When Jermaine O’Neal celebrates another birthday in October, the age line on his biography will blurt “34!”
But a less-conspicuous witness — O’Neal’s body — might argue something closer to 29.
“I feel, absolutely, five years younger,” O’Neal said during a Wednesday conference call shortly after he officially signed to work as back-up center for the Phoenix Suns.
This extensive rewind of his NBA clock was inspired by a recent observational tweet from new teammate Jared Dudley, who — like O’Neal — has been preparing for the coming season at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas.
It’s only slightly ironic that O’Neal twice used the term “impactful” when discussing his upcoming role as caddy to Marcin Gortat in Phoenix. With diminished health limiting the six-time All-Star to only 49 games during his past two seasons as a Boston Celtic, making an impact has been difficult.
Having brittle knees of recent seasons teaming up with last season’s wrist injury, the 6-foot-11, 255-pound O’Neal had been reduced to a painful shadow of the dominant player he was during several halcyon days as an Indiana Pacer.
Having no interest in limping toward a basketball sunset, O’Neal took his sore knees to Germany, where he received orthokine/regenokine treatment . . . along with some words of employment advice.
This particular wisdom was bestowed upon O’Neal by outgoing Suns forward Grant Hill, who happened to be in Germany enjoying the same knee-restoration procedure. It should be noted this impressive cast of age-defying NBA characters included Kobe Bryant.
“The person who really put the Suns in my mind was Grant Hill,” O’Neal said.
This recommendation seemed to help, because the 16-year veteran had several teams willing to cough up a little more loot than the busy Suns needed to spend in landing another center.
“When I met with the Suns, it just felt right,” O’Neal said. “It wasn’t about money . . . I got offered more money in other places. I thought the Phoenix Suns organization represented everything I wanted. I didn’t feel as comfortable with other teams as I did with the Suns.”
Aside from a swell, short-term chance to win an NBA championship, what’s not to like in Phoenix? The Suns can offer player-friendly coaches and personnel bosses, a fun system of offense, loyal fans and great winter weather. They also boast the most celebrated training and conditioning staff in the NBA.
“That did have an impact on my decision as well,” O’Neal said.
OK, we know what O’Neal hopes to get out of his one-year deal with the Suns. What we’re more interested in finding out is what the Suns will receive from him. The Celtics, it should be noted, were getting five points and five rebounds from O’Neal before losing him to that wrist injury.
According to the as-young-as-he-feels O’Neal, the Suns will experience a boost in toughness and leadership.
“Phoenix has always been a very talented team,” he said. “They’ve also been very nice.”
After allowing that euphemism to sink in, O’Neal suggested he’s not always nice on the court.
“I have an aggressive personality,” he said.
More toughness certainly can be used in Phoenix. And those knees have been to Germany.
But is that enough for Suns fans to be optimistic regarding O’Neal’s potential contribution? Just how far has he physically progressed since his shortened season in Boston?
“I’d probably say ‘leaps and bounds,’ to be honest with you,” O’Neal said. “I wanted to go in (to the summer) with a white, blank canvas.
“I feel like I’ve put a tremendous amount of time into this summer. I’ve put myself in a position to be impactful. It’s the procedure, and it’s the work I’ve put in, too.”
In hiring someone to support Gortat’s work in the lane, the Suns could have done a lot worse. With Hill and Steve Nash now in Los Angeles, adding O’Neal certainly figures to provide a measure of off-court professionalism. And he really knows how to play.
But if O’Neal’s clock has been turned back anywhere close to the really good, ol’ days, the Suns and their fans might have a better time than expected.