The smart vets band together with others who have had that same realization. One experienced, battle-tested warrior of a player is a threat; a lineup jam-packed with them is a title-winner.
That’s the hope with Jermaine O’Neal anyway.
O’Neal is 31 years old, and he’s spent the first 14 seasons of his NBA career bouncing around from Portland to Indiana to Toronto to Miami. He’s had his highs and lows — he made the playoffs in six consecutive seasons with the Pacers in the early part of his decade, but he also endured a lull in his career after Indiana, where he banked plenty of money but did nothing to inch closer to his first NBA Finals.
Now O’Neal is starting to run out of time. As the quality years he has left in his system begin to dwindle away and he realizes his own mortality, O’Neal will discover that his own personal track record means nothing. Team means everything.
That’s the epiphany that dawned on Paul Pierce, the Celtics’ longtime captain, in the summer of 2007. He was 29 and getting antsy to finally be part of something bigger than himself. He was joined by Kevin Garnett, 31, Ray Allen, 32, James Posey, 30, and Eddie House, 29. All of them came together with one common goal: winning.
Three years later, the Celtics have brought in O’Neal, signed this July to a two-year contract worth about $12 million. Pat Riley’s Miami Heat may be top-heavy with big stars in their primes, but the Celtics are loaded from top to bottom with veterans eager to work together toward a common goal.
That, more than anything, is what brought O’Neal to Boston.
“There’s no ego,” the center said to Julian Benbow in Sunday’s Boston Globe. “It’s hard to find no egos. As good as individual players are, especially when I look at a situation like Miami, none of those guys had to really deal with sacrificing. That’s what made Boston more intriguing for me and a situation I thought would be better for me. These guys [in Miami] are all really good individual guys that are used to shooting 20 times a night just last year. These are all young guys. So no matter what you say or how you say it, they’re going to still want the credit. But I know the Boston Celtics aren’t about that.”
O’Neal spent all of last season and part of another in South Beach with the old Heat, pre-2010 renovation. He remembers when it was Dwyane Wade’s team, hands down. O’Neal was reporting to a boss three years his junior, a guy who had won a championship at age 24 and hardly had to pay his dues.
Today’s Celtics are different. They’ve had to work for everything they’ve achieved in this league, and all those years of toil are not easily taken for granted.
“I look at Paul Pierce,” O’Neal said. “I know he understands being on a good team to being in a terrible situation to being good again. So I’m sure he can vouch for what I’m saying, how valuable your time is when you’re there. That was the situation. I went from being at a really high point to being at a very low point.”
O’Neal knows what happens when talent and hard work come together. His Pacers were an Eastern Conference dynasty back in the day — they won 61 games in 2003-04 and reached the conference finals. O’Neal, Ron Artest, Al Harrington and a wise, old Reggie Miller were able to prove that a solid core group with a sense of urgency can go a long way.
“That’s self-validation,” he said. “That helps me think, ‘OK, you know what, Jermaine, everything you went through, every good moment, every bad moment, every issue that basketball has caused, strife it’s caused to your family, to your friendships, to your relationships, to your business, whatever it may be, this validates going through that.’ That’s how I see it.”
But on the Celtics, O’Neal has a chance to achieve more than ever before. This is his big break — he’s not about to let it slip away.
Jermaine O’Neal has done a lot in this league, but he still hasn’t reached the top of the mountain. With a group of veterans by his side and a common goal in place from day one, being in Boston could quickly change that.