World according to Jermaine

FRANK ZICARELLI

, Last Updated: 7:38 AM ET

No issue is too sensitive and no topic is too controversial for Jermaine O'Neal to offer an opinion.

O'Neal never went to college, but the school of hard knocks and self-education have allowed the newest Raptor to expand his horizons off the hardwood.

O'Neal doesn't just provide sound bytes for the electronic media or convenient quotes to fill a print reporter's note pad.

When he is asked a question, regardless of its nature, O'Neal is as insightful as any NBA player.

When the league invoked an age limit for incoming players eligible for the 2006 draft, O'Neal was among the most vocal opponents, arguing the rule was driven by race.

"Before you speak, you must first understand what the issues are all about,'' O'Neal confided. "Believe in what you say.

"Don't go in front of a camera to make yourself look good. Only speak when you want to be heard. You want people to know exactly how you feel."

O'Neal is a voracious reader of all subjects, a discipline he developed through his mom, Angela Jones, who raised two sons as a single parent in a low-income housing complex in Columbia, S.C.

"There are many, many people who end up in college and don't learn anything,'' O'Neal said. "Life is all about educating one's self. Sometimes young guys speak before they educate themselves.

"My mother always reinforced the importance of reading. If you don't want to read a book, (at least) pick up a newspaper and find out what's going on in the world."

O'Neal, who turned 30 on Oct. 13, can carry a conversation on just about anything unlike many of his peers, sporting or civilian.

As he enters his first regular season in Toronto and 13th in the NBA, O'Neal knows that his growth as a person and as a player is more mental than physical.

"You become more of a thinker as you get older,'' he said. "Before, everything was more physical."

In just about every area of life, O'Neal takes an active role.

O'Neal once bankrolled a recording studio and served as its CEO as a means to support some of his childhood friends.

When he discovered that his heart wasn't into the venture, O'Neal cut ties.

During the current market meltdown, O'Neal took all of his money out of stocks and invested in a highly insured portfolio.

O'Neal believes in taxing the rich to a greater degree.

And this comes from a guy who has two years and $44-million US remaining on his contract.

"I look at my family and not everyone is fortunate enough to enjoy the lifestyle I have,'' O'Neal said.

"They're getting hit and I'm all for taxing the wealthy even more. There has to be more support for the middle class and below. They, too, can receive a piece of the pie.

"I don't believe in one particular segment of society enjoying all the fruits. You have to ensure that all people are enjoying life. Ultimately, it affects kids, who one day will be in positions to run our country."

As a kid growing up, O'Neal's strength came from his mom and older brother, Clifford.

O'Neal's mom had to work two jobs to support her family.

To keep the basketball-playing kids off the streets, O'Neal's coach, George Glymph, whose career path led him to the NBA as an assistant, would have the varsity team at Eau Claire High School practise at night.

"My brother would get me from school and when I got home my mom was in transition, leaving for her next job after cooking us a meal,'' O'Neal said.

"Through my mom, you learn how to be persistent, how to build yourself in tough times and how to build character.

"That is why I'm very, very interested in what goes on in the world. It affects us as people, everybody."

STAUNCH SUPPORTER

South Carolina has produced the likes of Alex English, who serves as a Raptors assistant, Xavier McDaniel and Tyrone Corbin, who played briefly in Toronto.

Married with two kids, O'Neal is a staunch supporter of providing today's youth with role models and opportunities.

"When you're around people like Alex English, Tyrone Corbin and Xavier McDaniel, you understand the positive influences they have on people,'' O'Neal said.

"They instilled a belief in that no matter where you live, what you wear, what you got, you have an opportunity to excel as long as you are willing to set your goals high and do the necessary things to achieve those goals.

"That's the message I try to convey to kids, mothers and fathers."

It's a message worth heeding.


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