One of NBA's young stars says his family keeps him grounded

PHILADELPHIA Ñ Dreams don't always come true. Most of them, in fact, dissipate like a puff of smoke in a strong breeze. Don't tell that to Jermaine O'Neal.

There he was Sunday, pinching himself just to make sure, playing alongside Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson for the Eastern Conference, collecting seven points and seven rebounds in 17 minutes in a 135-120 loss to the Western Conference in the 52nd NBA All-Star game.

At 23, the youngest six-year veteran the league has ever seen, O'Neal has made it.

'So much fun,' says the Indiana center, who thanks Pacer President Donnie Walsh and coach Isiah Thomas for 'giving me the opportunity to show the world I am not a fluke.

'They gave me that title out of high school, said I wasn't going to make it, that I didn't have enough talent. But nobody can determine your heart and your will to be good.'

Doubters misjudged O'Neal's talent, too. The former Trail Blazer prodigy is the most promising young post man in basketball, averaging 18.1 points and ranking sixth in the NBA in both rebounds (10.8) and blocked shots (2.5).

With Tim Duncan classified as a power forward, the two best centers in the game (hello, Shaq) share a surname.

But that is only part of the good news in the life of O'Neal, who so enjoyed his four years in Portland, he maintains a downtown townhouse and intends to spend much of the summer in the City of Roses.

There is fatherhood, and a relationship he says he expects one day to result in marriage. In December, his girlfriend, LaMesha Roper, and their 2-year-old daughter, Asjia, moved from Portland to Indianapolis to live with Jermaine.

'I really am in a dream world,' he says. 'I went from supposedly fourth- or fifth-best big guy on my team two years ago to second-best center in the league. And I'm a family man now. It is making me really happy. I can go out and play ball for two hours and take care of my family and at the same time be considered one of the best big guys in the league.'

Jermaine and LaMesha, a Benson High School graduate who recently completed her degree in architecture at Portland State University, met shortly after he arrived in Portland in 1996.

'We didn't like each other a whole lot at first,' he says, grinning. 'We both were involved in (romantic) situations. But we hung out together so much and eventually got together, and over the years we have grown a close bond.

'We have a lot of love for each other. She has been there for me through thick and thin. Sometimes I tend to make mistakes, but she backs me. I love that about her. It is hard to find anybody who is very attractive, very smart and really independent. You don't find those characteristics in a woman very often.'

O'Neal credits his mother, Angela Kennedy, and his grandmother with doing 'a hell of a job raising me Ñ I didn't have a father. I am going to try to do even more than my mother did, and that is almost impossible. I am going to try to raise my daughter and make her the best possible person.'

Guess who is the apple of Daddy's eye? 'Asjia is why I wake up every morning,' O'Neal says. 'We sit down and talk about things. She wants to do everything. She wants to go to Chuck E Cheese every day, the children's museum every day.

'I am very excited about being a father. It is huge for my career. When I am happy at home, that helps me be happy at work. Sometimes I don't feel good on the court, but I get home and I'm a father again, and my daughter loves me. Ask her who she looks like and he says, 'My daddy.' I am so happy right now, I can't put it into words.'

It is a long way from where O'Neal was two years ago: a fourth-year pro playing behind Rasheed Wallace, Arvydas Sabonis and Brian Grant on the Trail Blazers' depth chart, figuring himself stupid for re-signing with Portland for four years (and $25 million), wondering if he would ever get a chance to prove his mettle. That is why he refused to participate in summer league in 2000, suggesting strongly to Portland President/GM Bob Whitsitt that his time with the Blazers needed to come to an end. Soon thereafter, he was sent to Indiana for Dale Davis.

'All the promises that didn't happen Ñ I was worried a little bit,' O'Neal says. 'But I met with my agent (Arn Tellem), discussed what we had to do, kind of forced the issue, and I thank Bob Whitsitt for giving me the opportunity to go somewhere else and show what I can do.'

O'Neal said he was promised he would play 'at least 20 minutes a game Ñ and that was at least.' Coach Mike Dunleavy indicated as much at a preseason news conference that fall. But who made the promise?

'There was Dunleavy saying it was Whitsitt, and Whitsitt saying it was Dunleavy,' O'Neal says. 'Whoever it was didn't give me the opportunity.'

That all seems in the distant past now. He is ticketed for duty on the U.S. team at the World Championships in Indianapolis this summer. And he is an All-Star.

'Physically and mentally, I am right on schedule,' O'Neal says.

'I am not going to be a one-shot wonder,' he says. The All-Star game 'is going to be an annual thing. When I walk away from this game, I want to be considered one of the best power forwards, centers, whatever, to play the game.

'And even more than that, I want to be a champion. I want my team to be on TV every game. I want every player to want to be a member of the Indiana Pacers.'

Who is to tell O'Neal that dreams don't come true?

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