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O’Neal is reaching for the ring

Jermaine O’Neal (left) won’t have to joust any more with Kevin Garnett; now they’re teammates. Jermaine O’Neal (left) won’t have to joust any more with Kevin Garnett; now they’re teammates. (File/Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / September 12, 2010

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Their homes in Las Vegas are only a couple of minutes apart. The summer after the Celtics won the NBA title in 2008, Paul Pierce paid Jermaine O’Neal a visit.

Pierce walked in with his ring on, beaming. After so many years in the league — some successful and some painfully futile — Pierce was riding a high that he had never experienced in basketball. O’Neal could sense it when they went to dinner.

“He was at a different level,’’ O’Neal said. “It was like a natural high. Like a newborn baby or winning the state lotto. Whatever it is that gives you that feeling of happiness, he was there. As a player, you’re not envious of what he’s done. But you want to have that feeling.’’

At the time, O’Neal was at an entirely different point in his career. He had just split with the Indiana Pacers, the team that allowed him to blossom into an All-Star and the team he thought he’d be wedded to his entire career.

The breakup ate at him, but it came after several seasons of trials and frustration. The Pacers were all but radioactive after the melee with the Pistons in 2004. They quickly swung from an Eastern Conference powerhouse to a team decimated by suspensions. Their image in the city was ruined. O’Neal went from franchise player to one of the fall guys.

He knew when he left Conseco Fieldhouse after the season finale in 2008 that he had likely played his last game as a Pacer. He was shipped to Toronto in June. The conversation with Pierce that summer still sticks with him.

“We were just talking about that feeling of winning a championship,’’ O’Neal said. “How it erases everything else that you went through negatively and how important it is to be a champion.’’

This summer, with O’Neal in free agency and the Celtics in the market for a big man, Pierce and O’Neal talked again. Pierce told him, “Listen, man, we’re trying to win a championship. Let’s go.’’

It was the kind of conversation O’Neal hadn’t had in a while.

“I haven’t talked about winning a championship the last four, five years,’’ O’Neal said. “It was exciting because I had a chance to kind of write the ending to my story.’’

Not earning the money
Early on, it was easy for O’Neal to believe the golden faucet would never stop running. He had a max deal. He had Nike ad campaigns crafted around him. He was making All-Star teams and All-NBA teams.

“It was sweet,’’ he said.

At the same time, the Pacers were a force, even if their average age was just 26. They won 61 games in 2003-04, and if they hadn’t lost to the Pistons in the conference finals, they would have reached the NBA Finals essentially without even glancing at the instruction manual.

“It’s funny, because we were so high on everything,’’ O’Neal said. “We were all young. We had just come off having the best record in the league and we basically ran through the league not having that much experience. So the next year, we went into camp saying we were going to win it all this year.’’

The Pacers had given O’Neal a seven-year, $126 million contract — both a blessing and a bull’s-eye — but he had no problem being the face of the franchise. In fact, he said he was practically oblivious to how handsome his checks were.

“I didn’t even realize until this summer that over the last seven years I was one of the top three paid players in the entire NBA,’’ O’Neal said. “I never knew that.

“I never looked at that money as being pressure. To be honest, towards the last two or three years, I felt like I wasn’t doing enough to earn my money. I’m very critical of myself.’’

He had to live up to the contract the same way he had to live up to being drafted out of high school by Portland. He wasn’t like Kevin Garnett, who was taken the year before him. He wasn’t like Kobe Bryant, who was taken four picks ahead of O’Neal in 1996. Garnett quickly became a centerpiece in Minnesota. Bryant was an All-Star by his second season. In Portland, O’Neal was buried behind Rasheed Wallace, Brian Grant, Arvydas Sabonis, and Cliff Robinson.

“It was like, KG’s doing well, Kobe’s doing well, I’m not playing,’’ O’Neal said. “I wanted to show people that I’m not a bust. I can play. I can do this.’’

Detour to Indiana
Isiah Thomas was one person who didn’t need convincing. He happened to cross paths with O’Neal at the 2000 All-Star Game. In O’Neal, Thomas saw a player with talent but also aggression. Neither is something that can be taught. Thomas told him, “Listen, I’ve been watching you, just be patient, it’s going to happen for you. When you get your opportunity, take advantage of it.’’

Thomas became head coach in Indiana for the 2000-01 season when Larry Bird stepped down. The Pacers swung a deal for O’Neal in August, six months after that All-Star Game. O’Neal’s skills were innate, but Thomas wanted to teach him how to make the transformation from potential star to franchise backbone.

“What I tried to talk to him about is with that talent — he was the youngest player on the team at that time — how do you lead men?’’ said Thomas, now the men’s coach at Florida International University. “How do you, as a 23-year-old man, lead a Reggie Miller, lead a Derrick McKey?’’

They lived barely five minutes apart, and O’Neal was often in Thomas’s living room.

“I remember many nights going to his house and just sitting on the couch talking,’’ O’Neal said. “He stayed literally four or five minutes away from me in Indianapolis. I’d go over there just talking and being a sponge. That’s the kind of guy he is.’’

The talks were rarely about basketball. Thomas talked to O’Neal about raising a family. He talked about looking into business opportunities. He tried explaining to O’Neal what it meant to be a star in the NBA.

“I don’t know what type of impact I had,’’ Thomas said. “But as a coach and a mentor, I was there to guide him through the rough waters of 23 to 31, having that type of money and fame and just being responsible with your place in society and understanding your role and your place in society.’’

Aftermath of brawl
Two years after dealing for him, the Pacers made O’Neal their $126 million man. But when Bird took over as president of basketball operations in 2003, the first thing he did was fire Thomas, who had taken the Pacers to the playoffs three straight years, though he never got past the first round.

Bird hired Rick Carlisle as coach, and at first the change didn’t seem to have an impact on O’Neal. In 2004, he finished third in the MVP voting and the Pacers looked to be a team that could torture the East for the next several years.

“But as a young player, you don’t really sit back and absorb that and really understand the significance of it and how easy it is to lose it,’’ O’Neal said. “You expect for it to keep continuing to happen. But you’re always one situation from it being not there.’’

But the downfall of the Pacers became one of the league’s most infamous stories. The player-versus-fans brawl on Nov. 19, 2004, at the Palace at Auburn Hills cost nine players 146 games in suspensions and $10 million in fines.

The pressure to gut the organization and rebuild its image was extreme. To this day, the Pacers are still feeling the effects of the incident, and O’Neal in particular saw his career swerve off the fast track.

O’Neal received a 25-game suspension, which was reduced to 15, and when he returned, he hurt his shoulder. The Pacers were shorthanded and O’Neal was injured, but he was still the face of the franchise, and in a way its $126 million target.

“People, when they look at athletes, they tend to determine who they are based on 1., how they play, and 2. — more than anything — how much they make,’’ said O’Neal. “And they tend to make them inhuman. They say, ‘OK, they’re making millions of dollars, it shouldn’t matter.’ But why wouldn’t it matter?’’

So he played through it. Or attempted to. He missed 136 games over the next five seasons.

“I think the good thing about Jermaine is that when he did make a mistake — and that was a costly mistake — he’s always been manly about the way he handled it,’’ Thomas said.

Reality check
The high the Pacers were riding was gone. Reality started to set in.

“Sometimes you just don’t see,’’ O’Neal said. “After a while you stop seeing that light behind the mountain. You can see it getting closer, but after a while, that light starts getting dull and starts getting darker.

“That’s why I say we tend to disrespect winning. We suit up and we play every night to win. But you expect that winning is going to always be there.’’

At the same time, basketball was putting a strain on life at home.

“Any athlete can preach to this, that when things aren’t going well, you tend to bring it home, and the people that take the brunt of it is the family,’’ O’Neal said. “Whether it’s you not wanting to be around anybody, whether it’s you not wanting to do anything, whether it’s you being sensitive, whether it’s you being frustrated.’’

Eventually, the strain was too much.

“When I noticed that it was starting to weigh on my family, I asked to leave Indiana,’’ O’Neal said. “I never expected to leave Indiana. That was the breaking point for me.’’

He broke down crying in his car after his last game as a Pacer. His wife was in the passenger’s seat. He wanted to retire a Pacer and still does.

“She knew it because I told her that I actually understood the effects of those dark days on my family,’’ O’Neal said. “It started really bothering her to see me physically the way I was and emotionally and mentally the way I was.

“That was basically the reason why I felt like it was time to go. It was a very difficult decision.’’

He was traded to Toronto, where he lasted half a season, then dealt to Miami in February 2009.

Finally, a chance
The choice to come to Boston was difficult to make but easy to live with. Knowing the intentions to build a star-studded team in Miami, O’Neal could have stayed with the Heat this offseason.

But the Celtics had players who had been through similar things as O’Neal.

“I look at Paul Pierce,’’ he said. “I know he understands being on a good team to being in a terrible situation to being good again. So I’m sure he can vouch for what I’m saying, how valuable your time is when you’re there. That was the situation. I went from being at a really high point to being at a very low point.’’

The Celtics also had a championship-proven formula built around unselfishness. The Heat, O’Neal said, are still untested. How Chris Bosh, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade will coexist is unknown. The Celtics have made two Finals appearances while balancing three superstars and allowing Rajon Rondo to emerge as an All-Star as well.

“There’s no ego, and it’s hard to find no egos,’’ O’Neal said. “As good as individual players are, especially when I look at a situation like Miami, none of those guys had to really deal with sacrificing.

“That’s what made Boston more intriguing for me and a situation I thought would be better for me. These guys [in Miami] are all really good individual guys that are used to shooting 20 times a night just last year. These are all young guys.

“So no matter what you say or how you say it, they’re going to still want the credit. But I know the Boston Celtics aren’t about that.’’

With Shaquille O’Neal, Glen Davis, and (when he returns) Kendrick Perkins, the frontcourt is crowded in Boston. But with a title as a realistic goal for the first time, O’Neal said he’s more than willing to accept a role.

After 14 years in the NBA, he has experienced the highs the league has to offer. He’s after the feeling Pierce had two years ago.

“That’s self-validation,’’ O’Neal said. “That helps me think, ‘OK, you know what, Jermaine, everything you went through, every good moment, every bad moment, every issue that basketball has caused, strife it’s caused to your family, to your friendships, to your relationships, to your business, whatever it may be, this validates going through that.’

“That’s how I see it.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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