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O'Neal stunned, upset with firing of Thomas

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Jermaine O'Neal would not have
re-signed with the Indiana Pacers if he had known they were going
to fire Isiah Thomas.

"I don't know who I would have signed with, but I would not
have signed back there. Bottom line," O'Neal said early Thursday
at the Tournament of the Americas, where he is competing for the
United States in qualifying for the 2004 Olympics.

Visibly angered and upset by the move to fire Indiana's coach,
O'Neal said he'll address the situation with the Pacers' front
office next week. He would not answer when asked if he would demand
a trade.

"Am I disappointed? Hell, yeah. I'm extremely disappointed for
multiple reasons," O'Neal said. "I was told he would be here
before I re-signed."

"If your boss told you your ace is going to be there for you if
you come back, and once you come back not even a month later he's
not there, that hurts. That hurts a lot. He was more than a coach
to me. He was like a father."

O'Neal joined the Pacers three years ago after Larry Bird
resigned and was replaced by Thomas. Indiana made the playoffs for
three straight years but was eliminated in the first round each
time.

Bird, who returned to the Pacers last month as their president
of basketball operations, fired Thomas on Wednesday and said the
team plans to hire Rick Carlisle as its new coach.

O'Neal got the news in a phone call from Thomas.

"It was extremely strange. I was taking a nap and got the phone
call and was like, let me sit up for a second, you're kidding me,"
O'Neal said. "I was extremely excited about coming back into the
situation. We have a crew that's been together for a while and is
really ready to focus in on trying to get to the NBA Finals. I
don't know exactly where my organization is trying to go. I'm kind
of dumbfounded right now."

O'Neal said he telephoned Bird and team president Donnie Walsh
asking for an explanation, giving no details except to say it was a
brief discussion.

He said it was Walsh who assured him during contract
negotiations that Thomas would return. O'Neal signed a seven-year,
$126 million deal.

"To me, it's mind-blowing that we would do this, and do it 4-5
weeks before the season," O'Neal said. "I'm more hurt than
anything."

O'Neal had spoken with Thomas earlier this week in Puerto Rico,
where Thomas was attending the Tournament of the Americas.

Thomas checked out of his hotel unexpectedly Tuesday after being
summoned back to Indianapolis.

"He didn't really sound upset. I think he's more hurt than
anything. He's been trying to scrap up new plays, new ways to get
his players motivated," O'Neal said.

O'Neal spoke on the phone with teammates Al Harrington, Jonathan
Bender and Jamison Brewer after learning of the firing.

"Everybody's just extremely surprised. We were geared up to go
at this real strong. Now we've got to retool, look at a new
system," O'Neal said. "I mean, I don't know if we're really
trying to win the championship this year."

Bird said he didn't feel comfortable with the Pacers' direction
after a second-half swoon that knocked them out of first place in
the Eastern Conference. Bird also said there were other problems
with Thomas, including a lack of communication this summer.

O'Neal defended Thomas, saying the public never knew that he
occasionally slept in his office at Conseco Fieldhouse after
staying late to draw up game plans.

"The slump at the end of the season, we were still 16 games
over .500. What else do you want?'' O'Neal said. "I thought in
this league you're determined on what you do, wins and losses. He's
16 games better than he was the year before, and he's taking one of
the youngest teams in the league and making them contenders and
giving us confidence to say that we feel we can come out of the
East and get to the finals.

"That was our goal, but all of a sudden now we're not really
trying to get to the finals. We're trying to get guys together and
compete. I didn't come back to Indiana just to compete. I want to
win the finals."

O'Neal had a poor game for the U.S. team Wednesday night in a
96-69 victory over Mexico, fouling out in just 12 minutes after
scoring 11 points and grabbing seven rebounds.

"I'm continuing to figure it out every single year: Life is a
challenge, and the ones that succeed in life are the tough-minded
ones that are not willing to accept failure,'' O'Neal said. "And
no matter what, at the end of the day whether it's with the Pacers
or somewhere else, I'm going to continue to succeed."