Jim O’Connell, who died Monday at age 64, should have been a weekly comic strip wrapped around your Sunday newspaper.
“The Adventures of Oc” would have rivaled “Andy Capp” or “Garfield,” or “Dilbert.”
The bubble captions over his character’s head would have busted guts, separated spleens, skewered politicians and parried frauds and fools all over the world.
He was the unique amalgam of funny and forlorn, whimsy and wit. He was part man, part clown, part hamburger, part 12-year old kid trapped in a grown man’s body.
Another facet of him, though, was a mystery silhouetted in shadow, a man standing alone in the corner of the press room at Anywhere Arena.
There was always a suggestion of foreboding hovering above his head, something he knew but wasn’t telling you, but nothing he couldn’t deflect with some outrageous observation or aside.
Such as: “I’ve never knowingly eaten an egg.”
In all the years I broke bread with Oc (pronounced “ock”), I never saw him use a fork or a knife.
He mostly ate press box hot dogs, or at his favorite diner, Steak ‘n Shake.
And yes, I was on the famous ride at the Final Four in Detroit where Oc stuffed himself into the back hatch of mini-SUV to make the 20-mile trip for his favorite hamburger.
The weird thing was, while he swore by Steak ‘n Shake, he always ordered his hamburgers plain. I called him on this and he just looked at me like I was nuts.
Based out of the AP’s main office in New York, Jim O’Connell established himself as one of the nation’s foremost college basketball experts.
He was as much a front-and-center figure at the Final Four as James Naismith.
But Oc was so much more than that.
He was one of the last guard of “old school” sports writers who will simply cease to exist after his generation passes. Guys who took “re-write” over the phone and appreciated a few facts sprinkled into a filed story.
Oc was the first, or second, funniest writer I ever knew who didn’t write funny.
It’s a close call between Oc and Mal Florence, my former colleague at the Los Angeles Times.
Both were constrained by the narrow confines of their job descriptions.
Oc worked for the Associated Press, which is about as funny as paint. Unless you’re a columnist, the AP really doesn’t let you dabble in poetry.
Mal drew the same assignment papers at the L.A. Times where, in person, he was as funny as Jim Murray was in print.
But Mal, as a beat writer, always played it straight.
So, the public never got to hear Mal tell the story of him bravely serving his country in the “Pacific Theater” during WW2.
“I was stationed on Catalina,” was Mal’s punch line.
Oc was the same way:
The first thing I always had to tell my three boys upon return from a Final Four was “an Oc story.”
They thought, for a while, that I was just making him up.
My boys just about fell on the floor when I told them Oc claimed he had never used the restroom on an airplane, or eaten a vegetable, or put his foot into the ocean (even though he lived on Long Island).
The best story, though, the one that had to be told over, was “White Castle.”
Oc ran with a pretty rowdy crowd when he was a youngster. One early Saturday morning, around 2 a.m., after a Friday night of drunken debauchery, Oc and his friends stumbled into White Castle looking for grease and buns to absorb some of the alcohol leaking from their pores.
Oc, it should be noted, was sober and the designated driver. A group of thugs stormed the joint, toting guns, with the intention of cleaning out the cash registers.
There was a long line of customers waiting to be served and one of the robbers went straight to the front of it.
“Excuse me,” one of Oc’s inebriated friends told one of the robbers. “I was ahead of you in line!”
The robber looked at the guy, incredulous, “What the F@$$*%?”
One of Oc’s other drunk friends, without hesitation, did the only thing he could think of to get them out of this mess.
He cold-cocked his buddy, knocked him unconscious.
“Good job,” the robber said. “You just saved his life.”
Nobody told that story like Oc. He told it a thousand times. I wish he was here today to tell again.
Thank you, Oc, for being a pro’s pro behind journalism’s wheel. I’d love the “Fake News” crowd to have met you. And thank you (again) for taking care of my middle-son Drew when, a few years ago, he had this crazy idea he was going to attend Fordham and try out for the golf team. (FYI: He attended, made the team, graduated).
You knew Fordham like the inside of Madison Square Garden. Your wife, Anne Gregory, remains the school’s all-time leader in scoring, rebounding and blocks. Your son, Andrew, worked in the sports information office, just like you did in the late 1970s. When I first met Andrew in the Fordham SID office I busted out laughing. It must have been like looking at you 40 years ago.
Thank you for picking my son up, at the airport, and showing him the ropes in the Bronx. I can tell you his parents slept better knowing you had his back.
My son’s getting to know you was not only one of the thrills of his life: it confirmed, in the very least, that I had not made you up.
The only way I could think of repaying you was to send you a gift certificate for Steak ‘n Shake.
Next time we met you told me it was the single greatest trip you’ve ever made from the mailbox. You said it was like winning Publisher’s Clearinghouse. You said you skipped all the way back inside the house.
That’s the image I’m keeping of you today as we mourn your death.
I’m also reminded of the line Jim Murray wrote upon the passing of Casey Stengel.
“Well, God’s getting an earful today.”