Originally created 07/11/97

O'Neal makes court date, gets suspended sentence



COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A week later than first scheduled, NBA teen-ager Jermaine O'Neal showed up in court Thursday and received a 15-day suspended sentence for disorderly conduct.

"To anybody who has ever talked to me or been around me, I'm the nicest guy you could ever meet," said O'Neal, who skipped college and was drafted 17th by Portland in the 1996 NBA draft. "This incident does not say anything about Jermaine O'Neal. I just hope to use this incident to better myself."

Richland County Magistrate William Smith also ordered the 18-year-old Trail Blazers center to work 100 hours of community service in Columbia.

O'Neal and a friend, Thomas Simmons Jr., were arrested June 14 outside Columbia Mall for cursing officers. Both spent the night in jail.

O'Neal helped authorities set his July 3 court date, but he failed to show, thinking all he had to do was pay a $300 court fine before the end of that day. He realized his error when a reporter told him of a bench warrant for his arrest.

"It was simply a mistake," said O'Neal's attorney, I.S. Leevy Johnson.

Johnson said the sentence was appropriate for a crime that generally carries a fine of between $200 to $300. Johnson argued that more was made of this case because of O'Neal's celebrity.

"He's 18 years of age and people expect him to conduct himself like he's 50 years old and I think that's unfair," he said.

O'Neal's image has taken some hits. He's listened to local talk shows telling him to grow up. He also says a million-dollar endorsement deal to pitch a national soft drink has been placed on hold.

O'Neal, who averaged 4.1 points and 2.8 rebounds in his rookie season, planned to leave for Portland on Thursday to begin summer workouts. He will return to Columbia to begin community service Aug. 8.

"Will that give you enough time?" Smith asked.

"Yes, sir," said the contrite O'Neal.

O'Neal said he tried to make amends immediately, calling Johnson to set a second hearing before the magistrate. That evening, O'Neal spoke to children at his alma mater, Eau Claire High School, and encouraged them to handle things better than he did.

This time, O'Neal was in court well before his 10 a.m. hearing. When Smith unsealed the 15-day sentence, Johnson said O'Neal apologized and wanted to be held accountable.

"It's been kind of a hard time," O'Neal said. "I think now since everything's over, I think it's going to get back to normal."