Originally created 07/04/97

Tardy O'Neal fined $300



COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Jermaine O'Neal, who went right from high school to the Portland Trail Blazers last year, says he was fined $300 today for a disorderly conduct charge after missing his court hearing by more than two hours.

A bench warrant was issued for O'Neal's arrest when the 18-year-old center didn't appear for a 10 a.m. hearing before Magistrate William T. Smith, who issued a sealed ruling in O'Neal's absence.

O'Neal said he was given until 5 p.m. to pay the fine. However, Smith would not comment on the case or even answer if O'Neal ever came to see him.

O'Neal's attorney, Xavier Starkes, did not return several messages left at his office.

O'Neal said that he didn't think he had to be in court. "My attorney just told me I needed to pay the fine," he said.

O'Neal and a friend, Thomas Simmons Jr., spent a night in jail June 14 for cursing at officers after they were asked to leave a mall. Prosecutors granted O'Neal's requests for a hearing near his apartment and a date that fit into his bi-coastal lifestyle.

"New York one day, Los Angeles the next," Richland County Capt. Richard McGee said. "He told us when he could do it."

Trail Blazers spokesman John Christensen said the team has confidence in O'Neal doing the right thing. He said O'Neal called Blazers executives Bob Whitsett and Jim Paxson, and new coach Mike Dunleavy after the incident. "The intiative he took shows the the kind of person he is," Christensen said.

Disorderly conduct is a fairly common charge in South Carolina, McGee said. O'Neal and Simmons were facing fines of $200 to $300.

Prosecutor Leah Moody said the magistrate simply could write a fine on the complaint and deputies would collect it when they found O'Neal. The magistrate also could impose a 30-day jail sentence, she said.

"It's hard to believe that someone with his lifestyle wouldn't arrange for an attorney to handle this," Moody said.

A message left for O'Neal at his apartment was not immediately returned.

O'Neal and Simmons allegedly cursed at officers after being asked to leave Columbia Mall for handing out flyers in violation of mall policy. Richland County Sheriff's Investigator William Mann said he warned them several times if they did not stop, they would be arrested.

"Man, I can say anything I want to say, this is America," Mann said O'Neal responded. "I have freedom of speech and you don't tell me what to say."

O'Neal starred at Eau Claire High School in Columbia before skipping college to go directly into the NBA draft. He was Portland's first-round pick last year, averaging 4.1 points and 2.8 rebounds in 45 games as a rookie.