When the Phoenix Suns came to contract terms with free agent veteran center Jermaine O’Neal, one of the first questions that came to mind was “can he still play?”
It is a fair question. After all, O’Neal didn’t look at all like a six-time All-Star during his two-year stint with the Boston Celtics. With Boston, he played in just 49 games, averaging 5.2 points per game in limited minutes.
After considering retirement, O’Neal went to Germany to have the Orthokine knee procedure both Kobe Bryant of the Lakers and former Sun Grant Hill had, and the center says it’s done wonders for him.
“It’s really put me in a fantastic position, I feel to be very successful physically for the Suns this year,” O’Neal said during a media conference call Wednesday morning. “It allowed me to go back and do some things that I haven’t been able to do the last five or six years.”
O’Neal says Bryant was a source of information about the procedure, but he was still hesitant to get it done since it hasn’t been approved by the FDA in the United States.
“Kobe called me last year and we talked about it, but I wasn’t quite sure,” he said. “Anytime you hear that something isn’t FDA approved, you feel like your leg is going to fall off in five years or something. I educated myself this past year about the procedure and the FDA, as well.
“When I saw the impact as far as minutes played that Kobe had this year, it was impressive. I said to myself ‘hey, what do I have to lose?’ If it doesn’t turn out, I feel great about the 16 years I’ve played, and I’ll go off into the business world.”
While Bryant was instrumental in O’Neal having the knee procedure, Hill was very much a factor in his choosing Phoenix as a free agent destination.
“Myself, him and Kobe were in Germany having the procedure done, and he started talking about them and he was saying ‘you just really need to consider them,’ — and at that time it was two and half months ago and I wasn’t really even thinking about free agency,” O’Neal said. “When I got the call that Phoenix wanted to come in and talk to me, I thought that it was a crazy coincidence.”
O’Neal is only 33 years of age, but since he was a first round draft pick of the Indiana Pacers in 1996 as a 17-year-old, he’s got lot of miles on his body. And considering the Suns training staff’s sterling league-wide reputation for working with older, sometimes injury-prone players, Phoenix made sense.
“I always knew that their training staff was phenomenal,” he said. “That was kind of the word around the league amongst the players, that the training staff can really take a body and put three or four years on it by the things that they do to the body. That did have an impact on my decision, as well.”
Phoenix has also had the reputation of a place where older players come to cash a paycheck and end their careers before riding off into the sunset, but O’Neal wants to be a leader on what’s become a much younger roster. He also wants to shift the decades-old label on the franchise that they’re too nice — subject that came up in discussions with president of basketball operations Lon Babby, general manager Lance Blanks and head coach Alvin Gentry.
“We spoke a little bit about the niceness of the team and how the view on the outside looking in that Phoenix has always been a talented team, but they’ve also been considered very nice,” he said. “And any time you’re considered very nice, other teams feel like they have the opportunity of beating you.
“I think that’s one thing that my Indiana teams always had. You think about those Detroit teams with Rip [Hamilton] and Rasheed [Wallace] and the Boston Celtics teams with Kevin [Garnett] and those guys — they’ve always been perceived as hard-nosed, physical, beatdown-type of teams who had a lot of talent. Those are some of the things that I want to bring to this team.”