Hear Jermaine O’Neal Out
By Paul Benedict
Don’t be quick to judge Jermaine O’Neal’s comments published yesterday concerning racism being an element in the NBA’s proposal to raise the age limit to 20. According to an article posted in the Indy Star yesterday, O’Neal was quoted as saying:
“In the last two or three years, the rookie of the year has been a high school player. There were seven high school players in the All-Star Game, so why we even talking an age limit? As a black guy, you kind of think race is the reason why it’s (the 20 year-old age limit) coming up. You don’t hear about it in baseball or hockey. To say you have to be 20, 21, to get in the league, it’s unconstitutional. If I can go to the U.S. Army and fight the war at 18, why can’t you play basketball for 48 minutes and then go home?”
Now everyone jumped on O’Neal yesterday for bringing the race card into the discussion without really understanding the context of the situation, which O’Neal explained last night during an interview with ESPN on NBA Nation. And rather than me explaining what he said last night, I’m just going to let you read for yourself and be the judge.
Jermaine O’Neal: “The questions that was asked to me was is it because you guys is black. One thing about people and people don’t understand and I appreciate every athlete and every league understands that when an interview goes down, people are going to write and say what they want to write and say because that’s what they can do with a pen. The question was asked to me in a totally different way and I said, “Well, looks like that”, whether it is or it is not, I don’t know. I really don’t know. But I’m dealing with the bare facts of people that is 18, 19, 20 are making the transition and doing it at a successful rate. I’m not calling anybody racist. I’m not doing that by any means. I’m not in any place to say that.”
“I know that the facts is that 13,14 15 year olds are able to decide whether they want to go play a pro sport, but it’s no issue. This has been going on for 20, 30 years in other sports, but it’s still no issue. And those sports are predominantly white sports.That’s what all I’m saying. When he compared it between those other sports and basketball that was the comparison between the sports that have predominantly white players and another sport in basketball that has predominantly black players. But it didn’t come out like that. Today it came out that I was playing the race card. I’m not playing the race card. I’m talking about the facts. I’m talking about these kids having the opportunity to excel at life. You can choose to do all sorts of things. Like I said about the war, these kids are going to the war at 18. Going to the war! We’re talking about basketball! We’re talking about basketball. People are trying to live a dream first of all and also take care of their families. It’s easy for people to analyze stuff sitting on a panel, but they don’t know where these kids is coming from. I’m speaking from experience and half the people that speaking about it, haven’t lived that life. You see what I’m saying? So for people to understand what I’m talking about, they got to really underst–, look into it. We talking about something that is really happening in a good way. The NBA is doing very well and the prime faces for the NBA are high school players. So what is the debate about?”
In what was the best interview I have seen all season (even better than the Thomposon Timeout with Kevin Garnett), Jermaine O’Neal and the ESPN crew discussed for about 25 minutes why there should not be an age limit and whether anyone thinks race is at all a factor behind the NBA’s decision to implement such a rule. Jermaine O’Neal was thoughtful, poignant, and unabrasive in his comments, and for an NBA superstar to come out and speak his mind about such a debatable issue, especially one who directly relates to the matter at hand, I can only applaud the guy. Heck, Ric Bucher and Marc Stein, the two white writers on the show, completely shied away from making any sort of judgmental remarks towards Jermaine because A- He totally put things into perspective for any white, or black or whatever race writer that hasn’t been in his situation as a fiscally-challenged teenage basketball phenom, yet has been critical and narrow-minded in their arguments concerning the age limit debate. And B- Both completely respect Jermaine O’Neal and were essentially in agreement with what he had to say. Marc Stein actually said, ” I hope the fallout from this for Jermaine touching on racism, doesn’t stop him from talking. I love listening to him. Every time I get a chance to talk to him, he’s always passionate about whatever the subject is and I just wonder, now people are going to focus on the race instead of the fact that here’s a guy in the middle of this unbelievably trying season. He’s dealing with a potentially season-ending injury. He’s stepping up and trying to be a leader, a spokesman for a big cause. We don’t see players do that very often in the NBA.” Kudos to Jermaine O’Neal for having the courage to speak out about an issue he feels passionate about.
Now while I realize I’m just another white writer who can’t relate to the plight of these young inner-city ballers, I have made a conscious effort to consider every angle in the under 20 age limit discussion. The truth of the matter is that there are a ton of kids out there from tough, poor, predominantly black neighborhoods that see basketball as more than just a way of life. To them basketball is everything, but most importanly, it’s a chance for them to really succeed in life and provide better opportunities for themselves and their families.
Take Kelenna Azubuike for example, the Kentucky standout who has been advised by everyone to return for his senior year and is projected to be a borderline 2nd round pick this June. Scouts are saying that Azubuike, with another year of seasoning under Tubby Smith, could propel himself into the 1st round next year. We’ve seen in the last few years that many players will heed the advice given to them and return to school when suggested to them that it will be beneficial to their careers in the long run. But Azubuike has already signed an agent, thus forgoing a chance to return to Kentucky and not only compete for a national title, but also to increase his long-term potential as a prospect. Now it’s funny that you hear someone like Dick Vitale speak out about Azubuike’s mistake in declaring for the draft, yet you barely hear about the reason as to why the kid is making the jump. His father owes over $344,000 in restitution and fines and will be serving a 4-year jail sentence for committing 41 counts of fraud. Shouldn’t we be applauding this kid for taking it upon himself to provide for his family and coming to his father’s rescue? Well, perhaps in this specific case we should be condemning his father for putting Kelenna in a situation that may forever hinder his chance to play NBA basketball. But my point is this– I understand Azubuike is in college, but how does this example differ from a high school player from the streets with no money, no career aspirations outside of basketball, and no hope for his family other than what’s hinging on his 42 inch vertical leap and Dell Curryesque range from outside? By implementing an age limit, Jermaine O’Neal is trying to say that the NBA would be taking away this opportunity from kids to not only live out their dreams, but also provide a better life for their loved ones. And if it’s been proven time and again that this jump from high school to the NBA is one that can be handled physically, mentally, and emotionally, then why should this opportunity be taken away? I’m not saying I agree with Jermaine and that there should not be an age limit, but you have to admit that the man makes some good points. And to hear what he has to say knowing that he’s been in a situation where he would have directly been affected by an age requirement, you really can’t help but listen to Jermaine and hope that he gets to sit down with the Commissioner to rap with him about the age limit proposal.