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Just get it right, and he always did

Jim O’Connell passed away this week. And unless you were a dyed-in-the-wool college basketball fan, especially of the ACC, that name probably doesn’t mean much.

But if you were a young sports reporter, still trying to figure it out after you were certain you already knew it all, then Oc, as he liked to be known – he signed his name Oc, and pronounced it “Ock” – was your man.

O’Connell wrote basketball for the Associated Press for the better part of 30 years. He was a fixture in ACC country, whether at the big regular-season match-up (UNC-Duke), or the Tournament. In fact, as one of my colleagues wrote this week, ‘he’ll show up anywhere there was a gym and a game.’

The man had skills; skills good enough to land him in the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame.

He was respected by coaches, players, referees, clock operators, towel boys, you name it. And that respect was well received and very well-deserved.

“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.

I had the privilege of being one of the AP college basketball poll voters some years back. In an attempt to be as fair and unbiased as possible – and sometimes just due to plain ol’ procrastination – I would be late in turning in my results, which were mandatory by telephone before 8 a.m. Monday mornings from November to April (yes, this was before email!). Oc usually would tally the results, and even though I could sometimes sense the frustration in his voice as I dickered over ranking Marquette ahead of Stanford, he was always patient and never wavered with an always-courteous ‘Thank You’ when done before he hung up.

The people he worked with were held to a high standard, and we knew if he was ever on the other end of the telephone, we’d be expected to put forth our best effort.

“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.”

A former sports information director at Fordham University in New York, Oc ran into some health issues in 2014, but still managed to cover every Final Four from then on, until this year. He even kept his Final Four streak alive in 2015, just months after an operation that required partial amputation of his leg.

Sometimes he stepped into the pro arena. Oc covered Jordan, Barkley, Magic and Bird, and the rest of the Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics. 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 just as knowledgeable about mid-major teams as he was about powerhouse programs like Duke and Kentucky.

As my good friend and AP writer Tom ‘Skip’ Foreman said, “Work goes on. We’ll continue to cover college basketball, but we’ll do it without Oc. After three decades, we’ll need to rely on memories of him to provide our motivation. The voice is silenced, but the spirit will endure.”

 

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7207.