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Kerry Eggers on Sports: Drafted at 17, big man had long NBA career and says Portland remains a 'forever' attachment

PMG FILE PHOTO: KYLE GREEN - As a member of the Indiana Pacers, Jermaine O'Neal (left) goes up to block a shot by Zach Randolph of the Trail Blazers.It was supposed to be a night to remember the 1990s as part of the the Trail Blazers' 50th-year celebration.

And it was. Players Terry Porter, Brian Grant, Chris Dudley, Jermaine O'Neal and Rod Strickland, along with executive Bucky Buckwalter and broadcaster Bill Schonely, were introduced and received warm ovations at timeouts during Portland's 139-129 victory over Indiana on Sunday at Moda Center.

But it was also a time of reflection on the life of former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, whose path crossed many before his death Sunday at age 41.

Bryant died, along with daughter Gianni, 13, and seven others in a helicopter accident. They were bound for Thousand Oaks, California, where Bryant's Mamba Cup youth tournament was being staged.

O'Neal, who lives in Dallas, was a friend with Bryant for more than 20 years. Through his foundation, O'Neal sponsors youth teams in the Dallas area.

"I talked to Kobe two days ago," said O'Neal, who played the first four years of an 18-year NBA career with the Blazers from 1996-2000. "I was supposed to be (at the Mamba Cup) — I have teams out of my organization there — but I had (ex-NBA guard) Jason Terry go with the girls, and I came (to Portland)."

O'Neal learned of Bryant's death early Sunday at Moda Center.

"Hearing that, my body just went numb," said O'Neal, 41, a six-time All-Star who played on 14 playoff teams. "You can never emotionally prepare for a death like this. As a parent, I can't fathom the thought of losing a kid that way. Just incredibly sad. It's personal for me; very personal. You pinch yourself, and it doesn't feel real."

Though Strickland's career intersected with Bryant's for nearly a decade, they didn't become acquainted until last summer, when both were in Portland on a business trip to the Nike campus.

"I had the opportunity to be with him," said Strickland, 53, who had two stints with the Blazers, for four seasons (1992-96) and a half-season (2001). "We sat in the back of a restaurant and just talked, told stories. I went back home and told my friends, 'I'm a Kobe fan.' Kobe has his swag. He's one of the greatest ever, but it really wasn't about him that day. He spoke to the young guys (at Nike). He made everyone in that room feel good.

"I'm older than Kobe, but talking to him, I almost felt he was older than me. His poise, his maturity, the way he articulates things. .... so sorry for the family, his wife and kids. It's mind-blowing. We lost a great one."

O'Neal and Strickland spoke glowingly of their time with the Blazers.

"I'd just like to thank the people of Portland, who made me feel right at home during my time here," said O'Neal, who came to the Blazers as a 17-year-old high schooler from Columbia, South Carolina. "You helped develop the foundation of who I am, as a dad, as a businessman, as a brother, as a friend. It originated in Portland."

O'Neal played sparingly during his four seasons with the Blazers, then was traded to Indiana for veteran center Dale Davis in 2000. He became one of the premier big men in the game with the Pacers and finished his career with 13,309 points and 7,261 rebounds.

While O'Neal was impatient to get on the court, he was playing behind the likes of Grant, Dudley, Arvydas Sabonis, Cliff Robinson and Rasheed Wallace during his formative NBA years.

"They had some of the best talent here," he said. "I understood that. That's the culture you want to be raised in. You don't want to be raised in a losing environment, because you grow losing qualities.

"It was a first-class environment that helped me understand what pro basketball is about. Here, they were fully prepared and equipped that, as I had my ups and downs, there was somebody there for me to talk to. My teammates made sure I was never by myself. I had veteran leadership."

The Blazers brought in O'Neal's high school coach, George Glymph, to serve as the team's director of player development and help ease O'Neal's transition during his rookie year.

"They were the first organization to have a player development position," O'Neal said. "They created that position for him, and he was fantastic at it.

"I remember going to his house many nights and talking about my purpose in life. I tell this to the kids in my youth organization: Mission, purpose, process. That was installed by George. Make sure what your mission is, and the purpose behind it, and the process you get to."

O'Neal's wife, Mesha, is a Portland native. His oldest daughter, Asjia, is now playing volleyball at the University of Texas. She just had her second open-heart surgery, "but she's doing great," he said. "She inspires me so much."

His youngest child, Jermaine Jr., is 13. He traveled with his father for the weekend's festivities in Portland. It was the first time the senior O'Neal had been to a game in Portland since his playing days ended in 2014.

"It's so much fun for my son to come and be a part of this," O'Neal said. "We'll have to come back here more.

"I'm grateful to the people of Portland. They made me feel almost like I was a star player when I was here. The love was incredible that I received in this community. The attachment for this city is going to be forever. The relationship is going to be timeless."

Strickland said he enjoyed the fans in Portland, too.

"Some of the best in the NBA," he said.

A heady, offensive-minded point guard, Strickland came to the Blazers for the 1992-93 season, just after they had reached the NBA Finals for the second time in three years. The starters were Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey, Buck Williams and Kevin Duckworth.

"They brought in myself and Mario Elie," Strickland said. "We had Mario, Cliff Robinson, Mark Bryant and myself coming off the bench. I was so excited. I was anticipating we were going to make another run at the title."

Portland started 8-0, but shortly thereafter Drexler suffered a knee injury. He later injured a hamstring and played only 46 regular-season games. The Blazers won 51 games but lost to San Antonio in the first round of the playoffs.

"Clyde's injuries changed the whole dynamic of everything," Strickland said. "We were still competitive, and I had a great time during those four years. I had a chance to play with the great Clyde Drexler and with Terry Porter — that's my guy. Jerome Kersey was one of my favorites — one of the toughest dudes on the block, but one of the nicest teddy bears."

Strickland connected well with coach Rick Adelman.

"Rick was the best," said Strickland, who scored 14,463 points and dished 7,987 assists during his career. "He was so influential in my progress as a player. When I came here, I was a creator with the ball in my hands. He had me coming off screens, posting up ... he opened up my game.

"One game in Houston, I was struggling with my shot. Rick pulled me aside and said, 'I don't care how many shots you miss, you better shoot that ball.' To have someone have that kind of confidence in me was important. When Rick got fired, I cried. As I look back at my career, Rick was big for me. If I put my history down, I'm stamping him in there somewhere."

Strickland is beginning his second year working with the G-League. He is involved with coach/player relations and serves as a liaison between the league office and the teams, players and coaches.

"I'm enjoying it big-time," said Strickland, who moved to New York for the job but has his family in Tampa, Florida. One of his four children, Tai, is a sophomore guard at Temple.

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