Pacers star on track to become husband, reach NBA Finals
LOS ANGELES Ñ On New Year's Eve, Jermaine O'Neal bought a ring for his fiancee.
In June, he hopes to earn one for himself.
'We can make it to the NBA Finals, and we can win it,' says the Indiana Pacers star, who played in his third straight All-Star Game on Sunday at the Staples Center. 'We can be the first Eastern Conference team since Chicago (in 1998) to legitimately challenge for a championship. We have the post play, we have the perimeter play, and we are tough as hell on both ends of the court Ñ maybe the best of any team in the league right now.'
Life is whirling by at warp speed these days for O'Neal, the former wunderkind of the Trail Blazers. The 25-year-old has replaced aging veteran Reggie Miller as the leader of the title-contending Pacers and is being mentioned as a Most Valuable Player candidate. It seems everyone wants to interview him, get his autograph, or have a photograph taken with him.
Last Thursday, he appeared on 'Late Show with David Letterman,' hair braided, looking dapper and professional in a gray, pinstriped three-piece suit. And it was Letterman, not O'Neal, who seemed a bit in awe of the situation.
'I felt comfortable,' O'Neal says, shrugging at the suggestion Letterman seemed a trifle star-struck. 'I didn't notice how he was reacting to me. But it was a great experience. It's funny. You do a lot of different things in your career when you play sports, but the Letterman show is a whole 'nother world.'
So is the game of love and matrimony. Familar with the former, he took a step toward the latter when he proposed to his girlfriend of eight years, Lamesha Roper, and presented her with a diamond ring.
'It is a good thing for me and Lamesha, and a commitment to my family,' says O'Neal, who has a 4-year-old daughter, Asjia, with Lamesha. 'My professional life is going well, but family is the most important thing.'
O'Neal and Roper, a graduate of Benson High and Portland State, met during his first season as a Blazer in 1996. The pair has not yet set a wedding date.
'We are still working on venues and stuff, and then we can set a date,' O'Neal says. 'We will probably have (the wedding) at some tropical island site. We want it outside, and we don't want it to rain.'
And the ring Ñ did it meet with Roper's approval?
'It was pretty fancy, 14 carats,' he says, chuckling. 'She had better like it.'
O'Neal, a member of the 2004 U.S. Olympic team, seems firmly entrenched as an All-Star staple, having been voted in as a starter the past two seasons.
'It is especially great when the fans vote you in,' he says. 'That means a lot. It means people are watching me grow (and) get better as a player.'
O'Neal says it is still exciting for him to be a part of the All-Star festivities.
'Growing up, you watch the All-Star game on TV, you dream of getting into this position,' he says. 'It is a huge thing. It will never get old to me. I still have five or six (All-Star appearances) left in me, at least.'
The NBA's Most Improved Player in 2001-02, and an All-Star starter in 2002-03, is O'Neal the MVP in 2003-04?
'I hear people mention my name,' O'Neal says. 'Of course, you like that. Some people say I am carrying (the Pacers) this season, but we have a lot of other guys who are playing well. Individual awards mean something only if the team does well. If I can get my team out of the first round and into the championship series, I will take all the awards I can get.'
O'Neal is one of five players Ñ and the only one in the Eastern Conference Ñ to average more than 20 points and 10 rebounds this season. He goes into the second half of the season averaging 20.3 points and 10.4 rebounds, and he ranks fifth in the league in blocked shots (2.65 per game) and third in double-doubles (32).
Only O'Neal's shooting percentage has fallen off. He is shooting .434 percent compared to his career .476 percentage. He says the departure of George Glymph to join the New York Knicks' coaching staff has played a part in that. Glymph, O'Neal's high school coach and longtime mentor, worked as a staff member during his time in Portland and Indianapolis.
'For the first time, I don't have coach Glymph with me,' he says. 'He worked so much on shooting with me. This year it has been pretty much me to work on the mechanics and stuff.
'I am facing more double-teams. A lot of times, I am having to shoot over two or three guys. Sometimes I have been a little tired, a little worn out, and I don't shoot as well when my body is aching. But I am going to get my (shooting percentage) up. I am going to concentrate on it a lot more the second half of the season.'
Indiana coach Rick Carlisle says he isn't concerned about it.
'Jermaine has played great,' says Carlisle, an assistant in Portland during O'Neal's rookie season with the Blazers. 'There are so many other facets to his game besides shooting percentage. He is our anchor defensively. We have asked him to step outside and shoot the ball a little more to alleviate the physical pounding he takes inside, and he has done a good job developing that part of his game.
'This year he has become a legitimate MVP candidate. You hear his name alongside Peja Stojakovic, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, and it is well-deserved. A lot of people thought this team would be decimated when Brad Miller and Ron Mercer left. Jermaine has helped lift the confidence level of his teammates.
'The sign of a great young player is his ability to make other guys better. Jermaine has helped a guy like Jeff Foster, who was a role player, gain the confidence to become a full-time starter. He has helped Ron Artest develop into an All-Star. He has done so much to enhance our whole situation, it is hard to quantify everything.'
O'Neal is more sophisticated than during his years in Portland. A polite, respectful teenager when he arrived in the City of Roses, he has developed into a polite, respectful adult. He enjoys his place in the top echelon of NBA players, but he retains the humility that helped him get there.
He mentions the importance of the city of Portland in his life.
'I bought a new home there last year, and really, it is still home to me,' he says. 'It was my first NBA city. The fans treated me extremely well. They didn't put any added pressure on me when I was still a young player, growing up. I made a lot of friends out there. Spending time there is something I am going to do every summer. Hopefully the fans there will continue to support me.'
O'Neal says he hopes to have some kind of a reception in Portland after his wedding. If it happens this summer, he may be wearing another new rock on his finger Ñan NBA championship ring.
'If I can get one, I will definitely be back to Portland to show it off,' he says. 'I can promise you that.'