Jim "Oc" O'Connell
November 16, 1953 – July 2, 2018
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 (Diana) and Andrew (Laura); and sisters Winnie and Mary.
- Visitation Thursday, July 5, 2018
- Visitation Friday, July 6, 2018
- Funeral Mass Saturday, July 7, 2018
- Interment Saturday, July 7, 2018
Jim "Oc" O'Connell
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July 6, 2018
I want to pass on my deepest condolences to the O'Connell family and say how terribly sorry I am to hear of his passing. I became friends with Oc in high school and treasure the memory of those days and GT's. I am very proud to have been one of his best friends from 1971-3 and although we went our separate ways, anytime I would see him I would get that awesome smile and have a whole bunch of laughs. He was loved by anyone who ever knew him and every time I'd see him, he'd have another award/accolade added to his resume. His resume of friends and admirers far exceeds that of his business, and he will be forever loved and missed by ALL who knew him. Rest in paradise, Jim, and I hope to see you again in eternal life and peace. Godspeed.
July 5, 2018
To the O'Connell family: Our thoughts and prayers are with you, as are the fondest memories of Oc and the many, many good times. Such a good friend and aide and confidant and counselor. And so many great stories, and smiles, and laughs. With sincere love and regrets, from the METROPOLITAN BASKETBALL WRITERS ASSOCIATION.
July 4, 2018
Thinking of my friend and classmate, OC brings back a flood of warm memories from our Bishop Reilly and college years. We hung together with mutual friends many nights and OC first got the basketball bug - as manager of our HS team. We did not compete on the same level as Archbishop Molloy but OC immersed himself in all the details and knew everything about all our opponents ( I recall that 8 or 9 players in the tough NYCHSAA went on to careers in the NBA - Brian Winters, Mike Dunleavy, Armond Hill, Len Elmore, et al).
Our lives diverged after our mid-20s though we kept in touch from time to time.
I remember my calling OC on a cold winter day around 1980 as his career with AP was starting and he said "Richie, I am flying down to Tobacco Road to cover Duke-UNC tomorrow. I can't believe it! I would do this for nothing and they are PAYING ME!"
He always found a way to make you feel good. Years later, I took my then 8 or 9 year old son to MSG for a college double-header and saw OC working the table (around 96-97). We made our way down at the half and had an usher hook us up with OC. After various pleasantries, OC turned to my son (summoning both the OC-like biting wit and attention to detail for which he was well known), looked him in the eye and said - "Justin, your Dad (now 20 plus years removed from my limited Bucknell playing days) may not look like much now but he was quite a ball-player and one of the best ever in HS at blind passes out of the post position". What a nice thing to do! That was OC.
To his contemporaries from way back when and the long list of coaching luminaries, referees and colleagues he met and entertained throughout his illustrious career he was a pleasure to know. He followed his heart to do something he truly loved with both passion and panache.
OC is fondly remembered and will be sorely missed.
Condolences to Annie, Andrew and James.
Rich (and Rosie) Strassfield
Joe and Linda Alvear
July 3, 2018
Good memories are God's blessings in life. Some of the best are the amusing ones. Good/funny memory-sharing those days in the stands with the O'Connell and D'Arienzo families at our sons' Lacrosse games, then wondering where Oc suddenly wandered off. "Oh, there he is," we usually voiced in group-corroboration, catching a glimpse of him at another part of the field, on the phone talking sports. In his kindness, he'd say that he didn't want to seem impolite to us while on the phone, so he went for a walk. Why funny? He needed to be at least a few hundred feet away from us to show courtesy? Did we take offense? No way. It was just part of the humor- laughed every time.
We are deeply saddened by the loss of Jim. May the love of friends and family bring comfort to all of you during this difficult time.
With our love, friendship and most heartfelt condolences,
Joe and Linda Alvear