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Healthy and happy, O'Neal ready to quiet doubters

10/29/2008 - NBA Jermaine O'Neal Toronto Raptors + more

Once you get past the new, Jolly Rancher-red Raptors jersey and the giant black brace on his left knee, there's something else about Jermaine O'Neal that stands out. It's his demeanor.

He's happy. Check that. "I'm extremely happy," O'Neal said.

After two dismal years in Indianapolis, he's wearing a smile again, a grin that keeps appearing even after a call goes against him, a fan heckles him, Kobe Bryant talks trash or his stock portfolio loses a half-million dollars.

None of those things is as depressing as a knee so bad he barely could walk, a team so bad half of the arena seats were empty, a team culture gone so wrong star players had to be moved at discount prices. That was life in recent years with the Pacers.

There were shootouts and bar fights and the event that started the downslide, The Brawl at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

"When you play in such a dysfunctional situation that we played in in Indiana, it's almost never about basketball," O'Neal said. "Even the organization stops thinking about improving the team and starts thinking more about addressing image situations.

"To me, it's like, you see years and years, just slipping. And physically, you just wear down."

In his case, it was a knee that required surgery, and when that didn't solve the problem, all he could do was sit out. He had one of his best games of 2007-08, posting 27 points, nine rebounds and six blocks against the Warriors at the end of a Western road trip in January, then couldn't last more than nine minutes against them back home three days later. His leg was swollen from his ankles to his thigh. He took two and a half months off, but not even rest, after consultation with three knee specialists, seemed like the solution. At dinner in the waning weeks of last season, his wife had an even better prescription.

"You're never going to get better physically until you get better mentally," she told him.

And where was he mentally?

"I was gone," he said. "I knew I needed a new start."

Management was ready to complete the purging that sent brawl instigator Ron Artest to Sacramento and six-shooter Stephen Jackson to Golden State and still has a pending departure for Jamaal Tinsley. A team that reached Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals in 2004 has just hit the reset button.

"Obviously, we're going in a different direction," Pacers president Larry
Bird said. "There were a lot of things going on here, not with [O'Neal] per se, with the team. It was a tough time for everybody around here, including Jermaine."

For O'Neal, it got to the point that he dreaded going to work.

"As a professional athlete, you should never feel that way," O'Neal said. "We get paid a lot of money to not feel that way. We're not supposed to feel that way. That's our job. Even if you don't feel well, you go and play hard. I'm not saying I didn't play hard in games. I led the league in charges when I was playing. I was in the top six in blocked shots. I still did my job. I just couldn't do it to the best of my abilities. I just wasn't happy.

"No matter how hard you try, you come back with the same result. The same damn result. It's very discouraging. You're looking up there, you see 6,000 people in a 20,000-seat arena.

"They pay good money to see a good game, they deserve to see a product out there that represents their city … my apologies to that city for not being able to finish the job."

It seems cathartic for O'Neal to sit in front of his locker and talk about everything that went wrong in Indiana. So many things had turned sideways for him that he internalized it. He gives himself a D-minus for his leadership last season.

But maybe it wasn't completely his fault after all; maybe he isn't consigned to failure.

He's just turned 30, that time when there's an accumulation of basketball wisdom meshed with enough energy to get it done on the court. For O'Neal, it's still a young enough age to begin anew.

He started training in Las Vegas in the middle of May, taking only one week off for an anniversary trip to Cabo San Lucas with his wife. He followed a sugarless, starchless diet, finally understanding why the veterans ate grilled chicken -- not fried -- when he was a rookie snacking on Popeye's and McDonald's.

When the trade that sent O'Neal and Nathan Jawai to Toronto in exchange for T.J. Ford, Maceo Baston, Rasho Nesterovic and Roy Hibbert went down in July, O'Neal let Raptors president Bryan Colangelo know he understood the Raptors were Chris Bosh's team.

"It was a very mature thing for Jermaine to do," Colangelo said.

"That's the cornerstone of the organization," O'Neal said of Bosh. "I wasn't brought in to be the cornerstone."

Bosh was in Vegas with the Olympic team when the trade occurred, so O'Neal took him to dinner and they started discussing how their interplay dynamic would work. It's still in progress this preseason, as they learn where the other likes to get the ball, when they shoot, when they pass, who goes for the blocked shot and who boxes out for the rebound on defense.

Asked whether O'Neal's presence relieves him of having to get every rebound and block every shot, Bosh breaks into a big smile of his own.

"Of course," Bosh said. "He definitely makes it a little bit easier. And that's why he's here. I know I'm going to take some attention off of him, and he's going to do the same for me. It's a win-win for both of us."

Sunday's game against the Lakers gave the Raptors a look at a frontline that is even bigger than theirs, with the Lakers' tandem of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. The Lakers' big men showed that even tall teams like the Raptors can quickly find themselves in foul trouble trying to stop Gasol and Bynum, while, at times, the Raptors were able to turn away the Lakers at the hoop.

O'Neal was rough when he had to be, unapologetically knocking Lakers to the ground and stalking away without offering a hand up. But he also had quick smiles for an official who called him for a foul, a fan who taunted him and for Bryant, after swishing a free throw that Bryant kept insisting would fall short.

"There's no substitute for happiness," O'Neal said. "No dollar amount for happiness."

And these days, even if you have a lot of money, you can quickly have less money. O'Neal saw his stock portfolio drop by $500,000 in 20 days recently as the market tumbled.

He's still optimistic. (It helps that he has another $44 million headed his way over the next two seasons.)

O'Neal likes Toronto: "A cleaner version of New York," he calls it.

He likes the fact that Colangelo sends him text messages, after saying, "I don't think me and Larry had any relationship, period," and saying he never got so much as a phone call from Bird until the trade talks heated up this summer. ("It was nothing other than so much [else] going on," Bird said of the lack of communication.)

He's pleased that his knee has held up through a full slate of practices and even back-to-back games in the preseason.

More than anything, he likes the talent on this Raptors team. Bosh is coming off a strong turn at the Olympics. Jose Calderon is an upper-tier point guard. Jason Kapono and Andrea Bargnani can fill it from outside. Anthony Parker can do everything in between.

"I've been around some really good teams," O'Neal said. "I've seen the ingredients that it takes to be a really good team. This team has it. At some point, it's about how much you want it. You have to go get it. When you see it, you have to go get it and cherish it."

O'Neal might not get back to the All-Star Game. He doesn't necessarily want to, not if it would come at the expense of team success. Cherish the moment? That's something you won't have to wait to see develop. It's already happening.

J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.