Officially he was Jim O’Connell, the long time national college basketball writer for the Associated Press. To his friends, family and co-workers he was simply Oc (although OCK is the audible version of his nickname).
Unofficially, he wass much more than that. You could call him the Susan Boyle of sportswriters when his true talent is being discussed–making people laugh. It’s a surprise package coming from a guy who has dealt with deadlines and numbers most of his career.
I know better. He was my friend and there are stories to tell about this character that fiction could not make up.
Where to begin?
Let’s start with some basics. Oc has traveled the world for the AP, covering basketball, which means lots of long plane trips. But in a travel conversation one night, Ock revealed that he had never been in an airplane rest room–although that streak finally ended on a trip from New York to Korea.
More travel. As part of his job, Oc went to some nice places, such as Maui more than a dozen times. Most sportswriters would froth at the mouth for the venue. Oc proudly stated that he had NEVER stepped on a beach in his life, didn’t own a pair of shorts and had no intention of breaking the streak.
Then there was the egg thing. Oc hated them. He never knowingly ate an egg. He never met a vegetable he liked or tasted.
What Oc did love was Steak ‘n Shake. I’m not sure what the advertising budget over the past 20 years for Steak ‘n Shake’s 544 locations throughout the world is, but it could have saved millions by simply hiring Oc as its PR guy.
If there was a Steak ‘n Shake near a basketball venue, Oc would find it. I remember covering an NCAA East Regional basketball game with Oc in Washington D.C. When dinner plans were being discussed, Oc, who had driven to DC from New York, said meet me in the lobby at 6.
I arrived and off we went for a Steak ‘n Shake dinner, which Oc said would be provided just across the river in Virginia.
Sixty five miles south on I-95, we found the exit and the Steak ‘n Shake.
Then there was the Final Four in Detroit. Six of us were headed for dinner in a car which sat five comfortably. Oc was part of the party, so Steak ‘n Shake was the destination. No problem said Ock, who climbed into the trunk and carried on a conversation through the back seat. When we arrived, four doors and the trunk popped open .
Ock received a $50 dollar gift certificate from TMG co-founder Chris Dufresne for all the nice things Oc had done when Dufresne’s son Drew who was attending Fordham in New York, which was Oc’s home base (more about that later).
So there we were one spring in Atlanta for an NCAA Final Four and Oc said he would treat everyone to lunch–at Steak ‘n Shake. There were 4 of us, who splurged. We spent 19 dollars. Oc took out the certificate and gave it to the waitress and said, “”Keep the change.”
Then there was the Christmas Tree story. The Associated Press used to have its offices in midtown Manhattan at 50 Rockefeller Plaza, which was also where the world famous Christmas tree was brought in every holiday season.
People from all over the world and the country would make seeing the Christmas tree part of their holiday plans in NYC.
Oc? Well you knew the holiday season had started, when you would see Oc at an event or talk to him on the phone and he would say, “”That bleeping tree”, because it meant more people, more congestion for Oc who had to come to work each day.
Did you know that Oc was following Sirius Radio before it was invented? How else to explain this. After covering a game at UConn, Oc was driving to his home in Queens, listening to a game being played in the midwest on a radio station he had picked up. Remember this was well before satellite radio.
As the game neared its conclusion, Oc, driving South on I-95, lost the signal. His solution? Get off at the next exit and head north until the conclusion of the game.
Or the time he sat in his car in the parking lot of a hotel in North Carolina, listening to a college basketball game on the car radio, which kept fading in and out so much, he had to move the car to another level of the lot to listen to the game.
Make no mistake, Oc is a college basketball Wikipedia savant. But there is so much more to the package.
Outside of college basketball, golf was one of Oc’s passions.. Once we had a foursome which consisted of Oc, myself, Hall of Fame UConn coach Jim Calhoun and his long time assistant George Blaney.
The teams that day were Oc and Blaney and myself and Calhoun. My golf game is sporadic at best, with breaking 100 always a major milestone. One of the etiquette rules of golf is that bad shots are greeted with silence or simply a shake of the head.
For whatever reason, my golf game elevated itself for about three holes, which pleased Calhoun to no end, and irritated Ock, who is a decent golfer. But then the demons of my game reappeared and I duck hooked a drive into the bushes about 20 yards off the tee. I hit the ball again and pulled the ball the opposite direction into the woods.
“Welcome back, Blau,” said Oc, which prompted looks of amusement from Blaney and Calhoun. A few holes later, I took out a driving iron. Calhoun watched me hit the ball decently and asked to examine the club. “You know Blau’s other nickname don’t you,”’ asked Oc. “Three easy payments.” That was a prime selling point on golf equipment sold in commercials on the Golf Channel. Calhoun was laughing so hard, he could barely hit his shot.
And then there was the time four of us were playing a round of golf in Connecticut. Oc, myself, Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated and Ivan Maisel of ESPN. We have known each other for years and it was an afternoon of golf and stories, some of which were heard by the group ahead us who were at a Par 3 which was temporarily backed up.
As the group ahead of us teed off and left, one of them asked, “”What do you guys do?”, Oc looked around and said with a straight face, “We’re female impersonators.”
Oc was a Queens guy. Born, raised. Although he traveled the world for the AP, his roots are deeper than a Redwood in Yosemite.
Once I was doing a story for the Boston Globe on then Boston University men’s basketball Dennis Wolff and was getting some background before talking to Wolff for the first time, I called Oc and asked about Wolff, who was a Queens’s guy as well.
Ask him about this place, said Oc, referring to a high school hangout for Wolff and his friends.
So I went over to BU, introduced myself to Wolff and asked a few questions. We started to talk and then I asked him about the place in Queens.
Wolff looked at me for a second, “”WHO have you been talking to?” he asked. I confessed and Wolff merely laughed and began to tell more Queens’ tales.
He had countless stories of his childhood with a Catholic school education (which went from pre-school through St. John’s). He tells the story of a recital he did in grammar school in which he said he would play the piano by “ear”’ and promptly put his ear down on the keyboard.
And then there was the first day of school, with a new set of nuns in charge of the classroom. Oc, the class clown, was doing his thing, which prompted a visit from the nun, who asked for his name.
Oc promptly came up with an NBA-ABA professional basketball player named Zelmo Beaty. So the nun marched Oc down the main office to see the principal.
She told Oc to sit in the outer office and went in to talk the principal, who also happened to be a sports savvy priest.
The nun walked out and told Oc to wait. A few minutes later, Oc heard a voice, “”Oh, ZELMO.”
Oc had stories about growing up with his buddies, but none was better than the White Castle story. No one can tell it better than Oc, so I will not do it here, but it had a punch line that prompted laughter 100 percent of the time.
Over the years, Oc performed the story on request. I must have heard it 50 times, but each time there was one new wrinkle, which amazed me.
This time a group of us were having lunch and Oc was asked about the story. Before he began, I told the group that no eating should be done while the story was told. “”Why”” was the response. “”Dangerous for your health” was my only response.
Most people heeded the advice as Oc began, but one rebel quietly munched on his burger, smiling and nodding as Oc added different details. Finally, came the punch line, which prompted a gagged response of choking from the listener with the burger in his mouth. I watched impassively, his friends pounded his back, thankful that the Heimlich maneuver was not necessary.
Oc had been having serious health issues and on Monday my friend passed away.