He sits in a chair, relaxed. Button-up game tight, white MLB cap to the back, smile hidden. He allowed NBA Nation into his house. Confronting the issue head on. This is what he does for a living, besides play ball. He asked a question.
"What's the debate about?" he said inside a mini-media interrogation. "I just want to understand better why an age limit is coming up. That's all.
"I'm not playing the race card, I'm not calling anybody a racist. I'm just talking about the facts. The product and economic reasons can't be the reason, because the league is doing well and the prime faces of the NBA are of high-school players. So why are they trying to change that? It doesn't make sense to me."
"It's not about race," he said to Matt Winer, as his former Portland Trail Blazers mentor Greg Anthony listened in (and, at times, tried to clarify the situation for O'Neal). "This is about an opportunity at life. We're talking about transition young black athletes making a successful transition. It's been going on for 30 years. I just want to know why."
Why the change? Why fix something that ain't broke? Why mess with these kids' opportunity for a better life when the demand is high and they own the supply? Why, when Freddy Adu in the MLS just signed on last year at age 14? Why now?
The fact is that while 76 percent of the players in the NBA are black, almost 100 percent of the players who will be affected by the "delayed entry program" will be black. And more than color or race, economics is at the core of this. Nearly all of the players who make themselves eligible for the NBA draft directly out of high school do so to immediately better their family's financial situation. And now, all of a sudden, with nothing concrete at which to point that says "players under the age of 20 have been bad for professional basketball," a decision is going to be made on their behalf that will directly change the course of their lives?
O'Neal is one of the success stories of the rule that's about to be changed. He went straight from Eau Claire High School in South Carolina to the NBA. Yet when he asks the question "Why?" America seems to have a problem with it because of his injection of color into an equation that was all black to begin with.
If you were David Stern, what would you do?
A radio host in LA said of "the Jermaine O'Neal ordeal," every time you bring race or color into the conversation, another component appears.
One that most white Americans don't want to face. One that most blacks don't want to relive.
But does that mean it doesn't exist?
Ric Bucher said there exists a "resentment toward younger players" in the league, but that it's "generational, not racial."
Ric Bucher is white. Ric Bucher is right.
But when it comes to amateur basketball players under the age of 20 making themselves available to be drafted into the association, there's only one generation that counts. And inside that generational box, the color is no longer coded. It's specific.
How many white basketball players have entered the NBA draft out of a U.S. high school? One. His name: Rob Swift.
How many European/foreign basketball players have entered the NBA draft out of high school without professional experience? None. Even if they're younger than 20, they can play professionally in Europe before entering the NBA, like Darko Milicic (who was 18 his rookie season).
Ever since Kevin Garnett re-broke the rules in 1995, every basketball player under the age of 20 without professional or college experience (outside of Mr. Swift) who has come into the L has been black. All the young kids who have listened to the people around them (including NBA scouts and GMs) telling them they can make the "jump" and who then jumped, have been black. All of the ballers who have used the NBA as an economic refuge, eliminating drastic below-poverty-level situations the minute they became eligible to vote or join the army, have been black.