THE ADOLESCENT squeals, the squeaking sneakers, the timeout horns that made the gym sound like a clogged Manhattan intersection—this was the grating ambience in which Jermaine O'Neal worked late last month. While a dozen of his fellow NBA luminaries were preparing to play in the Beijing Games, he was on a court in Las Vegas, separated by a curtain from an AAU tournament. For O'Neal there was no forgetting how far he stood from his goal of rejoining the league's elite—and of elevating his new team, the Toronto Raptors, into a title contender.
Five years ago O'Neal was a member of USA Basketball's core group of players who qualified for the Athens Olympics; the following season he finished third in the MVP balloting, averaging 20.1 points and 10.0 rebounds to lead the young Indiana Pacers to the NBA's best record (61--21). But a partially torn ligament in his left knee kept him out of the 2004 Games. Now, two months from his 30th birthday, the 6'11" O'Neal has spent the most important summer of his 12-year career rehabbing from the persistent knee injuries that threaten his basketball future.
"The fact is, I played on one leg for two years," says O'Neal, whose averages shrank to 13.6 points and 6.7 rebounds in 42 games last season after he reinjured his knee in 2006--07. "You hear people say that you slowed down, that you don't have it anymore—but you know that you still have it. All the naysayers who are saying that I lost a step, they'll get a full dosage of me next year."
If O'Neal can approach the form that made him a six-time All-Star, his trade to Toronto could prove to be the most significant off-season move in the East. True, Philadelphia signed free-agent power forward Elton Brand last month, but the 76ers still lack shooting and experience. The Raptors, on the other hand, are coming off two straight postseason appearances and retain All-Star power forward (not to mention U.S. Olympian) Chris Bosh, emerging point guard José Calderón and a slew of outside threats. They view O'Neal—the marquee name in the six-player trade that sent point guard T.J. Ford, center Rasho Nesterovic, forward Maceo Baston and first-round draft pick Roy Hibbert to Indiana last month—as the piece that could allow them to challenge the Boston Celtics.
O'Neal didn't come cheap: He has two years and $44.4 million remaining on his contract. But after missing an average of 29.5 games over the last four years, he has accumulated relatively low NBA mileage. "This is a chance for Jermaine to really make a statement," says Raptors president and general manager Bryan Colangelo, whose team's doctors examined O'Neal on July 8 and declared him healthy. "He is extremely motivated right now to answer any questions about his health, his attitude and who he is as a basketball player. I can't think of a better mental or emotional state to find a player in."
O'Neal was on the block because his career has been in decline since 2005. "I couldn't have dreamed in my worst nightmare that I wouldn't have won a championship by now and that the team we had would go into the dumps," he says. But after Pacers forward Ron Artest charged into the stands in Detroit on Nov. 19, 2004, escalating a brawl, O'Neal punched a fan on the court, earning a 15-game suspension. Subsequent off-court arrests turned the Pacers into the East's version of the Jail Blazers and turned off fans: Attendance dwindled each year, falling to last in the NBA (12,221) in 2007--08.
AS THE PACERS suffered their second straight losing season, O'Neal's relationship with team president Larry Bird soured. Worried that he was losing his love for the game, O'Neal reached a resolution with the Pacers at the end of last season: It was time for him to go. "I had the best conversation I've had with Larry in five years," says O'Neal. "It was really civil, really logical.... I don't think that we hated each other. I just think so much had happened that it made the job difficult, and the only way for that team to move forward was to move me."
"You hate to [trade] your best player," says Bird. "But he was at the point where he thought a change of scenery would help him."
O'Neal returned to his Indianapolis mansion and packed his things. "We boxed up all of my stuff, and the clothes I didn't want we took to the Salvation Army," he says, which must have been a record day for the store's big-and-tall section. Then he headed to Vegas, his new off-season home, to dedicate himself to the hard work of reinvigorating his health as well as his career.
Before he could make this last stand, O'Neal first had to learn how to stand one-legged on a foam pad and catch a tennis ball—a simple lesson in helping him regain the balance he had lost over the previous two seasons. Many stars with guaranteed eight-figure contracts might not have gone to such humbling lengths. Not only that, "Jermaine was bad at it," says Joe Abunassar, whose Impact Basketball training center in Las Vegas serves as an off-season camp for dozens of NBA stars. "Still he kept with it. We didn't touch a [basketball] for the first month, but he was here to work every day."