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An hour after last Friday's game against the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers forward Jermaine O'Neal stood in the players' parking garage at Conseco Fieldhouse showing off the newest entry in his car collection, a silver Mercedes G500 SUV. As teammate Jalen Rose stopped to admire the vehicle—"I ain't gonna lie, I might have to copy you and get one of these"—O'Neal beamed like a proud father, which it turns out he is.
Strapped into the rear seat of the G500, her hair threaded into alphabet beads and sporting a tiny leather jacket, was Jermaine's favorite topic of conversation, his two-year-old daughter, Asjia. Once Rose had finished admiring the Benz and moved on, Jermaine returned to the discussion he'd been engaged in. "You see," the 6'11" Jermaine said earnestly as he leaned against the truck, "we can get her to use the diaper, but for some reason she won't go in the toilet. I tell you, potty training's harder than you think."
Incongruous as these dueling preoccupations—hubcaps and Huggies—seem, they're representative of O'Neal. Though he's only 23 years old, he has a been-there, done-that appreciation of NBA life, the result of more than five seasons in the league. That's as long as Allen Iverson (who already has an MVP award) and Kerry Kittles (who already has had three knee operations) have been in the NBA. It's also the same tenure as that of Kobe Bryant, who, like O'Neal, entered the league out of high school in 1996. That's what frustrates O'Neal. While Bryant almost instantly became a star with the Los Angeles Lakers and has two championship rings, O'Neal spent his first four years serving a pine-time apprenticeship with the Portland Trail Blazers, for whom he never averaged more than 4.5 points per game for a season. His sole claim to fame was as the answer to a trivia question: Who, at 18 years and 53 days, was the youngest player ever to appear in an NBA game?
So forgive O'Neal if he objects to being called an overnight sensation. It's not youthful bravado when he talks of becoming a leader and passing his wisdom on to the "young guys" on the Pacers—even if one of them, rookie point guard Jamaal Tinsley, is eight months older than O'Neal. As much as any 23-year-old NBA player, O'Neal has waited for his opportunity. "Everybody knew the talent that he had, but in Portland he couldn't showcase it," says Bryant. "Now he's playing like a monster. I'll see him in Philly at the All-Star Game."
He certainly will. After a breakout season in 2000-01, during which O'Neal averaged 12.9 points and 9.8 rebounds and tied for the most blocks in the NBA, with 228, he has gotten even better. He spent the summer working on his post moves with former Dallas Mavericks and Detroit Pistons forward Mark Aguirre and has evolved into the most complete big man in the Eastern Conference. With 18.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.49 blocks per game through Sunday, he was one of only four players (with Tim Duncan, Dikembe Mutombo and Shaquille O'Neal) averaging a double double and more than two blocks a game. As a result the Pacers were 21-17 and in fourth place in the conference.
More impressive, on a club with a potentially combustible mix of youngsters and veterans, even the team's elders are pushing O'Neal to take charge. "He's our star now, but at times he still holds back," says 14-year veteran guard Reggie Miller. "I want him to let people know that he's as versatile and as talented as guys like Duncan and [Kevin] Garnett." Indiana coach Isiah Thomas has even bigger plans. "Jermaine not only has extraordinary talent," Thomas says, "but he also has all the tools to become a leader of this franchise and this community."
O'Neal is quietly confident he can do just that. Then again, he's always had confidence. When he was a spindly 6'4" ninth-grader, he announced (though not so quietly) to George Glymph, the basketball coach at Eau Claire High in Columbia, S.C., that he was going to be "the best player you've ever coached." Glymph dismissed the boast but had to reconsider after O'Neal sprouted five inches, to 6'9", in half a year. Glymph was soon basing his defense—which he called the Hey, Jermaine—on O'Neal. "It was simple," says Glymph, now director of player development for the Pacers. "When your man got by you, you'd holler, 'Hey, Jermaine!' and he'd block the ball."
More important, Glymph helped instill discipline and humility in O'Neal, the child of a single-parent home who had plenty of time to find trouble on the streets while his mother, Angela, worked two jobs, as a hotel maid during the day and a customer service representative for a bank at night. Under Glymph, O'Neal had no choice but to behave. "We had a tradition," says Glymph, who won five state championships with Eau Claire. "We didn't bitch at the officials, and there were no braids, no earrings and no trash talk."
O'Neal bought in to those strictures—so much so that after his senior season, when his mother gave him his first earring, he asked Glymph's permission before putting it in. (The coach grudgingly gave his blessing.) After four years of phone calls, late-night talks and tough love, O'Neal had come to see Glymph as a father figure. "He was always there for me, and he never gave up," says O'Neal. "I know some coaches are like that with their best players, but not George. He was like that with all the players."
When it came time to decide between college and the NBA, Glymph advised O'Neal to go to school. O'Neal, though, hadn't done well enough on the SAT and would have had to sit out his freshman year, so he opted for the pros. On June 26, 1996, he and 80 friends and family members gathered in a rented ballroom in Columbia and cheered when the Trail Blazers made him the 17th pick in the draft.