Jermaine O'Neal believes he'll know when it's time for him to retire.
The Warriors big man can envision a scenario this offseason in which he can't get into the proper frame of mind to start training for another season. That's a telling sign that an 18-year career that has seen stardom and 13 playoff appearances is near its end.
"This could be it," said O'Neal, 35. "So this is my last chance to try to win a championship. That's how I view it right now, whether it is or not.
"It affects all the way to how you view your pregame meal to your nap to your bus ride to the arena. Those things are a little more intense than they would normally be."
O'Neal, who has averaged 11.3 points and eight rebounds in his first six games after the All-Star break, desperately wants his first NBA title. He knows opportunities to win one can be fleeting.
On Tuesday, O'Neal -- for possibly the final time -- returns to Indiana. While with the Pacers from 2000-08, he garnered six All-Star selections. He still believes that Indiana would have won it all in 2005 had it not been for the Malice at the Palace brawl with Detroit fans.
"That's one of those situations where it's always going to linger with me, always going to linger with me, 'What if?' O'Neal said last week after the Warriors' shootaround at The Palace. "What if that doesn't happen? Where would we be?"
He let out a long sigh.
"Things happen, man."
The Nov. 19, 2004, incident during the Pacers-Pistons game began as an altercation between players before Indiana's Ron Artest charged into the stands after having a drink thrown on him by a fan.
At one point in the chaos, O'Neal punched a fan who had trespassed onto the court near the Pacers bench to confront Artest. O'Neal had to be restrained from going after another fan near the tunnel as he was dragged to the locker room while fans hurled drinks.
"It was a very regretful situation in general," O'Neal said. "I've been on record as saying what I did was in the flow of helping my teammates and in a situation where it wasn't about basketball. It wasn't about anything but survival. Now if I had an opportunity to take it back and it never happened, absolutely, because it changed the concept of a city."
Then-NBA commissioner David Stern suspended O'Neal for 25 games. The penalty was reduced to 15 games by an arbitrator in a decision the NBA unsuccessfully challenged in federal court. Arbitrator Robert Kaplan cited O'Neal's "character, community involvement and citizenship" in reducing the suspension for a punch that "was clearly out of character."
O'Neal, Artest and Stephen Jackson pleaded no contest to misdemeanor assault charges and were sentenced to probation, community service and fined.
A dominant post player in the middle of a seven-year, $126 million contract, O'Neal was worn down mentally in the aftermath of the brawl and welcomed a 2008 trade that sent him to Toronto.
O'Neal never did experience another playoff series win with Indiana after the Pacers lost to Detroit in the 2005 Eastern Conference semifinals. O'Neal still believes Indiana would have won the NBA championship that year had the brawl not derailed the season with suspensions and what he described as a cloud hanging over the franchise.
"Here I'm into my 18th year, and I still haven't won a championship," O'Neal said. "I'm always going to believe, no matter if I win a championship or not, that was our time."
The Warriors, his fifth team in the past six seasons, offered O'Neal not only an opportunity for contention but also a locker room in need of the vocal leadership he has provided.
O'Neal has missed 33 games because of injuries this season, but being sidelined for seven weeks recovering from right wrist surgery might have been a blessing in disguise because it gave him time to have his body ready for the stretch run, according to coach Mark Jackson.
"To go out playing at this high of a level is a heck of an accomplishment about who he is, how he conducts himself, and the type of professional that he is," Jackson said.
"He's going to be able to say whether he wants to play anymore because the question will not be, 'Can he do it?' "
O'Neal noted that his former Pacers teammate Artest, now named Metta World Peace, went won on to win a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers.
"Hopefully this year I can join the party," O'Neal said.
Warriors (36-24) at Indiana (46-13), 4 p.m. CSNBA
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