AP college basketball writer Jim O’Connell dead at age 64
NEW YORK (AP) — Few held court like Jim O’Connell.
Whether you were Coach K, a TV analyst, a fellow sports writer or a fan, he had the same effect on everyone: In just a few minutes, he had you hooked, drawn into his colorful basketball world.
And you were calling him Oc, too.
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.
“He was a great man,” Syracuse coach Jim 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 said. “He was a unique individual, always had a good word for everybody. Always.”
And always told a tremendous story, often entertaining and educating AP co-workers in between bites of his nightly, well-done hamburgers and chocolate egg creams.
He also was a fixture at college basketball games. TV analysts, other writers, fans, coaches and referees would gravitate toward a man with a long memory, Irish wit and perfect timing.
“You gotta hear the one about ...” he would start, and then everyone would stop and listen.
O’Connell — he signed his name Oc, pronounced it “Ock” — was a former president of the United States Basketball Writers Association and entered that organization’s Hall of Fame in 2002. The same year, he accepted 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 major events from the Final Four to the Big East Tournament to the Maui Invitational.
“For more than 30 years at The Associated Press, Jim O’Connell represented the very best in sports journalism. His tireless and unparalleled coverage of college basketball elevated our entire sport,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
“We all owe Oc an incredible amount of gratitude for the way he handled himself, the way he covered our game and for the positive impact he had on so many,” he said.
Oc covered the Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics and worked as a desk supervisor, overseeing the entire sports operation for the world’s largest news-gathering organization. In 1982, Oc was the one who pushed the button that told the sports world that tiny Chaminade had beaten No. 1 Virginia and Ralph Sampson in Hawaii, still considered the greatest upset in college basketball history.
“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, including fellow Hall of Famers Jim Calhoun, John Thompson and Lou Carnesecca.
“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.”
A stick boy for the New York Islanders as a teen, O’Connell went to St. John’s and joined the AP’s sports department in the mid-’70s, soon turning a part-time job into a career covering a sport he loved. 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 boosting the AP’s coverage of the Final Four as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird went head-to-head in Salt Lake City. O’Connell had a long chat about basketball with Bird, who was famously reticent about speaking with the media. It was only when O’Connell pulled out a notepad that the Indiana State star clammed up.
O’Connell covered every Final Four from then on, until this year. He kept his Final Four streak alive in 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’s creativity wasn’t solely applied to his writing — he did delight, though, in a preseason preview he once began with: “It will be a declaration of independents. ...”
So much a jokester that he once convinced a colleague in the office that World War III had broken out, Oc could make an entire staff of writers and editors crack up even while on deadline.
“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.”
AP Executive Editor Sally Buzbee said: “Oc was a true gentleman: Funny — sometimes bitingly so, but gentle, calm, and totally dedicated to his craft. He was loved by his colleagues and by people far, far beyond the AP.”
Oc was especially popular around March Madness time, when his pals — even other college basketball experts — would check in to see if he had a sleeper pick for their pools. For three decades, through Magic-Bird, the birth of the Big East, Coach K’s entire Duke career, to the one-and-done era, whomever made it to the Final Four, Oc was there to see how it ended and to add more stories to his bottomless supply.
O’Connell is survived by his wife, Anne; sons James and Andrew; and sisters Winnie and Mary.