JERMAINE O'NEAL has a question. He finds himself asking it often these days, because even two months later the brawl remains the defining moment of this NBA season and legal proceedings continue and, well, the question has a way of disarming those inclined to criticize. "What would you do?" the Indiana Pacers' forward says, and anyone inquiring about that night has to stop then and at least pretend to think--especially after O'Neal is quick to acknowledge that he was wrong for slugging a fan in the face. "I'll take my punishment with open arms," he says. "And I hate that for the rest of my life, when they look back at the worst suspensions ever, my name will come up. I hate that." So, yes, O'Neal feels remorse. But he also asks you to put yourself in his place. � He knows: It's hard to imagine being on court in The Palace of Auburn Hills on Nov. 19, when a basketball game turned into a riot. Video footage showed everything but what it felt like. Two of O'Neal's teammates, Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson, responded to a hurled beer cup by going into the stands, punching and getting punched, before belligerent Detroit Pistons supporters stormed the court. Artest swung at one, and then O'Neal saw his teammate, Anthony Johnson, on the ground. He ran over and floored someone named Charlie Haddad with a right hand while Haddad's arms were pinned by security guards; at the moment of impact O'Neal slid onto his butt like a newborn colt hitting a patch of ice. Making for the tunnel, he was the target of curses, beer, popcorn and a folding chair.
"There's 12 of us with Pacers jerseys on, against thousands," says the 26-year-old O'Neal. "If you listen to some of those 911 calls? People were afraid, right along with us. I don't think enough people actually sat back and said, 'What would I do?'"
By the time he finishes, the question has done its job: You find yourself uncertain and shake your head in better-you-than-me sympathy. It becomes easier to focus on more concrete matters, like the fact that, since returning from his 15-game suspension on Christmas Day, the 6'11" O'Neal has played the best ball of his nine-year career, keeping Indiana in the playoff chase and returning his name to the Most Valuable Player short list. Or the fact that, while his panicky cheap shot is often served up as another reason to dismiss NBA players as thugs, an arbitrator reduced O'Neal's sentence from 25 games because of his record of "character, community involvement and citizenship." Or that, even after suspensions wrecked the Pacers' title hopes, his teammates, coaches and bosses describe O'Neal in terms normally applied to a church deacon. "We're lucky to have him here," says coach Rick Carlisle. "He's one of the kindest, most generous star players I've ever been around."
Besides, the brawl is only the latest dizzying turn O'Neal's life has taken. His father abandoned the family before Jermaine was born, then showed up to get acquainted when his son became a teenage star in Columbia, S.C. Shortly before his career-making senior year at Eau Claire High, O'Neal had to cope with a dubious statutory rape charge. Two years ago O'Neal walked into his mother's Indianapolis condo and found his stepfather, Abraham Kennedy, lying on a bed after he'd shot himself in the temple.
O'Neal can smell the gunpowder from that March evening still. He normally didn't like his mother's suitors, but he was close to Kennedy, who'd married Angela Jones three years earlier; O'Neal even got him a job working security at Conseco Fieldhouse. Just moments after dropping Angela at home, O'Neal answered his cellphone, heard his mother's faint voice and the word shot: He U-turned across four lanes and raced back. O'Neal walked into a guest room and found Kennedy's body, twitching. The bullet had torn through his head. "We're talking about blood everywhere, major blood, membranes, his head swollen," O'Neal says. "It was so bad, I walked in and had to turn around and look out the door right away and ask God just to help me."
O'Neal steeled himself and went back in. There was an open Bible on the bed. He stood next to his stepfather and took his hand. Kennedy couldn't speak. All O'Neal could think was: Keep him awake. "He was breathing real hard and looking at me like he was sorry, like he had made a mistake," O'Neal says. "I told him he was going to be O.K., and every time he closed his eyes and his breathing slowed, I just told him to wake up."
After 15 minutes the paramedics arrived. At the hospital the doctor told O'Neal and his mother to make funeral plans. Jermaine pressed him for an option, and the doctor described a procedure, highly risky, that could save Kennedy, or kill him, or leave him a vegetable. Angela was too distraught to respond. Suddenly, the decision was on O'Neal.
He looked at the doctor. "What would you do?" he said.
"Do you want the chain off?" Jermaine O'Neal asks, preparing to pose. He starts to remove the silver rope, complete with a diamond-studded crucifix the size of a hood ornament, from around his neck.
"No," says Judy Klipsch, vice chairman of Klipsch Audio Technologies. "I want the chain. Because that's you."