As Confucious once said (and a Dwyane Wade commercial somewhat echoed), “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we do.” In the spirit of “fall down seven times, stand up eight,” Jermaine O’Neal believes he deserves some credit for rising after a fall. (CelticsBlog)
“The difference is in this league, the people who are in it for the wrong reason would have laid down,” O’Neal said. “They would have laid down and say ‘OK I had knee surgery, my year is over.’ I fought it. I fought it before the surgery. I didn’t want to do it. I was out there on one leg basically fighting the swelling because I’m prideful. I’m dedicated to the job that has been given to me. I’ve never been one to take the easy way out.”
If we take O’Neal at his word, he considers himself a tough player. But toughness in basketball—what exactly does it mean? Jay Bilas gave the best description I’ve seen yet:
“When I faced a tough opponent, I wasn’t worried that I would get hit,” he wrote. “I was concerned that I would get sealed on ball reversal by a tough post man, or that I would get boxed out on every play, or that my assignment would sprint the floor on every possession and get something easy on me. The toughest guys I had to guard were the ones who made it tough on me. Toughness has nothing to do with size, physical strength or athleticism. Some players may be born tough, but I believe that toughness is a skill, and it is a skill that can be developed and improved. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo always says, ‘Players play, but tough players win.’ He is right.”
But there’s also another aspect of toughness, that being the mental or physical ability (or a combination of both) which allows a player to deal with pain and injuries and keep on fighting. To deal with setbacks and continue forward. Think of the difference between Vince Carter, who would probably miss three months with a torn fingernail, and Mateen Cleaves (I’m switching to college ball here, but still), who hobbled around on one leg to help his team win the NCAA title. Certain players have a threshold for pain which allows them to play through severe discomfort; others lack that same tolerance, and miss large chunks of time as a consequence.
Yet there’s a grey area there. Grant Hill, who missed a bajillion games during his prime due to faulty feet, comes to mind. Every time he seemed set to return from injury, he endured another setback. Did Hill lack toughness? Not at all. The reason he even went through so many problems in the first place was because he decided to play the 2000 playoffs with a broken bone in his ankle. That’s tough, folks. Not quite Ronnie Lott, “playing with an injured finger that would eventually need to be amputated” tough, but, well, I know damn well I wouldn’t have played with a broken bone in my ankle. Each time Hill endured a setback, he went back to rehab. For years, he aggravated the injury time after time. Each time, he went straight back to rehab. In the words of Jimmy Valvano, “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.” In the words of me, Grant Hill’s a tough bastard, no matter how many games he missed during the prime of his career.
If Hill had never landed in Phoenix and improbably returned to health (I picture the Phoenix trainers as Mr. Miyagi, rubbing their hands together and applying them to Hill’s ankle), we would probably still see him as a “soft” player who couldn’t stay on the court. Instead, we see him for what he is: a true professional who persevered through impossibly tough times to fight his way back to the top of his sport. He now defends the opposing team’s best perimeter player almost every night (Alvin Gentry gave him the Derrick Rose assignment a couple days ago), finds the time to score 13.1 points per game of his own, sometimes plays the post despite being severely undersized to do so, and shoots 48.3% on top of that. At 38 years old, mind you. He even fired shots (classy shots, but still shots) at Jalen Rose during his down time, not that that has anything to do with his toughness.
Is Jermaine O’Neal like Grant Hill? A tough guy whose body simply abandoned him, repeatedly? In all honesty, I’ve never looked at Jermaine as a tough player. Maybe it’s because he has missed a million games during his career. Maybe it’s because he never seems to return to the court in a timely fashion after his injuries. Maybe it’s because of his finesse-oriented offensive repertoire. Maybe it’s because I’ve always felt his body should be contained in bubble wrap or those little Styrofoam peanuts they ship packages in.
But I can’t deny the facts: he did try to play with severe swelling (or at least what he called severe swelling) and pain in his knee. He did put off the surgery, because he wanted to help his team. He did finally have the surgery because the swelling wasn’t going anywhere and he would have been useless even if he could have played through it. And he did make it back from surgery in time to help the Celtics during the stretch run, during which time he has (so far, at least) been impressive. He’s even provided a physical presence the Celtics had been lacking since trading away Kendrick Perkins. Maybe we should expect that from all players, but, truthfully, after his surgery, despite the 6-8 week time frame the team provided, I did not expect Jermaine O’Neal to play again this season.
A strong correlation exists between expectations we hold for a player and our reaction to that player’s production. If Paul Pierce scored 15 points per game for an entire month, I’d wonder what the hell was wrong, curse Doc Rivers for playing him so many minutes that he ultimately wore down, and pray for his return to good play. If Avery Bradley scored the same 15 points per game in the same month, I’d share excited emails with my friends, anoint him the next great Celtics guard, and praise Danny Ainge for having the foresight to make him Boston’s first-round draft pick.
And when Jermaine O’Neal plays through a little pain and then actually recovers in the proper time frame, I ponder whether I’ve viewed him harshly throughout his whole career. Jermaine O’Neal, a tough guy? Hmm. It’s hard to wrap my that thought around my finger, but recent evidence suggests I should at least keep an open mind. I guess.