By Jessica Camerato
After 14 seasons in the NBA, Jermaine O'Neal was met with familiar faces when signed with the Boston Celtics this summer. There were guys he had known since high school, like Kevin Garnett. There were players he had shared All-Star teams with, like Paul Pierce and Shaquille O'Neal.
Then there was Kendrick Perkins.
O'Neal and Perkins have had their share of battles over the years. It was only two seasons ago that they exchanged words and were separated by teammates and coaches. Of all the members of the Celtics, O'Neal was the most skeptical of how he would gel with his once-heated opponent.
"Me and him have had so many altercations when we played against each other," O'Neal told CSNNE.com. "You always wonder when you go to a team where you've had some run-ins with some guys, how will guys take to you?"
But his biggest concern would turn out to be his biggest surprise.
O'Neal had already been with the team for two weeks when Perkins, who had recently undergone knee surgery, entered the locker room.
O'Neal didn't anticipate what happened next.
"We clicked from Day One, really," he said. "He came in right away, shook my hand, welcomed me there."
In that moment, any differences the two had in the past were gone. They were on the same team sharing the same goal.
"I just wanted to let him know it's on the court, it's not outside of that," explained Perkins. "I'm a great teammate, but when you're on the other team, I'm really going at your head. But I wanted to show him there isn't any tension outside of basketball, no beef or nothing, and just kind of welcome him with open arms."
O'Neal and Perkins bonded over the course of training camp. They got to know each other during team-building activities, including group dinners and movie viewings. O'Neal came to realize that he and Perkins were never really that different in the first place.
"He believes in his team, whatever's best for the team," said O'Neal. "I think he understands my thought process and my approach to the game about winning. And that's what it's about."
The pair had faced off numerous times since Perkins entered the NBA in 2003. Even though O'Neal had been in the league for seven seasons by that time, Perkins never backed down to the veteran. If anything, he stepped up his intensity.
"We've just had some conflicts and we'd get tangled up," said O'Neal. "It's one of those things where I'm very aggressive, he's very aggressive. If you've got two very aggressive people, then something has to fold. And it's just one of those things where nobody wanted to back down.
He continued, "I think the last time I really remember getting into it with him was when I was in Toronto (as a member of the Raptors). It was kind of a stand off where we both came face-to-face, literally nose touching and everything. But that's what warriors do. If that's your position with the team, to be that enforcer and set the tone defensively, then that's who you are. That's who I've always been with my teams."
Perkins now looks back at the incident and shrugs it off.
"Yeah, I do remember that," he said. "I don't even know what happened. We were just caught up in the moment. A couple times we got tangled up, all of a sudden, you never know. But at the end of the day, we both respected each other. It was just the heat of the battle."
Doc Rivers wasn't surprised by O'Neal and Perkins' hostile past. He knows Perkins' competitive nature and dedication to the Celtics. At the same time, he wasn't surprised by how quickly they put their history behind them.
"We don't like anybody on the other team," Rivers said. "The outside guy is always a little iffy when he comes to our team, especially if we've had it in with him. But then they find out, wow this is the greatest group. They get along great. So that's what's happened already . . . Once you're on our team, you're part of our group."
This isn't the first time O'Neal and Perkins have bonded with former foes. Last season, Perkins clicked with Rasheed Wallace when he joined the Celtics. O'Neal did the same with Udonis Haslem when he was traded to the Miami Heat in 2009. In both cases, the rivals became close friends.
"Hes great," Haslem said of ONeal. "With me and JO, it was hard for us to get along because we were just alike. When you have two guys who aren't going to back down and they come chest to chest, nobody's going anywhere. When a guy's not on your team, those are the things you go through. Then you love to be in the battle and have a guy like that on your side. You respect him a lot more because they're just like you."
The similarities between O'Neal and Perkins made O'Neal a good fit for the Celtics as they looked to fill the void left by Perkins' injury. Like Perkins, O'Neal is dedicated to defense. And like Perkins, O'Neal has accepted his role on the team.
But this lent itself to the question, how would this affect Perkins' role when he returns to the court? O'Neal has been asked about this before. Prior to being struck by the injury bug himself (knee), he was a candidate for earning the starting center role while Perkins rehabbed.
Some wondered, how would Perkins take to his new teammate who could potentially snag his minutes? Perkins' answer is clear.
"The only thing is when you feel threatened, then you have a problem with not helping somebody," said Perkins. "I don't feel threatened by any means, so I don't have a problem with helping him. It's all about the team. At the end of the day, I know where I belong so I just leave it at that."
Rather than view O'Neal as competition, Perkins helped him get acclimated to the Celtics. He filled him in on how the team works, Rivers' expectations of the players, and the subtleties of the system.
"I was pleasantly surprised that he has been the guy that he has," said O'Neal. "Because you don't get very much out of him. He doesn't say very much during the games unless you get into it with him. But when he's in the locker room, he's always talking, always joking. So he's definitely the guy that I've been surprised I've gotten along the best with so far."
For seven years, O'Neal and Perkins barely spoke to one another. Now that they are both wearing green, they hear each other loud and clear.
"Here there's just one language - win, win, win, championship, championship, championship," said O'Neal. "And that's all that we talk about."
Jessica Camerato is on Twitter at http:twitter.comjcameratonba