by Russ Bengtson

I first met Jermaine O’Neal in Charlotte, North Carolina during the summer of 1996, It was at the Nike Hoop Summit, which pitted America’s best high-school players against those from the rest of the world. Jermaine was a long, skinny shot-blocking machine from nearby (relatively) Eau Claire, South Carolina, a quiet kid whose future was far from set. It had nothing to do with talent, mind you, it was just a question of whether he’d be heading for college or the NBA. His test scores weren’t in yet, and he was unsure what his next step would be.

Needless to say, I was no help. I even distinctly remember bringing up the possibility of junior college. Instead, after outstanding performances in both the Hoop Summit and the McDonald’s All-America Game, he entered the 1996 NBA Draft and was selected 17th overall by the Portland Trail Blazers. Buried on a deep bench—the Blazers already had Rasheed Wallace, Brian Grant and Gary Trent, among others—O’Neal showed flashes when he got the rare chance, but didn’t truly blossom until he was traded to the Indiana Pacers in 2000.

Still, we kept in touch, and in March of 1998 I caught up with him at Madison Square Garden for an In Your Face. Here’s the full interview transcript.

SLAM: How have you been feeling this season so far?
JO: I’ve been lovin’ it so far—the second half, anyway.
SLAM: Startin’ to feel like a veteran yet?
JO: [Laughs] Naaah. No chance. Too young for that. Maybe the next couple years I will.
SLAM: You’re startin’ to bulk up, though. Been spendin’ a lot of time in the weight room?
JO: Yeah. A looot of time. Every day, as a matter of fact.
SLAM: Startin’ to get used to it? The whole NBA thing?
JO: Yeah. Yeah, I like it. I’m lovin’ it. It’s what I want to do. For the next 10 or 15 years.
SLAM: Anything made it easier this year than last year?
JO: I know a lot more. I learned last year. I’m tryin’ to put what I learned last year together this year. It’s a lot funner for me.
SLAM: What was the most important thing you learned last year?
JO: I learned to be patient. Bein’ patient can really help in the long run.—be patient, and just keep workin’ hard—and so far it has. On days that I got it goin’, they stay with me, and on days that I don’t—like tonight—they go without me, so… I’m patient, you know, I’m happy. Hopefully I’ll sign another deal this summer—a six, seven year deal. I’m just enjoying basketball life right now.
SLAM: You wanna stay in Portland?
JO: I don’t know. I don’t know. If they give me a pretty good deal, I’ll stay. It has to be a really good deal. I like the Portland Trailblazers—the city is OK—but the team… I think right now, we have somethin’—with Rasheed and J.R. and all the young guys, we can really make some things happen in the next couple years.
SLAM: You’ve got a little more space with Gary Trent getting traded…
JO: Yeah…It’s just like now, some games I’ll start, some games I won’t. And Gary was my boy—it’s kinda sad to see him go, but you know, it kinda helped me in a way—now I’m gettin’ more looks. It just really depends on the teams, who we’re playin’.
SLAM: You been watchin any of the NCAA Tournament?
JO: Yeah. I watched a lot of the tournamnent.
SLAM: Do you ever regret your decision at all?
JO: Nah. Nah, I’m figurin’ I woulda left in a year anyway. [Pause] It’s tough, I mean, then again, I don’t know. I mighta stayed for a couple years. Maybe even four years, I don’t know, I never experienced that type of life, but I never think about it, you know, or regret not going to college. Right now, I’m one step ahead of my class, and I’m happy with it. I think, after this year, I’ll be put in a more consistent role. If that’s being a starter, I’m gonna be happy.
That’s another big issue with me signing, though, is where I’m gonna play the most. I’m gonna go to wherever place I’m gonna play the most.
SLAM: Kobe’s been gettin’ all the spotlight lately. You think it’s easier, being you, not being under that spotlight, or would you rather have it?
JO: Right now I’m just real into not havin’ it. It kinda wears on you: it wears on your game, it makes you struggle—you just gotta be mentally prepared for stuff like that. I don’t know how he’s been doin’ lately, but I think he’s more of an L.A. person than I am.
SLAM: You still keep in touch with him at all?
JO: We talked—maybe a week-and-a-half ago. When we played the Lakers. Both of us were happy—contracts comin’ up, and we’re lookin’ forward to that, so… I’m just happy, man. Overall. You know, last year was kinda—it was kinda different for me. I didn’t know what to expect. But this year, I know what to expect, and I’m just dealin’ with it.
SLAM: What have you been working on lately? What’s the main thing?
JO: Everything, man. You can never be satisfied with what you have. You should always wanna get better. And that’s what I’ve been doing. I think next year—it’s gonna be a real big year for me overall. I think, that’s when—I’ve been lettin’ people know who I really am this year, but, I wanna really let people know next year—you know, what all I can do. You know, I’m known as a dunker—I don’t wanna be a dunker. I want people to know that I can handle the ball. I can step out and shoot it. I’m definitely a three in a 6-11 frame. If they don’t see it in the remaining games or in the playoffs, they’ll definitely see it next year.
SLAM: Feel like you’ll start playing the three more?
JO: Know what? The reason why I haven’t is ’cause I haven’t been knocking down the outside shot real well. And that’s one of the big things—we’ve got a lot of threes that can knock it down. So he’s been goin’ with them. Most of the time, I play some three but I post up a lot. When we run our plays, I’m postin’ up, so… I wanna be able to stand there and take the last-minute shot. I wanna take the big shot. So that’s what I’m workin’ on right now.