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To criticize Jermaine O'Neal for his age, ceiling or his ability to carry a team anymore is fair when assessing the off-season move the Phoenix Suns made this past summer to bring him here. That is in bounds.

O'Neal is north just north of 34 and his better days are behind him, as it is for most players that have dedicated 17 years to the sport. What he lacks in on court impact he makes up for with a veteran presence for a team that is void of those types of leaders with pedigree and experience after the departures of Steve Nash and Grant Hill. That is the role O'Neal signed up for with this team, to help bring along young players like Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat, to add a certain level of toughness to them on the court.

In the midst of the melodrama this past week arduous disgruntled "shock jock" radio hosts took to the air to vent their frustration towards the team in part by attacking the off-season acquisition of O'Neal and his character.

"To me that is crazy," O'Neal told me as this was the first time he was hearing about the comments. "Everything about this week is assumptions. Until you know exactly what it is, how can you speak about it?"

This week he has had to go to great lengths to defend, not only the paint, but himself, his illness (covered here by Dave King) and now his character.

Let's talk about the culture, because you want to change the culture, but it was these guys that are in charge right now that brought in Jermaine O'Neal who was a part of the worst culture team in the history of the NBA and brought in Michael Beasley. It was your general manager who wants to change the culture of the team, but on one hand he is bringing in guys that aren't Steve Nash and Grant Hill. Guys who have questionable character. -- John Gambadoro 620 KTAR Radio Host

Those were pointed words that are not hard to misinterpret. As the conversation continued, he put a finer point on his opinion of the former Indiana Pacers All-Star: "Jermaine O'Neal was the leader of the worst culture of any NBA team in the history of the NBA."

Throughout his career O'Neal is accustomed to defending the paint and his teammates, but other than one instance where unique blend of people and circumstance allowed fans and Pacers players to initiate in a brawl now known as the "Malice in the Palace" he is being referenced to as a bad character guy.

In that situation it was the imperfect storm where Stephen Jackson, Ron Artest and Jamaal Tinsley who all have had off the court issues that were in some manner tracked with mug shots, suspensions, arrests, fines, etc. Should simply being the best player on that team be the smoking gun to his character?

"Character? We had issues just like every other team," emphatically stated O'Neal. "One person isn't responsible for everybody. We are grown men, our responsibility is to come in and be as professional as we can possibly be, do our job, go home and lead our community. That is our job."

During his career O'Neal won the Kia NBA Community Assist Award four times for his work in the community.

One thing I say about people is that they speak from their seats in their houses. You take Peyton Manning, who, his team had all sorts of problems with domestic violence, with DUI's, and do you say the same thing about him? (Long Pause) So why would you say it about me? Same people that said that, ask them how many times I won the community assist award? Pumped millions of dollars of my money into the community, ask them about that. It is easy to sit down on your couch or where ever you are at and determine who this person is when you never even met him before. -- Jermaine O'Neal

Speculation, sources and sensationalism are elements of that are unavoidable in this day and age, they are only going to get worse. They are perpetuated by emotion. That can make or break a person depending on the situation and with thousands to millions of listeners those comments carry weight for a player that most fans do not know much about.

Sources come forth to give information, but a lot of time they are unreliable.

"Listen, here is how I feel about sources," stated an agitated, but smiling O'Neal. "Nine times out of 10 the sources are wrong. If you are a source why can't you say who you are?"

They cannot say who they are because usually they are within an organization and if the team knew they were pumping out info to the media they would be done, but I get the general sentiment. In regards to his time in Boston, where it was said the team was "excited for him to leave" and "only got better after he left" there was more to that than meets the eye.

"Boston was a situation where I tore my wrist taking a charge, at the time leading the league in taking charges. I gave up my body every single night and tore my wrist. Tell them to talk to Danny Ainge, get the real, if these sources are saying something tell them to call the people that really matter. Danny Ainge is one of my favorite people in the world and I guarantee he won't say anything different. No issues. I have never had an issue with the team. I came in, did my job, and went home."

In the end O'Neal understands the sensationalism, after all he is a 17-year veteran who has been in this circus for years. This week has been a new kind of circus adding more rings to the three with all the drama and "sources" reporting what he has called "flat-out lies."

"People call in and live off of these radio shows and that is there chance to get their five minutes of fame and say what they want to say, but at the end of the day I live what I say. My history states that. Before they say anything negative about me, look at my history. All the people that are talking from the couch, that is OK. It doesn't bother me, but if they ever want to know the truth, just ask me or tell the source to ask the real people that run the show."

There is no question that the "Malice in the Palace" will always haunt him, but one moment where he was not the antagonist should not define Jermaine O'Neal the person or even the basketball player. He is not that 27-year-old in a defensive stance as fans rushed the court in pandemonium. He is a seasoned vet of 17 years on the court and 34 years of life off the court. He knows that it is about more than basketball for him now.

"More than anything, it ain't about sports. I am a father, 13 and 6, that is what matters to me. So when my kids look at TV and tell me what their dad is doing I better be a great representative of my kids. The first thing on my list is that I do the things necessary so when tell my daughter you work hard and be the best person you can be, I can't come out and do anything differently, because I wouldn't be a good leader."

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One of the first things interim coach Lindsey Hunter did when he took over was to strip the playbook and schemes down to the bare bones.

"We're not going to practice till we get it," he said earlier this week. "We're going to practice till we can't forget it."

Tired of watching the Suns miss on defensive rotations time and again with no rhyme or rhythm - always a different rotation would falter, and always by different guys - new coach Lindsey Hunter cut out a whole lot of options and asked his players to get one thing right at a time.

"We really simplified it," Jared Dudley said last night. "Basically dummy down the defense, doing one thing every time so there's no confusion. We just said hey, we're going to one thing really, really well."

The plan last night was to deny the paint to the Clippers long, pretty-dunking bigs by staying behind them at all times.

"We want to be proactive, not reactive. You got to get there a step early, you want to get there before they get into the paint."

After giving up 57 first-half points in Sacramento ("I knew it would happen, someone would call 'blue' when there's no 'blue' anymore), the Suns have tightened their defense and surrendered just 39 second-half points to the Kings and 86 over four quarters to the Clippers.

The Suns held the Clippers to only 38 points in the paint and nearly broke even on the boards. A Western Conference scout was impressed enough with the Suns' defense that he credited their effort more than any shortcoming on the Clippers part.

For two games at least, notably missing from the Suns defensive efforts are the uncontested jump shots and the broken-down secondary rotations.

"That's been our focus, to create a defensive mentality. It's a difficult thing to change like that, and to see every last guy buying in to it and realizing that regardless of how you shoot the ball if you can defend you always have a chance to win the game. Our guys have been phenomenal in that area.

"The weak side is really starting to get better. It's been a total team effort defensively. Our guys are starting to understand and willing to do the little things it takes to be a good defensive team."

But Luis Scola and Lindsey Hunter are preaching patience.

"It's only two games," Hunter said. "You can't buy too much into that."

"Don't get too comfortable," Luis Scola said. "To say that we fixed the problem. It's only been one game. We played well, and it's encouraging. But we have played well in the past, we beat good teams (Memphis, Utah, Chicago). We proved that we can play good games."

"We did good today. I just don't feel we fixed anything yet. We got to go to San Antonio and do it again."

Hunter preaches that the best way to succeed is to play the defensive end of the court.

"I would always want to hang my hat on defense," he said. "No matter how you're shooting, you can always guard. You can always have second effort. That's a constant."

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The Suns training staff works wonders to keep players healthy and playing at peak condition, but no amount of therapy can prevent or fix a heart issue.

Channing Frye has an enlarged heart whose healing process includes a year without putting undue stress on the body and allowing the heart to heal itself.

By comparison, Jermaine O'Neal's irregular heartbeat may appear innocuous but its worst-case scenario is just as fatal.

"I didn't know what was really happening," O'Neal said. "I thought I was having a heart attack."

O'Neal said he felt fine through early Monday afternoon, after practice and the alleged confrontation with the Suns' front office. He went home to eat and rest. Hours later, he felt his heart skipping around. He's had a murmur for a long time, like many folks, so at first he felt it was just that and would pass.

But the skipping heartbeat did not subside and after a mostly sleepless night he came to see the trainers on Tuesday and was immediately whisked to the hospital for tests while the rest of the team flew to Sacramento for a game.

The team only reported that O'Neal missed the plane due to what they termed an "unidentifed medical issue".

"I didn't feel comfortable talking about it," he said of the report. "Because there wasn't anything to talk about it at the time till we figured out what was the problem. I didn't really know what was happening.

"I am 34 years old. Basketball isn't the #1 thing. I am the sole provider of my family. I'm a father, husband, son."

Per O'Neal, he was laying in the hospital bed after a battery of tests when he realized that fans and some media were accusing him of quitting on the team over the coaching change.

"I'm sitting at the hospital," he said. "And I'm like 'wait a minute, where'd they get that from?'"

He pled his case via twitter while on strong medication to calm his heart and has felt better each day since then as the meds do their work.

"They put me on some medication," O'Neal said. "It's a three-to-four day process to see if it helps. May need a lower dosage or a different type of medicine."

He said he felt better on Thursday than he had on any day since Monday night, though he was still dizzy if he jumped up too much during the game. Even Wednesday night was a tough one, he said, with breathing problems, after they had adjusted his medicine from Tuesday. But he trusts the process and was ready to take as long as he needed to recover.

"The main responsibility is to stay alive."

Sometimes, what you hear is all there is. There's no ulterior, clandestine motive of defiance. There's no tie-in to every other story in the news. It just what it is.

In this case, just hope (and pray, if that's what you do) that Jermaine O'Neal gets healthy again. And cheer him when he steps back out on that court.

PHOENIX – For the Los Angeles Clippers, it was a night those people who know the history of the Phoenix Suns can related to. Without their All-Star point guard, Chris Paul, there was something...

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PHOENIX — Jermaine O’Neal has missed the last two games with an irregular heartbeat, and the Phoenix Suns center said he’ll be able to return when he and his doctors figure out the...

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