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Jermaine O'Neal's highly-public crusade has finally worn on me. It was bad enough that he allowed Billy Hunter and the NBA Players' Association to convince an outside agitator to reduce his David Stern-levied suspension from 25 to 15 games for his brutality during the Pacers-Pistons fans brawl.
The Reggie Miller and Pacers fan in me was willing to let that bit of weaseling slip. I don't want to see Reggie's career end on a totally sour, non-playoff-qualifying note. I was reluctant to welcome O'Neal back into the family, as long as he kept his mouth shut, put up 20 and 10 and fought off any impulses to sucker punch any security-guard-restrained man or woman half his size.
But ever since his suspension has been reduced, O'Neal has been on a publicity campaign to convince the world that he's quite possibly the sweetest, most charitable athlete since Mother Teresa picked up a ping pong paddle.
Turn on ESPN tonight and you're likely to see O'Neal's cornrows stretched out across a puddle of water as an elderly woman limps down 38th street. Click on CNN and you're likely to find O'Neal with a bucket and shovel helping tsunami victims dig out from the rubble. Flip on VH1 and there's O'Neal playing the role of Dr. Phil as Flava Flav and Brigitte Nielsen iron out the wrinkles on "Strange Love".
Judging by the photo ops and image-enhancing publicity tour, Jermaine O'Neal drops 30 on the Heat by night, solves the world's problems by day and is a five-star daddy in his spare time. He's the perfect celebrity athlete pitchman.
Yes, I'm skeptical. And it's not because I believe Jermaine O'Neal is a bad guy. By all accounts, he's not. He's a pretty good guy. He made an awful mistake in Detroit, and that mistake should not haunt him for the rest of his life. What bothers me is that O'Neal won't admit the mistake. Oh, he says he made a mistake, but his actions don't back up that he really believes it. Neither do his words.
The article about O'Neal in last week's Sports Illustrated -- perhaps the final piece in O'Neal's crusade -- revealed what he really believes about the basketbrawl.
"What Would You Do?" screamed the headline. And writer S.L. Price, with a great assist from O'Neal, went on to rationalize O'Neal's Detroit cowardice and paint the picture that just about every other red-blooded, 6-foot-10, 240-pound American man would've cold-cocked a dumpy fan in that situation.
The article was sickening and proves a couple of points:
1. NBA players are still in denial about the realities that brawl brought to light.
2. We in the media are intent on keeping the players in denial.
"What Would You Do?"
O'Neal thinks this is a legitimate question. From an impoverished background, devoid of a college education, O'Neal has no clue what a rational, mature, sophisticated, God-fearing person might do when Ron Artest sparks a near-riot.
Running for cover, trying to get teammates and coaches out of harm's way never crosses O'Neal's mind. Not even today. He can't fathom the atrocities that men and women of all races suffered so that he could earn millions of dollars playing a game. He was never in school long enough to truly comprehend what Jackie Robinson would do if Ron Artest or a drunken fan set off a riot.