It would be just the first of many evenings O'Neal spent as a spectator over the next few years. Stuck behind Rasheed Wallace, Arvydas Sabonis and Brian Grant on Portland's depth chart, he played only 11.2 minutes per game in his first three seasons. Nevertheless, before 1999-2000 he re-signed with the Blazers for $24 million over four years, believing he'd be getting more playing time from Mike Dunleavy, Portland's coach at the time. "I thought I would get to play, I liked the guys, and I thought we had a shot at a championship," says O'Neal, who went so far as to get a tattoo that read YEAR OF THE RESURRECTION on his right arm. "That didn't exactly work out." He averaged only 3.9 points in 12.3 minutes that season.
O'Neal made his discontent clear by not playing for Portland's summer league team. Sensing an opportunity, Thomas and Pacers president Donnie Walsh flew to Columbia, where in near-100� heat at the Eau Claire gym they watched as O'Neal sailed through a bevy of guard-oriented drills. "I was blown away," says Thomas. "He could dribble with his left hand and play out on the floor. He was about as good a big man as I'd seen in a while."
Good enough that Walsh offered All-Star forward Dale Davis, a favorite in Indianapolis, to the Blazers for O'Neal. "All the fans thought I was nuts," says Walsh, who was in the midst of overhauling a team that had made it to the 2000 NBA Finals by replacing stars like Antonio Davis, Dale Davis, Mark Jackson and Rik Smits with young prospects like O'Neal, forward Al Harrington and swingman Jonathan Bender.
As impressive as he was last season, O'Neal was still raw offensively. That's where Aguirre, who though only 6'6" scored a large chunk of his 18,458 NBA points off post moves, came in. "Isiah sent me films of Jermaine, and I told him, 'I can make this guy better real quick,' " says Aguirre. "He had no idea what he was doing. He was relying on athleticism."
Last summer at the Peachtree Center Athletic Club in Atlanta, Aguirre taught O'Neal the tricks of low post: how to use the lower body to gain leverage, how to lock a fronting defender by hooking a leg around his back leg, how to "push the refrigerator" (that is, use the outside leg to get position). "Before, he was waiting for the defender to make a mistake," says Aguirre, "Now he knows how to make him make a mistake."
O'Neal's go-to move has become a soft jump hook, which he can shoot with either hand. (After Jermaine broke his right hand playing sandlot football in junior high, Angela made him learn to do everything left-handed, including writing in cursive, so he wouldn't fall behind in school.) He also has extended the range on his jump shot to 15 feet. "He's playing hard, making strong, aggressive moves," says the other O'Neal, Lakers center Shaquille. "He'll be the dominant big man one day—after I leave."
As heady as such praise is for Jermaine, some of his buddies—namely the 21-year-old Harrington and the 20-year-old Bender—worry that he may be taking this grown-up thing a little too far. "I don't know if it's all the minutes or what, but he's got old man's syndrome," says Harrington with a smile. "He's always complaining about this or that. He's like my grandpa, hootin' and hollerin' to keep it quiet."
Bender, who's as reserved as Harrington is outgoing, tries to clarify. "He's not getting the big head, but he's maturing a bit now that he's got the girl out here," he says, referring to Asjia's mother, LaMesha Roper, who recently moved to Indianapolis to live with Jermaine after finishing her architecture degree at Portland State. "These days he's home watching Shrek, watching Bambi."
Such is O'Neal's bond with Harrington and Bender that, though construction is almost done on his $2.5 million house in suburban Indianapolis, he says, "For me to stay here, Al and J.B. need to be here." The Pacers have no intention of breaking up the threesome. Harrington signed a four-year extension on Nov. 1, and Walsh says he plans to retain both Bender and O'Neal when their contracts come up after the 2002-03 season.
In the interim O'Neal, the baby-faced grizzled veteran, will continue dispensing advice to his teammates—and talking about Asjia to anyone who will listen. "You know what?" he said last Friday, after he'd finished explaining the trials of toilet training. "She can already spell her full name. And watch this." He turned to his daughter. "Who do you look like, honey?"