Throwback role fits for Suns veteran O’Neal

PHOENIX – On a Saturday night featuring two NBA teams modeling throwback-style work clothes, the most compelling reminder of the visiting team’s history was the presence of Jermaine O’Neal.

Now employed as backup center by the Phoenix Suns, O’Neal made his pro basketball bones with his low-post roughhousing for the Indiana Pacers.

“It seems like it’s been 10 years since I played there, but it’s only been four or five,” O’Neal — a Pacer from 2000 through part of 2008 — said of life after Indiana.

With the Pacers hitting town as the Eastern Conference’s third seed, O’Neal (13 points, five rebounds) had some throwback moments during a relatively rousing Suns rally that ended in a 112-104 defeat.

“When they come here, it’s not as special,” O’Neal said of the Pacers before they handed the Suns their 51st defeat in 74 games. “It’s always more special going back there. Going back to that arena, there’s a lot of good memories.”

Being selected as an All-Star six times in eight seasons can provide quite a few fond recollections, especially when measured against the level of losing that has occurred in Phoenix this season.

But in a few weeks, the 17-year NBA veteran will be reflecting on the last several months through a prism with several future-defining angles. The decision may not be as easy or obvious as league observers probably believe. After being considered a physical goner by league standards, O’Neal’s status as a crusty, viable, low-post operator has been resurrected in the desert.

Unfortunately, his first Suns season also has been compromised by roller-coaster circumstances.

“This year was, by far, one of the easiest years for me physically,” O’Neal said, “but one of the hardest mentally.”

The physical obstacles — a calf tweak, for example, kept him down this past week — have been relatively tame by O’Neal’s standards. But the in-season mental challenges have included the death of his aunt and recent heart surgery for 13-year-old daughter Asjia.

“It’s been a very challenging year,” O’Neal said. “It makes you ask, ‘Is God trying to tell me something?’ Or is this one of those years when you can be a testament for someone else who hasn’t had to pick themselves up?”

When soul searching became this season’s game plan, O’Neal decided running away from the Suns’ predicament wasn’t the answer. But it could have been so easy. According to chatter around the league, several teams were interested in acquiring a post player with his experience, toughness and ability to produce at both ends of the floor.

When Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby approached O’Neal about pursuing a better twilight-of-a-career location at the trade deadline, he declined.

When asked if battling for a playoff run somewhere else at this stage of his career is more important than staying put where you’re needed for more than on-court contributions, the 34-year-old O’Neal didn’t have a go-to response.

“That’s a very good question,” he said. “I don’t know. That’s the reason why I chose not to leave (at the deadline). This was the place I was supposed to be through the year.

“You want to stay in the fight, you want to finish it and then make the best decision. Like I told Lon and my agent, if there are contending teams interested now, they’ll be interested later.”

And, when the transaction smoke clears this summer, he’ll definitely weigh his options right here.

“You have to consider it,” O’Neal said. “I’ll take a look at Phoenix and see what moves they make to better the team, then you go from there.”

Where he goes will have a lot to do with fit.

“Fit is huge,” O’Neal said. “You can go someplace where things look promising, but that doesn’t always pan out. I learned that in Boston, where I wasn’t a good fit at all.”

But when circumstances have permitted, the fit has been pretty good in Phoenix.

During a season interrupted by personnel crises, a nagging injury here and there and a high ratio of technical fouls to minutes played, O’Neal has given the Suns eight points and five rebounds per game as the seasoned backup to Marcin Gortat.

As a reliable option for since-departed coach Alvin Gentry, O’Neal received considerable fourth-quarter burn. With Gortat now injured and the Suns’ younger front-line players lacking consistent focus, O’Neal also has been leaned on (when available) by interim coach Lindsey Hunter.

“That helped a lot,” Hunter said Saturday after O’Neal returned from the nettlesome calf setback to battle inside against the Pacers. “He really, really anchored our defense.

“A lot of times things go unnoticed as far as what the bigs do, because they don’t always shot up on the stat sheet.”

The ofseason should determine how much they’ve been noticed by management.

When asked for his assessment of an organization that will be required to do the same of him this summer, O’Neal said his time away due to off-court issues has made it difficult to build more than a working relationship with the Suns’ front office.

“But I’ve gotten to know (Suns owner) Robert (Sarver) a little bit,” he said. “He seems to be hands-on … he’s always around, laughing and joking and trying to keep the spirits up. So … I like that in an owner.”

Despite the on-court struggles shared with some of his younger teammates, the veteran offered high praise for the group as a whole.

“We didn’t win as many games as we’d like,” he said, “but this group is one of the better groups I’ve been around in 17 years. The spirit stays up; sure, there have been some rough days when we came off some losses, but the guys stick together and they try to stay upbeat.

According to O’Neal, strong evidence of this connectivity was provided during his trying times.

“For me, I felt the support,” he said. “Multiple guys text messaging, calling, asking, ‘How you doin’, you need anything?’ That said a lot about the character on this team, because these are young guys.”

And to acknowledge them also says a lot about O’Neal, the old guy who’s a real throwback.