From 2002: Jim O'Connell at National Basketball Hall of Fame, where he was honored with Curt Gowdy Award for his exemplary college basketball coverage. (Photo by Andrew O'Connell)
Every so often in life, there are times where circumstance renders one speechless, powerless, incapable of communicating the proper stream of thoughts for a subject that touched the heart more than even he or she could ever realize.
Personally, that happened to me for the first time in 2001, when Dale Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500. Almost 15 years old at the time, it was the first instance in which I had experienced a close -- yet all too distant -- loss, as someone I idolized was gone. The same feeling returned in 2013 when Pat Summerall passed away, and again -- perhaps hardest of all -- last December when Dick Enberg, my greatest influence and THE reason why I became a broadcaster, left us just four nights before Christmas.
The same twinge of unspeakable grief reared its ugly head Monday afternoon when a tweet from my colleague, Jon Rothstein, yielded an ominous announcement that I -- and probably everyone else I have shared press row with over eleven years in the business -- was totally unprepared for.
The college basketball world mourns the loss of the irreplaceable Jim O'Connell. Tremendous father, husband, writer, and person. RIP my friend.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) July 2, 2018
Jim O'Connell, national college basketball writer for the Associated Press, and along with Dick Weiss, the largest of all luminaries to ever sit courtside, was gone, taken from us far too soon at the way-too-young age of 64.
My initial reaction was one where I intimated that no amount of words could completely and accurately encapsulate just how much OC (pronounced "OCK") -- as he was affectionately known to everyone around the college basketball world, even though I always called him Jim -- meant to our industry, or how he gave endlessly with his bottomless pit of compassion, an experienced and grizzled veteran who simply made everyone better at their craft just by inhaling the same air. Admittedly, when I met him for the first time -- sometime in the 2007-08 season -- I had no concept of just how illustrious his career was, nor of the reputation he had earned and cultivated as one of the reliable and underrated titans of our profession. It was not until I had gotten to know him and work alongside him more often over the next few years that I discovered just how much OC embodied the quintessential sportswriter, an overflowing reservoir of encyclopedic knowledge complemented by the Irish gift of gab, a spinner of yarns that would leave all who listened in awe, and sometimes in stitches when grasping the sheer belief of what he had lived.
Almost every night, without fail, OC would be the first person I would see in a media room, usually at Madison Square Garden in his customary perch, at the first workstation in the back row, facing the door. Looking back, that location was actually symbolic in more ways than one, as if you looked straight ahead, OC's weathered visage -- usually accompanied by a wide smile -- was the perfect personification of a press room gatekeeper. And it did not matter what lights he sat under, or what records the two teams taking the floor before him possessed, either. Whether it was Connecticut and Syracuse, St. John's and Seton Hall, or even Fordham and Manhattan, St. Francis Brooklyn and Wagner, OC treated every game equally. Each game was a marquee matchup before the opening tip, during the 40 minutes of action, and even after the final buzzer.
Jim O'Connell (center), flanked by his son, Andrew (left), and Associated Press colleague Larry Fleisher (right) during Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden. (Photo by Andrew O'Connell)
There were nights at Fordham in this site's infancy where myself, OC, and Anthony Sulla-Heffinger -- then working with the New York Post, where his copy was mostly available on the web -- were the only occupants of press row inside Rose Hill Gymnasium. Those nights are forever ingrained into my memory, where I received as an added bonus with my press credential OC's escapades, both directly and overheard during his numerous interviews on the WFUV halftime show. Fordham was a special place for OC -- he met his wife, Anne Gregory, also the school's all-time leading rebounder, there -- and his younger son, Andrew, became an alumnus much like his mother, and eventually the women's basketball media contact who was gracious enough to always make sure I had a final stat book handy so that I could add some numbers to my recaps and Tom Pecora transcripts. He always took care of everyone else first, and still does in his current line of work at St. John's, just like his dad.
The stories were legend, with the man telling them an even greater one. On the rare nights when OC ventured into Brooklyn or Staten Island to cover the Northeast Conference, they doubled in number and hilarity when Cormac Gordon, the longtime scribe at the Staten Island Advance, served as his wing man. When I got to cover the CBS Sports Classic in Brooklyn two years ago, which carried with it my first opportunity to cover -- in person -- the North Carolina program I had grown up rooting for, my affinity for the Tar Heels got out in the Barclays Center press room. Seconds later, my eyes widened as OC -- unprompted and with great fervor when you consider that he had been doing this since before I, someone who had not even accomplished one percent of his life's work, was born -- shared personal accounts of his chronicles of UNC's national championship runs. Jordan, Worthy, Daugherty, Montross, Stackhouse, Wallace, Jamison, Carter, Lawson, May, Felton, Hansbrough -- even sports information director Steve Kirschner -- all were recounted, in detail, as if he had stumbled upon each of them just yesterday. THAT was my true baptism to James Aloysius O'Connell, as former St. John's athletic communications director Mark Fratto always referred to him when OC would come to St. John's pregame media availability sessions.
It is still surreal -- and painful -- to think that come November, when I will return to the Garden, the familiar face of the gatekeeper will not be around to return my "Jim, how are you?" with an equally jovial "Hey Jaden, I'm doing good." I think that goes for anyone who had the pleasure of knowing OC over his four-decade career. But the memories remain, and that fact will keep all our hearts full, even if the man who afforded us such a legacy will not.
Jim, may the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, the rains fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.
And when the time comes for me to walk into the great press room up above, I will not have to worry about getting in.
I know you'll be holding the door for me.
Rest in peace.