All-Star make. He can't talk himself into being the picture of perfect health. At this point, the only route to getting back where he wants to be is to get out there and prove dependable through back-to-backs and clashes with Superman, versions old (Shaquille O'Neal) and new (Dwight Howard).
Truth be told, if his body does manage to cash the checks his pride is promising, O'Neal's agent, Arn Tellem, may find it impossible to score his client anything more than a two-year deal with a team option for a third. Organizations just aren't going to trust his injury history, even if he plays all 82. Not in this economy. Whether he knows this is a moot point, because all the work he jas put in this summer can't be cynically written off as a guy seeking to make the most out of a contract year.
It's about a guy wanting no part of the conversation involving the oldest 30-year-olds on the planet. Not with birthday No. 31 on Oct. 13. O'Neal genuinely wants to disrupt the direction his career is headed in. He's convinced he can be the player he once was.
In other words, he's every veteran that has ever played in this league. Most fail to keep pace in the race against time. There are exceptions, though. Just this past year, Shaquille O'Neal and Grant Hill seemed to make strides. Jermaine O'Neal wants to follow in their footsteps. The mission to get there includes being honest with himself over what has gone wrong.
"The biggest thing I kind of understood when I evaluated myself is that sometimes I think in order to move forward you gotta criticize yourself and what your deficiencies are," O'Neal said. "I realized that my base wasn't as strong as what I felt it needed to be. I even went as far as meeting with specialists on my knees to find out what's best for me, what weight is best for me. What our great training staff and our doctors and other doctors basically said is that I had to cut down on my weight."
So far, O'Neal has started off the new season like the title character in Showtime's Dexter, groggily and off his game. A mediocre preseason debut (six points and one rebound in 21 minutes on Monday in Detroit) and a DNP on Wednesday casts a small shadow over his summer work, but Miami would be bringing him along slowly as it is. O'Neal plans on finishing out his final weekend as a 30-year-old productively, fully participating in practices leading up to Sunday's game against the Spurs. If he can help it, the days of explaining the cause of his latest DNP are over.
O'Neal's work this past offseason, in his mind, has earned him that elusive second lease on a career. Sacrifices have been made, sweat has been spent, due diligence put in. He sleeps easily in the knowledge that he's cut no corners.
"A lot of people have regrets when they tend to walk away from this game because they didn't walk away on their own terms, and I'm not ready to walk away by any means," O'Neal said. "I truly feel that I will be ready and all the questions that people have, like I said, will be answered either way."
Redemption or retirement? O'Neal's career crossroads is here. At least he's prepared.