To be or not to be the man?

Updated: May 30, 2004, 4:05 PM ET
By David Aldridge | Special to ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- This is the time when you see the wheels turn. The boys who would be men, left to their own devices, struggle. Their frames of reference are narrow; their worldview limited; their history brief. And so the old men of the NBA continue to win in May and June, and the kids are left to wonder: How do you do it? How do you impose yourself on the most important time of the season, and make it your own, without overwhelming the very people that you most need to win?

Jermaine O'Neal
This postseason has been a learning experience for Jermaine O'Neal.
When do you shoot? When don't you shoot? When do you pass to the teammate who hasn't made an open jumper in four days, because you need him to get his head out of his ... well? When do you hold onto the rock, because if you don't get this basket, it's the season?

It's when the guys who get paid like they're superstars have to play like they're superstars. But what does that mean?

This is what Jermaine O'Neal has been waiting to find out.

"Good thing they got the Classic Sports," he says. "They show you a lot on how teams become championship teams. You've got to go through so much adversity, trials and tribulations. Isiah did it. Jordan did it. Magic was fortunate enough to do it coming out and winning right away. But Larry had to go through some things. You've got to go through these situations and learn from it and get better. That's what we try to do here."

O'Neal is an interesting guy. He puts some thought into things before he says them. And as these playoffs have gone on, I wonder what young stars like he and Rip Hamilton are thinking about. They're getting into the rarefied air of the postseason, where reputations are made. But so few guys actually get to where Tim Duncan and Shaq and Kobe have been. So many wind up washed up on the shore, left to ponder why their best isn't quite good enough.

What is it? What do the champions possess?

O'Neal is trying to figure it out on the fly. Now he's trying to figure it out with a hyperextended knee, two games from the Finals. No time to blame the fates for their cruel sense of timing. It's two games from the Finals. Put a brace on it and hope for the best.

"I was thinking before (Friday), 'What can I do in this game to change the game?,' " he said. "There's no real solution but going back to the basics. Just playing hard as hell, sharing the ball, and having fun. I had fun (on Friday). I had 12 points, but it was probably the best basketball I've played, being hurt and everything. It got to a point where I really didn't notice I was hurt anymore. The only reason I remembered is because every time I came to the sidelines, they were asking me if I was OK."

Words to Thomas's ears, no doubt. You remember Zeke, don't you, on one leg, dropping 25 on the Lakers in Game 6 of the '88 Finals? During his three seasons as head coach of the Pacers, Thomas tried hard to impart the lessons he'd learned in the playoffs to O'Neal whenever he could. The mind-meld between the two transcended the coach-player relationship. Thomas lived five minutes from O'Neal, and spent much of that time dropping wisdom about exactly this time of year into his young charge.

"Mental toughness," O'Neal said. "He told me people still don't like him, and he's legendary. So you've got to be willing to take the bumps and bruises and pick yourself up, and believe in yourself. Because if you don't believe in yourself, no one else will."

O'Neal also idolizes Kevin Garnett, whom he's known for years. It was KG, a fellow South Carolinian, who showed what could be possible. O'Neal has taken Garnett's emotional leadership to heart. He is much more vocal in huddles than he once was. But he's also seen the lumps Garnett took to his reputation over the last few years, because of what's happened in the playoffs.

That's just a guy that wants it so bad. He plays like it's his last game. I think in order to be a great player, you have to play that way. And I think that's one of the things that I have to improve on.
Jermaine O'Neal on Kevin Garnett
"That's just a guy that wants it so bad," O'Neal said. "He plays like it's his last game. I think in order to be a great player, you have to play that way. And I think that's one of the things that I have to improve on."

Conversely, O'Neal has seen how people have reacted to Kobe in these playoffs. Even O'Neal conceded he was amazed when Bryant dropped 42 on the Spurs in Game 4 of the second round after spending the day in Eagle, Colo.

"I was talking to Al Harrington," O'Neal said, "and I said 'This guy might be one of the most strongest-minded people I've ever seen in my life. For somebody to go from a courtroom, fighting for his freedom, to go to an NBA court and play at such a high level. And not only play at that high level, but make things happen."

There are still four teams left in the playoffs, and Jermaine O'Neal is the best player on one of those four, his team in his hands. How does he get them through? There's a way. Can he find it in time? Will he find it before Garnett, or Hamilton? Will he find it at all?

"This helps you understand who you are and who you need to be," O'Neal said.

Out of the mouths of babes. Babes with $126 million coming their way, but who need a ring to make that mean something real.

David Aldridge, who covers the NBA for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. David will take your questions in his weekly chat on Thursday. Send him a question here! Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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