With Jermaine mostly relegated to the bench last season with the same knee injury he has been struggling to overcome for 30 months (and by his account, was taking up to 12 Advils a day to withstand), the atmosphere in Indianapolis had moved beyond the caustic days of Ron Artest and past even the melancholy of the franchise missing the Playoffs for the first time in a dozen years; for the 2007-08 season, the aura surrounding the Pacers could best be described as vacant.
JO summed up this sentiment in this succinct Yahoo! Sports article by Johnny Ludden yesterday:
“It was like a morgue,” O’Neal said last weekend. “You walk into that arena every day, and people just knew it was a bad situation. They knew that it wasn’t going to get better anytime soon. I was just worn … I was begging for a change.”
Things got so bad that the once-proud Pacers could only draw a League-worst 12,500 fans per night in the most basketball-crazed state in the Union (some 1,000 fewer than the preparing-to-abandon-the-city Sonics). By the All Star Break, it had become painfully obvious that the only solution for everyone — Jermaine, the Pacers front office, Indiana’s players and the fans populating the Hoosier state — was for JO to be moved this summer. It was an answer years in the making and the only way to lift the pervasive malaise of the post-Malice at the Palace Era and all the absurdity, bad luck and lawlessness that it entailed.
According to Ludden, Jermaine knew his time in Indy was over from the minute he stepped foot out of Conseco Fieldhouse after the team’s last game.
His season over, his career at a crossroads, Jermaine O’Neal walked out of Conseco Fieldhouse and into the night. He lingered outside the exit just long enough for his wife, Mesha, to see the nostalgia flicker in his eyes. O’Neal knew this much: He wasn’t coming back.
A draft-day trade to Toronto gave Jermaine the change he was begging for and although it wasn’t an ideal situation for either front office — Bryan Colangelo now owes the creaky kneed vet $44 million for the next two seasons and the Pacers have a point guard who, while a great fit for Jim O’Brien’s three-point-barrage offense, has an incurable spine disorder — it was about as good a scenario as either team could expect.
For the Pacers, JO’s departure is the magnum opus of Larry Bird’s great purge. Though the transition of power in the front office from long-time franchise patriarch Donnie Walsh to Bird had been underway for years, Larry Legend first flexed his complete control of the organization with this move. Earlier this week, he spoke to Marc Spears of the Boston Globe about his new outlook on the organization.
“Now I have my opportunity, so let’s see what I can do. Donnie had his opportunity for a lot of years. And not only was he was a great basketball man, but a great man, period. I admired him. I learned a lot from him. But we just had different styles. Now I get my opportunity to do what I want to do with the team.
“It ain’t going to happen overnight. We have a plan. We have to stick to it. In two or three years, we’ll have a team that is going to compete at the highest level.”
For his part, Jermaine’s continual stumping on his leadership abilities to the media in addition to the occasional cacology never helped raise his standing amongst the fan base. These public pronouncements without on-court production — fairly or not — gave many fans the impression of JO as a failed leader and flawed player whose commitment to the team waned further with every passing day folllowing the brawl.
To many, Jermaine was all talk, no walk.
His long-contentious rapport with Bird was also problematic, but, ironically, it was the decision to part was that finally provided something on which they could see eye-to-eye. (via Ludden)
“Everybody knows me and Larry didn’t have the best relationship,” O’Neal said. “We just didn’t have an open line of communication…but this summer we knew exactly what was the best situation and we worked pretty well together. We had some phone conversations that went very, very well, we kind of laughed and joked about some things, and that’s something we hadn’t done ever in my stay there.”
Finally, they agreed.
But for both JO and the Pacers, that is all in the past. And for both, it is this legacy of disappointment that they will spend the next seven to eight months — and, really, much longer — trying to escape.
With the unreasonable burden of recent history lifted, Jermaine can begin anew in Canada. Similarly, the Pacers can end their water-treading charade of faux-contending and begin anew with a strategic rebuilding plan to return the franchise to its 1990s glory.
Despite the temporary reprieve gained by shedding the final symbols of an era the franchise would like to forget (Jamaal Tinsley, who has been effectively quarantined from the NBA until he can be traded, being the final relic), the Pacers have a long way to go.
The franchise is bankrupt of A-list talent and, other than Danny Granger, has a rotation of: (A) cast-offs who were unsuccessful or unwelcome elsewhere (Mike Dunleavy, Jr., Troy Murphy, TJ Ford, Jarrett Jack), (B) promising, yet unspectacular, rookies (Brandon Rush, Roy Hibbert), and (C) flawed, if mostly dependable, filler (Rasho Nesterovic, Marquis Daniels). Plus, as always, there is rebounding savant Jeff Foster, who represents the sole survivor of what has to be among the swiftest roster overhauls in the history of profession sports and, incredibly, the only player remaining from the team Indiana put on the court in May 2005.
None of this is particularly promising for the upcoming season, but it is at least different — and for now, that is enough in Indianapolis.
For the Raptors and Jermaine, there is much more potential. A Bosh/JO interior could be truly dynamic, but the team’s perimeter players aside from Jose Calderon remain too dubious for the team to realistically expect much beyond another 1st or 2nd Round Playoff exit.
And what if JO and Bosh, who both have eerily similar styles, can’t coexist offensively? While putting the two bigs on the block would seem like a can’t-fail proposition, there are doubters. When talking about the possibility of playing Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol together in the Lakers front court, for example, Tex Winters recently questioned the Twin Towers philosophy altogether.
“I don’t know if the twin towers has ever been effective, has it?” he asked. “It kind of puts one of ‘em (Bynum or Gasol) out of position, particularly defensively. That’s what makes it tough.”
Obviously, Hakeem and Sampson had some success as dual bigs, and The Admiral and Groundhog Day won a title. And neither JO nor CB4 are really even centers — rather, they are agile, slender power forwards who both like to play in the midrange offensively. So the same skepticism may not even rightly apply.
Regardless, the real question isn’t about style; it is about Jermaine’s body.
He rehabbed and trained rigorously this summer with a strength guru, slenderized thanks to two months without sugar or dairy, and has been generally talking like he’s as healthy as he’s been since he was terrorizing the League and finishing third in MVP voting in 2004. Nobody expects that JO to ever return, of course, but if the Raptors can simply get the JO who brings a nightly intimidating paint presence on defense and provides enough offensive firepower to exploit the opposing team’s weaker post defender, that should be enough to push this squad to the next level.
But it’s all predicated on staying healthy, of course. For us Pacer fans, that “if” had become a yearly mantra and is something none will believe without seeing.
Ultimately, I believe most Pacer fans hope that “if” comes true, however.
What happened to that Pacer team, which had won 61 games and lost in the Eastern Conference Finals the previous year, on November 19, 2004 was truly devastating to both the franchise and Jermaine.
The fate of the Indiana Pacer franchise at large affects many more people, so it is the true tragedy in all this, but the Malice in the Palace was the trigger that began a downward spiral of JO’s career that culminated with him becoming an albatross contract shipped to the highest bidder.
In Indiana, despite its early promise, the JO Era will never be remembered fondly. Nonetheless, many Pacer fans still hope that, when it’s all said and done, Jermaine’s career is, and that in its waning moments, he will never be seen riding in the back of a cab, reminiscing on the brawl and telling Ron Artest that he could have had class; that he could have been a contender.