He’s been in the league now for 18 seasons. He was just 17 years old when he was drafted straight out of high school into professional basketball. There are only a handful of his peers left from the Class of 1996—Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Derek Fisher. They share the commonality of great accomplishments and the kind of determination that wills bodies through long, brutally painful NBA campaigns.
They have all been part of the expectations game, where the word "championship" is continually and routinely peppered throughout conversations. The actual winning of the Larry O’Brien trophy is much more elusive, of course. O’Neal, a six-time All-Star, has yet to achieve that one ultimate and incandescent goal.
He would of course, like to amend that. It’s one of the things that keeps him going. That and a deep spiritual faith.
O’Neal’s life has become that of the journeyman—the 6’11” big man is now with his seventh NBA team. If his glory years were the eight he spent with the Indiana Pacers, his most recent seasons have been transient, often filling a need, plugging a hole and adding veteran leadership. Injuries have also been a common talking point, especially his knee surgeries. This season, O’Neal has been contending with a bruised right knee, a groin sprain and a torn ligament in his right wrist.
Once a double-double machine, O’Neal is currently averaging just 6.4 points and 4.5 rebounds per game in 18.8 minutes. Still, there are the throwback moments, such as the 102-101 win against the New Orleans Pelicans on November 26. Starting in place of suspended center Andrew Bogut, O’Neal scored 18 points and had eight rebounds.
Afterward, he delivered a remarkable interview with Jim Barnett of CSN Bay Area, talking about injuries, life’s challenges, the bond he’s built with coach Mark Jackson and the search for a new spiritual side of his life:
There was also the phenomenal comeback from 27 points down against the Toronto Raptors on December 3. The Bay Area Sports Guy writes about an emotional halftime in which players were vocal, especially O’Neal. Here’s Jackson, commenting on allowing O’Neal to speak uninterrupted:
"I’m not insecure. I’m not a guy who claims to know it all. I’ve seen coaches yell and call timeouts and do all of that. Players know what’s wrong, they don’t need a speech," Jackson said. "Jermaine did a lot of the talking (at halftime). I pretty much wrapped it up with ‘Bring it in.’ Best speech I ever gave."
After the win, O’Neal spoke about championship expectations and the challenges of advancing through the playoff rounds. It’s one of the more thoughtful interviews you’ll hear, a far cry from the guy whom so many basketball fans still associate with the infamous Malice at the Palace brawl.
What has brought about O’Neal’s transformation? It’s not as sudden as some would think. In fact, a fiery car crash at the age of 19 brought a life-changing moment and a new sense of faith and purpose. During O’Neal’s time with the Boston Celtics, Paul Flannery of WEEI wrote about a long-ago Thanksgiving morning when O’Neal struggled to escape from a burning wreck, drifting in and out of consciousness. In O’Neal’s words:
This whole life, this whole 15 years, has been for a purpose. When you go through things like that, when you’re facing death, you realize that God does have a plan. All the things that seem important aren’t as important anymore. That’s something that I really value and really cherish.
O’Neal’s spiritual awakening didn’t begin with the Golden State Warriors this season. His quiet faith is something he’s brought with him along his long, winding road. What can’t be denied, however, is the bond that has developed between O’Neal and Jackson, an ordained pastor as well as an ex-player and a coach. Jackson is a classic motivator—you only have to watch him speaking to his players to understand. O’Neal and Jackson share a brief Pacers history, passing like ships in the night back in 2000—O’Neal arrived from the Portland Trail Blazers, while Jackson departed for the New York Knicks.
All these years later, they’re finally on the same team. O’Neal may be 35, but he’s still the willing student, learning from Jackson about the game and about life. O’Neal’s paying it forward in return, showing a new generation of players how it’s done, not only through words but in actions on the court. He talks more freely about his faith now, but there’s another religion that’s always present in sports. It’s the eternal call of the game, the call to greatness.
Another season progresses with an enlightened Jermaine O’Neal and a coach who’s more than your average mentor. For a group of young, motivated Warriors, those two might be just what they need. For O’Neal himself, the end of his basketball journey draws ever closer.
Enlightenment would be even sweeter with a championship run.