Yes, the injuries have been maddening. The constant talk about winning and leading at an elite level which never happened was frustrating. The brawl, the aftermath, and struggle since will always stick with J.O.'s Pacers tenure.
But, please, let's not forget the three 20 and 10 seasons prior to the brawl. With Reggie Miller's career winding down, J.O. was the key piece bridging the Pacers from their late 90's success to the post-Reggie era without fully rebuilding. Until November 19th, 2004, the 04-05 Pacers were poised to make a championship run out of the Eastern Conference. Through all the turmoil that followed, J.O. remained a rock on the team. Tried to work through all the issues with Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson, but it would never be the same.
The first time Jermaine O'Neal stunned me with his game is a visual memory forever etched in my mind. It happened during a November home game against the Washington Wizards, the first game I attended in the 2000-01 season.
After reaching the Finals the year before, Donnie Walsh had to quickly transition the team to mix in some young talent with the veteran scorers still on the roster. Rik Smits was done so J.O. had to jump into the void left by TWO Pacer front-court legends in Smits and Dale Davis (sent to Portland for J.O).
I couldn't wait to see J.O. that night. I was expecting raw. I was expecting gangly. I was hoping to see a glimpse of potential.
Instead, I was left mouth agape as he accepted a post-entry pass, spun on a dime and dropped in a little one-hander before his defender could react. I mean, the spin move was so quick he looked way out of control, but he wasn't. That spin turned into slo-mo as he released the shot under control and in perfect balance.
My first thought was, "HOLY ----, did you see that?" My second thought was, "Why in the world did Portland give up this guy?"
For all the big games and big plays I've seen Jermaine involved in with the Pacers, if someone mentions his name, the first thing that goes through my mind is that initial, live impression. Sweet, there it is again.
The last few years have been a struggle. The quickness isn't the same. The game has been re-made to rely on veteran savvy. But as long as the knee holds up, our paths will cross again.
Jermaine O'Neal is gone now in a move that refreshes both his career and the Pacers. Just don't forget the many good years 7 gave to the organization, the fans, and the community.
Good bye and good luck, J.O.