Heaven for newest Rap

Newest Raptor Jermaine O'Neal is all smiles at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday. SUN MEDIA/Jack...

Newest Raptor Jermaine O'Neal is all smiles at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday. SUN MEDIA/Jack Boland

STEVE BUFFERY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:41 AM ET

Jermaine O'Neal admitted yesterday that he shed a tear of joy upon being told that he was being traded to the Toronto Raptors.

The six-time NBA all-star said the past few years with the Indiana Pacers had been, by and large, a living hell, due to the club's penchant for melting down, on and off the court, and because of various injuries he has had to endure.

"When I got the call from my agent and he told me there was a possibility of coming here, it was like a rebirth," O'Neal said yesterday, after his trade to the Raptors was made official. "(What was happening in Indiana) was probably one of the worst situations that any pro team has been through.

"It started affecting every other part of my life -- my personal life off the court, with my family," he added. "It became very depressing."

It seemed following the 2003-04 season, when Indiana posted a 61-21 record and made it to the Eastern Conference final, that the Pacers were a team destined to contend for an NBA title. But a string of injuries that limited O'Neal to fewer than 70 games, along with the legal problems that some of his teammates became mired in, sent the Pacers in the other direction and cost them fan support.

O'Neal said he felt it was time to get out and his prayers were answered a few weeks ago when he became the centrepiece of a six-player deal with the Raptors that sent starting point guard T.J. Ford to Indiana.

Raps head coach Sam Mitchell was virtually bouncing off the walls yesterday with excitement over the prospect of having two quality big men in O'Neal and Chris Bosh in the frontcourt.

"If you want to compete with Boston and Detroit (in the East), you've got to get better, and we feel like we couldn't ask for much more to get a player like Jermaine," said Mitchell, comparing the two to the young duo of David Robinson and Tim Duncan in San Antonio a few seasons ago. "And my message to my other players is, they'd better get out and run if they want some shots, because when we come down and set up, the ball is going to Jermaine or Chris."

O'Neal averaged 18.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and 34.7 minutes in 519 games over eight seasons with Indiana. Seven times he has finished in the top 10 in the NBA in blocks and, on three occasions, was a top-10 rebounder.

The 6-foot-11 centre/forward underwent knee surgery last summer, but insisted yesterday that his health is excellent and he is ready to have a dominant season. He also stressed that he is a team player.

"This is Chris' team," he said, of Toronto's captain, Bosh. "I'm here to help him lead this team. He is their centrepiece. I've been through some rough times over the last four years and to get this opportunity makes you want to do whatever is necessary for the team to be successful.

"I think the thing that I will bring to the team is a different defensive presence," the 29-year-old added. "I will clog the middle, take charges, block shots, alter shots ... I think Chris and I can make some special things happen together (on defence)."

While Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo emphasizes team chemistry, the addition of O'Neal raises some eyebrows as to whether that will be compromised.

O'Neal was suspended 15 games in November 2004 after being filmed striking a Detroit Pistons supporter during a post-game brawl.

"I don't think people look at me as a bad person," he said. "I'm a good guy who has a family, who believes in the community. Hopefully, at the end of my career, they can say I was a heck of a player and a heck of a person."


Videos

Photos