Sports

Jermaine O'Neal has new lease on life

MIAMI - The pain is gone.

Also vanished is the portable ice machine. It was a device Jermaine O'Neal carried with him the past three years for times when his long-troublesome knees would swell to the size of a grapefruit.

And stashed away, too, is the fiberglass knee brace, one that has been as much a part of his work attire as the jerseys, shorts and headbands.

Having emerged from an offseason in which O'Neal sought to regain all of the elements that made him one of the most dominant post players in the league, the 14-year veteran would much rather measure his progress by those things he no longer requires.

The pain. That portable ice machine. Those pesky and restrictive braces.

"I pray to God to help me deliver that message of what I took my body through this summer to finally get right," O'Neal, now with the Miami Heat, said of what he considers the Armageddon offseason of his career. "It's all or nothing. If I took myself through the things I did this summer and I break down this season, then I have a beautiful 9-year-old daughter, a wonderful 3-year-old son and a great wife I will happily go be with if I can't do it."

That is the level of peace O'Neal has reached.

He believes he has turned back the clock on his career to 2006, a time when he was an All-Star caliber player in his prime with the Indiana Pacers, a time before he was introduced to the deteriorating knee injuries that would derail much of the next three seasons.

The damage: two torn ligaments, a hyperextension, bone bruise and several sprains in his left knee, along with severe swelling, a contusion and other undisclosed bouts of "soreness" in his right knee. O'Neal has missed 56 games since the start of the 2006-07 season because of knee problems. And that does not count the dozens he played while hurt.

It only made matters worse that he continued to play through the tears, sprains and swelling even as he moved from Indiana to the Toronto Raptors last summer and then on to Miami in a Feb. 13 trade to the Heat.

"I needed to play to get to where I was at the end of the year," O'Neal said of trying to showcase his ability to help facilitate his trade to Miami. "I don't think I should have played the year before, though, because I was playing and rehabbing at the same time. My knee was damaged, and I played to the detriment of my health to be out there. But I made those choices. I have to live with it."

But O'Neal, 30, hopes to live another reality this season. After spending the first seven weeks of the summer with the Heat's medical staff, O'Neal moved to Chicago to charge trainer Tim Grover with the task of reforming his body and mind.

Grover, who helped Heat guard Dwyane Wade recover from knee surgery last season, devised a similar comprehensive plan for O'Neal.

It consisted of twice-daily workouts in which O'Neal was shuttled through massage therapy, weight training, on-court drills, acupuncture and film review over the course of six-hour days for five days a week.

During the process, O'Neal chose to shield himself from the media. He talked about getting his body right before but always had a setback. This time, he took the quiet approach with hopes of letting the results speak for him.

"Jermaine has put in the time and effort just like Dwyane did," Grover said in a radio interview with Miami sports radio station 790 AM The Ticket. "All the naysayers and doubters, I think we're going to have another individual who will prove them all wrong. You'll be surprised."

Wade, who spent time with O'Neal at Grover's facility this summer, said he already has seen results. But Wade also said it would be too much to expect O'Neal to come right out this season and dominate in the post.

"I want him to get back to an All-Star level," Wade said. "But at the same time, he's 31 and not 27. I watched from afar and up close. You have to be patient with it. I know how it is to basically play on one leg. You can be great one night and seem like you're not even on the court the next night."

That inconsistency was evident in O'Neal's production once he arrived in Miami last season. He averaged 13 points, 5.4 rebounds and two blocks in 27 games with the Heat. His low rebounding totals were of particular concern.

But what O'Neal and the team did not disclose at the time was that he was having problems with his right knee, which needed to be drained of fluid at least three times.

"He knew he wasn't where he needed to be, and he'll be the first one to tell you that," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Now, he's more fit, stronger, even mentally refreshed."

O'Neal still managed to take a sense of pride in playing at a reduced level.

"I knew where I was, even at 13 or 14 points a game, six or seven rebounds a game, two or three blocks a game," O'Neal said. "Some people can't do that on two good legs. That's why I looked forward to getting back healthy - and being dominant."

Heat forward James Jones, who played with O'Neal during part of his run of six All-Star seasons in Indiana, said he's starting to see flashes of the "old Jermaine."

"He always had the length and the instincts, but he just didn't have that burst," Jones said. "Now he's got that burst again. It's like back then, when there wasn't too many bigs that could match up with him. His skills and IQ made him tough for anybody from Tim Duncan to Dirk Nowitzki. He's starting to get that all back."

Should O'Neal regain some of that swagger and ability, it could not have come at a better time. The Eastern Conference has reloaded at the center position, with Shaquille O'Neal in Cleveland and the likes of Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler and Al Horford all playing for teams in the Heat's Southeast Division.

"Those battles are going to be good battles again," O'Neal said. "Am I as athletic as I was in Indiana? Absolutely not. But my body is catching up again with what I know mentally about the game. So am I a better overall player? I'd say yes."

It's a nightly challenge a reinvigorated O'Neal welcomes. He is set to earn the league's highest salary at $23 million in the final year of his contract and hopes to play five more years. He said he weighs 253 pounds, which is what he weighed when he once challenged for MVP honors.

But O'Neal said more than numbers drives him this season. His goal is to put all of that hard work to the test. It's about finishing what he started. It's about proving there was a purpose for pushing through all that pain.

"It's not about the All-Star Game - it's not about a contract year," O'Neal said. "It's about looking across at my opponent and feeling like they are fearful. If I don't make another dollar in this league, I have to be able to say that I did it."

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