BOSTON – The most influential man in collegiate and Olympic basketball over the past quarter century or more passed away today and, sadly, there were not many sports fans who even realized it. There were heavy hearts within the industry, however, an emptiness felt by all the basketball insiders who knew the great Jim “Oc” O’Connell well and loved him, oh, so much.
O’Connell died today after a lengthy battle against illness. He was 64. His funeral will be held Saturday in Franklin Square, Long Island.
St. John’s Hall of Fame Coach Lou Carnesseca with AP’s Jim O’Connell
O’Connell was the Associated Press sports writer for college basketball. He hailed from St. John’s University in Jamaica Estates, Queens, NY and he loved his school, its patriarch and coach in Lou Carnesecca, and the game that bonded the University with so many New York basketball fans. As the AP’s lead college basketball writer, O’Connell was assigned to cover the men’s and women’s games at the Olympics, as well as the annual Big East Tournament, dozens upon dozens of NCAA Regionals and Final Fours and it was “Oc’s” tremendous work that took that love affair with the game he covered to its fandom as he become a keen observer, reporter and walking historical archive for the largest news gathering service in the world. O’Connell’s work served readers of pretty much every English-language newspaper and media outlet in the world as he corresponded from every corner of the earth to reach damn near every sports fan on the earth. He had that kind of impact.
His obituary on AP reads:
<<<Jim O’Connell, the longtime college basketball writer for The Associated Press and a member of the Hall of Fame, has died. He was 64. He died Monday after a series of ailments, his son Andrew said.
Known to nearly everyone as “Oc,” O’Connell was a former president of the United States Basketball Writers Association. He entered that organization’s Hall of Fame in 2002, the same year he earned the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame’s Curt Gowdy Award for his coverage of the sport.
O’Connell served as the AP’s national college basketball writer since 1987 and was a fixture at all the sport’s major events, from the Final Four to the Big East Tournament to the Maui Invitational. He covered eight Olympics and worked as a desk supervisor, overseeing the entire sports operation for the world’s largest news-gathering organization.
The press table at a college basketball game was Oc’s stage. Thanks to his Irish wit, long memory, easygoing personality and perfect timing, he always had an eager audience of TV analysts, other writers, fans and coaches.
“He was the source on college basketball,” said Terry Taylor, the AP’s sports editor from 1992-2013. “He knew coaches, players, games, dates of games and final scores — all manner of factoids — off the top of his head. And when you looked it up, he was always right.”
He was a mentor to journalists in the AP and elsewhere. For decades, he coached young reporters in bureaus around the AP on how to cover a game, making sure the play-by-play, the NCAA Tournament implications and the star performances were all put into context.
O’Connell built deep relationships with colleagues, players, executives, referees and coaches, particularly the ones who most respected him, such as fellow Hall of Famers Lou Carnesecca, Jim Calhoun, Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski.
“He was a great man, he really was,” Boeheim said. “He was a guy you looked forward to seeing. Always had a good word and a smile. He wrote sports, but he did it in a positive way, always. He was always good to players, coaches, fans — everybody. He was a unique individual, always had a good word for everybody. Always.”
A stick boy for the New York Islanders as a teen, O’Connell went to St. John’s and joined the AP’s first class of baseball dictationists in the mid-70s, a part-time job he soon converted into a career covering hoops. After leaving to become sports information director at Fordham — where he met his wife, Anne Gregory, the best female basketball player in school history — Oc returned to the AP in 1978.
By 1979, he was aiding the AP’s coverage of the Final Four. He had a long chat about basketball with Indiana State star Larry Bird, who was famously reticent about speaking with the media. It was only when O’Connell pulled out a notepad that Bird clammed up.
He covered every Final Four from 1979 through 2017, including 2015, just months after an operation that required partial amputation of his leg. The NCAA made sure O’Connell had a seat at the end of the media table, so he could stretch out his prosthetic.
O’Connell was just as knowledgeable about teams like Rider and Wagner as he was about powerhouse programs like Duke and Kentucky. If a fan asked him about any team, he could tell them what he thought of their chances. For decades, if there was a college basketball game in the New York area, Oc would probably be courtside — whether he was working or not.
“Oc and his wife, Annie, were great friends to my wife, Patty, and me when we moved to Long Island to take the job at Hofstra,” said Jay Wright, coach of current NCAA champion Villanova. “Oc is the most knowledgeable, ethical, humble college basketball expert ever. He is dependable as a friend and as writer.”
For those in the AP, especially working a long night shift in New York editing game stories, or those on the phone asking for his help covering a game thousands of miles away, a conversation with Oc would be the highlight of the week.
“Perhaps most importantly, he was beloved by his AP Sports colleagues,” Taylor said. “He told funny stories like no one else, and he always had one. He lit up the room when he walked in for his night shift.
“It was always a treat to work with Oc,” she said. “He was smart. He was calm. And he was excellent at cracking me up at just the right moment to relieve tension.”>>>
When we write, we do so with a goal to inform.
As I write this, I do so with a goal to stop crying … but then to properly mourn, to remember and to pay tribute to a friend and colleague. I do so while passing along a barely glimmering flicker of light from a “Torch” lit by an ever-dwindling community of basketball lifers who hope to instill some humility to those who cover the sport. Sadly, these days of sportswriting and broadcasting come, all too often, with a self-promoting, ‘me first’ edge that has absorbed the media landscape so prominently over the past 20 years. They just don’t get it or do it the way “Oc” did anymore. It is our collective loss.
When “Oc” informed, he might’ve been the very best at keeping it all above the fray while still managing the proper amount of crust from a knowledgable, respected New York-bred, cynic. Please keep in mind, O’Connell informed more people around the world about the results of USA-based collegiate and globally-played Olympic basketball than anyone who has ever walked the earth. From my observation deck, sometimes right alongside him, O’Connell covered the sport of basketball with simple goals:
- Get it right, and do right by the GAME, the score, the two teams, the players and their coaches.
- Keep it concise, whether it be the results of the ’92 Barcelona Games and the Dream Team, the NCAA championship or the consolation game between France and Egypt to determine 11th/12th place at the 1984 Olympics. O’Connell wrote stories that would always stand-up to time and sports researcher’s microscope a world over.
O’Connell accomplished his goals and was very well deserving when the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame honored him with the annual Curt Gowdy media award in 2002, recognizing him for his work and his contributions to the sport he loved. At the ceremony, he opened his perfect acceptance speech, simply stating, “This is easily the coolest thing that has ever happened to me.”
O’Connell worked with an air of appreciation for the sport of basketball. He appreciated the fact, as AP writer, he was often provided with the very best seat in the arena, whether it be a small gym for an Ivy League game, the finals of the BIG EAST tournament at Madison Square Garden or courtside at the Olympic Games when he covered every single game between 1988 and 2004, at least. Not every USA Basketball game, mind you. Every single game, both men’s and women’s brackets.
As the coaches noted in the AP obit above, O’Connell did so with humility, but with deeply concerned passion for people and the games they played. He covered with professionalism but with a fun-loving, “gleam in the corner of his eyes” enthusiasm that often included a well-timed joke or observation delivered to brighten his colleagues’ day. O’Connell made his colleagues feel better and enjoy the moment a little bit more than usual. Sometimes, it was simply a realization of the matter of fact, or the very place we found ourselves working, as Oc would remind us all, “We’re getting paid to be here today!”
Possibly the single most important attribute connected to O’Connell was the fact he eagerly passed along his knowledge, to fellow writers, to SIDs, to book authors, to public relations workers to anyone he felt he could help. As a very poignant example, I give you Caroline Williams, the senior director of USA Basketball’s incredibly capable, well traveled and efficient communications department, with a sidenote that Williams has worked every USA Olympic basketball game since ’96, right alongside reporters from all over the world, reporters just like Oc.
“Admittedly, I did not know Jim O’Connell as well as others and haven’t seen him in person since the 2004 Olympics,” she explained today. “However, I had engaged in email exchanges through the years and remember him fondly.
“My favorite Oc story was in 2004 (Athens Olympic Games), when I arrived at the arena mid-way through the women’s bronze medal game, well ahead of our gold medal game, and of course he was there. We chatted a bit and he told me about the 11th/12th place game that day (Side note from Caroline: Oc holds the unofficial record for covering the most Olympic hoops games in history). (Editor’s note: Nigeria 68-64 over South Korea).
“I laughed and said something sarcastic about ‘how fun’ that must have been,” Williams added. “He paused and said something that has stuck with me through the years. He told me that those ‘second-to-last’ place games were often the best ones to watch. The talent level might not be where it is in the gold medal game, but the passion with which the athletes play that game rises far and above most games, which is why he really enjoyed watching them.
“That always stuck with me,” wrote Williams.
“Fast forward to 2013, and I found myself watching the ‘second-to-last’ placed game in a men’s U16 Americas Championship in Uruguay. I thought of him and it made me smile.
“Even better? When I sent Oc an email letting him know, he responded almost immediately with a kind note in return.”
Jim O’Connell loved basketball and basketball loved Jim O’Connell. It’s very evident by the outpouring of love we’re seeing today, via Twitter, via AP/The New York Times or by tributes from a legion of his colleagues at the AP or USBWA, the trade organization of basketball writers by which he will always be considered royalty.
“A Hall of Fame human being,” said the NBA’s Brian McIntyre, a man respected in the basketball community just as much as Oc. “We’re all poorer from his passing but much richer for having known and worked with him.”
“Oc was a friend to many and a special writer who elevated college basketball coverage with his insightful storytelling & reporting,” said a statement from the College Sports Information Directors (CoSIDA). “Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Anne and his sons, Andrew and Jim.”
To my guy, my fellow Johnnie, Oc, I’ll always have your wonderful work of art, the great “100 Years of Basketball” coffee table book that you authored along with the exemplary work by fellow SJU cohort Paul Montella (who wrote this NCAA obit via AP), designer Mekale Jackson with able assistance from Rino Grzinic, Chris Monasch and Mark Fratto of the university athletic office. In that book’s introduction, you wrote: “Any list relating to St. John’s basketball is almost impossible to compile. Try to pick the best of anything and there’s a good chance an argument will follow.
“From a time when there was a jump ball after every basket to the days when players seemed to fly above the rim. From the days when a bounce-pass was innovation to a time when a nod leads to an alley-top pass. From a time when the only people who saw a game where those in the building to the days when every game is broadcast and available to millions.
“St. John’s has spent 100 seasons among the top programs in college basketball and every player and coach has shared in its success, while every student, alum and fan has enjoyed the ride.”
Oc, it was one hell of a ride and you made it much, much better, much smoother, and you made it a lot more fun.
To that, we Irishmen must toast — “Good job lad!”
-Staff Reporting by Terry Lyons, with Wire Service obit from the Associated Press.