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O'Neal doubles his pleasure
by Gery Woelfel / December 28, 2003

When Jermaine O'Neal strolled into the Indiana Pacers' locker room last week, he noticed a package in his cubicle.

The Pacers talented forward quickly glanced at the cover of the package, noticing the name and address of the sender. He then unsealed the package and discovered one of the most pleasant surprises of his life.

"I read the front of the package and it said 'Bill Russell' on it,'' O'Neal said. "But I didn't think it was the Bill Russell. Then I opened it and saw the picture of him with quotes from him on it.

"I've always been a big fan of Bill Russell. I've tried to pattern a lot of my stuff after him. Getting that from Bill Russell meant a lot to me. It was huge.''

That Russell, the legendary Boston Celtics center, would take the time and effort to send along a Christmas gift to O'Neal certainly indicates the healthy respect he has for him.

It's the type of respect many around the NBA are now according O'Neal who, despite being just 25, is in his
eighth pro season. Not only has O'Neal established himself as one of the best frontcourt players in the Association but he has developed into one of the best players -- period.

The stats vividly support that assertion. The 6-foot-11 O'Neal ranks among the league leaders in a several categories, including scoring and rebounding. O'Neal is averaging 20.3 points and 10.1 boards a game, which is the eighth-best in the league.

That places O'Neal in some elite company. Currently, only four other players -- Minnesota's Kevin Garnett
(24.4 points and 13.6 rebounds), San Antonio's Tim Duncan (22.6 and 13), Portland's Zach Randolph (23.4
and 11.4) and Shaquille O'Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers (20.5 and 11.6) -- can boast double-doubles in
those categories this season.

For O'Neal, who acknowledges he takes great pride in playing an all-around game, consistently posting double digits in points and rebounds is important.

"At the end of your career, if you want to be considered a great player, you have to have shown you can play both ends of the court,'' O'Neal said. "I look at Wilt Chamberlain, I look at Shaquille O'Neal and I look at Bill Russell and they did that. That's what I'm trying to do now.''

O'Neal's glittering numbers - oh, by the way, did we mention he is also averaging 2.68 blocked shots a
game, which is the fourth-best in the league? - along with Indiana's league-high 21 victories, have prompted
some roundball observers to tab O'Neal as a viable Most Valuable Player candidate.

O'Neal doesn't mind the MVP chatter at all, for he truly believes he's as invaluable to his team as any player on any team.

"A lot of guys play this game for money, or for All-Star games or for scoring titles,'' O'Neal said. "I play to win a championship. That's all that matters to me.

"But when you talk about the best players in the league, my numbers are right up there. There are only a couple of us who average 20 (points) and 10 (rebounds). But people seem to overlook that for some reason. I don't know if it's because I'm in a small market or what. But they don't really acknowledge what I've done.

"It doesn't matter to me, though. I"m going to continue to do what I've been doing and try to get even better.''

Terry Porter, the Milwaukee Bucks coach, cringes at the thought of O'Neal getting much better. Porter has
seen O'Neal up close and personal on two occasions this season, including last Saturday night when the
latter blistered the Bucks for 27 points and 11 rebounds.

To Porter, there are few, if any, rough edges to O'Neal's game anymore.

"He's one of the best in the East; there's no doubt to that,'' Porter said. "He can face the basket, he can post-up, he can pass, he can rebound, he can ...''

Porter then stopped, grinned and added, "What can't he do?''

Pacers coach Rick Carlisle will endorse those sentiments. Carlisle knows his team would be a run-of-the-mill one without O'Neal. As Carlisle succinctly and accurately notes, "To me, right now, Jermaine's the best big man in the Eastern Conference. I don't think there would be a huge debate about it.''

Carlisle, who replaced the fired Isiah Thomas over the summer, also knows O'Neal could have become one of the best big men in the Western Conference this season. That's because O'Neal was a free agent last summer and seriously contemplated relocating to another zip code. "At one point, I thought I was leaving Indiana,'' O'Neal said. "I was real upset about how things panned out last year. I thought about signing with San Antonio. If I had to chose a place outside of Indiana, I would have chosen San Antonio.''

So what prompted O'Neal to stick with the Pacers?

"I'm loyal to the people who are loyal to me,'' said O'Neal, whom the Pacers acquired along with Joe Kleine
from Portland for veteran Dale Davis in August of 2000. "Donnie Walsh (then the Pacers GM and now Pacers CEO and president) took a hell of a gamble trading Dale Davis to Portland for me, an unproven commodity. Talk about rolling the dice. Everybody thought Donnie Walsh was a fool for doing that.

"Because of my loyalty to Donnie Walsh, I stayed.''

But shortly after signing a lucrative seven-year, $126 million contract with the Pacers, the Pacers fired Thomas. That angered O'Neal, who had a tight rapport with Thomas. O'Neal was even more upset because he felt he was misled by Pacers management.

O'Neal said he was told during contract negotiations that Thomas would be retained as coach. Time, it seems, has almost healed those wounds. "I was upset with the way that was handled,'' O'Neal said. "Isiah's firing was in the making the entire time we were talking (about a contract).

"But if I was in the same position, I'd probably do the same thing. If I knew my guy was leaving, and there was a lot of talk I was leaving, I really don't think I'd take that chance and say the coach was going to be fired.''

While O'Neal misses Thomas, he doesn't have any qualms playing for Carlisle, who guided his former team, the
Detroit Pistons, to back-to-back Central Division titles.

O'Neal said his role is essentially the same under Carlisle as it was under Thomas, but he said there are stark differences between the coaches.

"I think Rick is more laid back,'' O'Neal said. "Isiah is more intense. He is a guy who may tear up the locker room if a guy doesn't do something right. Rick will talk it out.

"Isiah is a more hands-on guy. He deals with every aspect of the game. Rick has more of a system, like having a defensive coach and things like that. To me, the basic difference between the two was Isiah was more of a father figure to me off the court. Rick is a good coach to me on the court, but we really haven't created that bond off the court yet.''

O'Neal believes the Pacers are headed in the right direction under Carlisle's guidance. He doesn't have any doubt the Pacers can capture the Eastern Conference title and make a run at an NBA championship.

Said O'Neal: "We have a legitimate chance. We've had some players hurt, and we haven't had the practice time we've wanted. But once the season slows down a bit, we're going to get better. We have a lot of guys on this team who understand what it takes to win games and that's going to pay off.''

If the Pacers are to reach the NBA's promised land, Carlisle realizes O'Neal will have to be the one to lead them there.

"Every year, Jermaine's skills have become a little more fine-tuned,'' Carlisle said. "His recognition on the court gets better, his body gets a little more rugged and durable.

"This season, there's more on his shoulders. But he's risen to the challenge and played big for us.''

Gery Woelfel covers the Milwaukee Bucks and the NBA for The Racine (Wis.) Journal Times

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