The night I met my girlfriend Casey five years ago, she was wearing a Jermaine O’Neal jersey. My college was throwing a “Jock Jams” party, meaning everybody dressed up in jerseys; I wore my Indiana St. Larry Bird jersey (which is obviously why she fell madly in love with me at first sight—God knows it wasn’t my looks), and my favorite spotting was a buddy’s Willie McGinest number 55. Who has a Willie McGinest jersey? Anyway, when the Celtics signed O’Neal, my girlfriend remembered the name.
“That’s a good thing, right? I mean, the night I wore his jersey you told me he was a star,” she said.
“I was just trying to get in your pants,” I responded. “But seriously, he used to be. He’s not a star anymore, but at least he knows it. He’ll do the dirty work, grab some rebounds, block some shots. (*Trying to forget about his putrid playoff showing against the Celtics*) He had a good year last year, too. This is a good signing. The Celtics need to replace Perk while he’s hurt, and they’ve done that. Plus, there were no other notable, affordable big men on the free agent market. Best yet, he’s not Rasheed Wallace.”
I looked back at Casey, and she had fallen asleep during my short soliloquy. The lesson, as always: when she asks about the Celtics, she doesn’t really care about the answer.
Fast forward a few months, a dozen injuries, and a lifetime of “I just dropped a glass and it shattered on the floor—it reminded me of Jermaine O’Neal” tweets, the O’Neal signing hasn’t paid any dividends (on the court, at least: the comedic value cannot be properly quantified). He’s played 17 of Boston’s 73 games. In the games he did play, O’Neal shot a measly 44.7%, compiled a 9.16 PER, scored 5.2 ppg and grabbed 3.8 rpg during an average of 18.1 minutes. Doc Rivers was okay with the low output, saying O’Neal was in Boston to rebound and block shots. But his rebounding rate was lower than Nenad Krstic’s, and while he did block shots more frequently than any other Celtic, he didn’t exactly remind anyone of Bill Russell.
Somewhere in the middle of all that, likely causing a lot of that, was O’Neal’s injury saga. He was going to get surgery, then he wasn’t, then he was again. He’d play one day, sit out the next five games, deem himself okay, then complain about swelling and pain 24 hours later. He was like the bobsled the Jamaican’s used in Cool Runnings. He was old and raggedy, his screws were coming loose, and at some point (sooner rather than later) he was destined to fall apart.
But what would have happened to the Jamaican bobsled team if someone had fixed their sled? O’Neal’s midseason surgery kept him out of action for two months, but if it repaired him so he can operate at least year’s level, the two months off will be time well spent. Then again, he’s still faced with a stiff task. O’Neal has nine regular season games to A) work himself into game shape, B) learn how to play with his new teammates, C) become reacquainted with Boston’s schemes, and D) do all that with a body made entirely of toothpicks.
The Celtics can’t reasonably expect anything from O’Neal. At the same time, they need him. It’s a thought that haunts Celtics fans: to win a championship, Boston will need either Shaq or J.O. (or preferably both) healthy. Yet neither O’Neal has stepped onto the court in months: Shaq recently turned 39 years old, got a cortisone shot in his foot last week and has been moving around in a walking boot, and Jermaine’s pulse has been flatlined all year long. Yep, these are the players Boston’s title hopes rely on. In related news, I need a beer.
We know what a healthy Shaq can offer the Celtics. When Boston played its best ball this year, Shaq was clogging the middle, catching Rondo lobs, drawing defensive attention, making things easier for all his teammates, and playing the role of enforcer. We still have no idea what a healthy Jermaine could provide, because he hasn’t been healthy all season. We don’t know whether his shot-blocking would add another wrinkle to Boston’s defense. We don’t know whether his solid midrange jumper would create additional driving room for Rondo. We don’t know how he fits in, because the Jermaine O’Neal we saw earlier this season wasn’t really Jermaine O’Neal. Or maybe it is. Maybe the Jermaine O’Neal we saw earlier this season is exactly what he has become.
Which is why, if only one O’Neal could be healthy, I’d take Shaq any day of the week and twice on Sunday. I wasn’t initially in love with the Shaq signing. I really wasn’t. I had serious questions: Can he let go of his ego? Does his presence kill Boston’s help defense? Does he have anything left in the tank? Can he stay healthy? The questions quickly disappeared, except for the last one. And that question’s changed from “Can he stay healthy?” to “Can he get healthy enough to provide anything in May and June?”
Boston’s problems go deeper than the O’Neals’ health, of course. Rondo has played one good game in three weeks, offense comes and goes, rebounding’s a serious issue, and Doc Rivers has spent the past four or five games looking like someone just repeatedly punched him in the gut. Ray Allen recently told HoopsWorld, “I’m not comfortable,” Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic still haven’t learned Celtics defense, the Bulls are almost definitely going to win the East, Miami’s threatening to steal the second seed, and I sit at home, watching all this and plotting how to murder Danny Ainge if the Celtics don’t change things around by playoff time. (Note: I’m not actually plotting Ainge’s murder. . . yet.)
Anyway, there was a reason I told you the story of my girlfriend wearing a Jermaine O’Neal jersey when we met. Thinking about that memory now makes me angry. Really, it does. Why couldn’t she have been wearing, I don’t know, a John Stockton jersey or something? Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the Jermaine O’Neal era, it’s that you don’t want to associate meeting your girlfriend with your favorite team’s most frustrating player. Seriously, it’d be great to think about meeting Casey and not immediately think, “That motherfucker has the durability of a 90-year old, nursing-home bound woman.”
I’d love to look back on that day with only happy thoughts. I really would. On that front, there’s still hope.
A little, tiny bit of hope.