Position: Small Forward
College: St. Anselm (D2)
Irish points average: 10.4
Irish Career High: 22 (twice)
John was a part of the illustrious Class of ’93 that featured Alan Tomidy, Pat Burke and Dan Callaghan. By his admission, he was the least talented of the four yet he went on to have a distinguished career professionally and was one of the key building blocks for Ireland in the nineties.
In New York, the NYPD is often referred to as Irish Welfare due to the amount of Irish-Americans in the police force. John O’Connell comes from possibly the most decorated (and Irish) family ever to represent the force. John’s grandparents were both from Ireland and met in New York where his grandfather settled into the NYPD and became the 4 Star Chief of the NYPD which is the highest rank possible to achieve in the force. Both of John’s parents continued that legacy and did so with distinction too. John’s father was one of the lead detective’s in the infamous ‘Son of Sam’ case that saw serial killer David Berkowitz kill eight people in New York in the summer of 1976 in one of the highest-profile cases in NYPD history. John’s mum also owns a piece of history, as she was the first-ever female NYPD officer in 1972. (Before that point women could only be members of the Police Women’s Bureau in New York.) John’s three uncles and his brother also became NYPD officers!
John took up a scholarship at D2 St Anselm College in New Hampshire where he would go on to have a Hall of Fame career. He was the team captain in his junior and senior years and had 1,329 career points and 783 rebounds in 117 games. He was an athletic wing who could defend and was the NE10 Defensive Player of the Year in his senior year.
Away from the Irish team, John’s career had moments of opportunity but also some what-ifs associated with it. At the top level of his career, he signed in the ACB in Spain, playing for Seville in the second-best league in the world. John admits that he probably enjoyed life in Seville a little too much and he developed a reputation that he wasn’t an ACB calibre player. Instead, he had stints in the French 2nd Division, Germany 2nd Division and Belgium. He ended his career with multiple seasons in the BBL in the UK. His issue with settling in any one league was that his hard-nosed style didn’t sit well with everyone “The kind of ball I played, you’ll love me if I’m on your team and you’ll hate me if you play against me because I’m a bit of dickhead on the court. So if the team who had me didn’t resign me no one else will because every other team would hate me!”. This exact situation played out with NBA Champion coach Nick Nurse while he coached in the BBL. After coaching the Brighton Bears against their rival London Towers, Nurse would call out his team in the media for playing “like a bunch of cry babies”. Aside from a 22 point loss, what had gotten Nurse so mad? John O’Connell! One of Brighton’s stars Rico Anderson had gotten tangled up with John and was ejected mid-game. John had a way of getting under his opponents’ skin and would do anything he could to help his team. A year later and Nick Nurse took over the Towers. O’Connell had been the team MVP the previous year so was expecting to come back but Nurse quickly let him know that he wasn’t in his plans. Instead, he had a brief stop in Milton Keynes before heading home.
Playing for Ireland
John was a critical part of the World University Games team in 1993 and became a gold medal winner the following summer when he was part of the 1994 Promotions Cup team. Throughout his career, he played for Ireland at every opportunity and was someone who fully grasped how important it was to play for the country.
“Nobody had more pride than their kid putting an Irish uniform on than a third-generation kid like me, whose parents grew up here in America but their family is in Ireland. For my mum and dad to see me put on an Irish uniform that was the most amazing thing, when I first jogged out in Buffalo in that Irish kit my dad cried he couldn’t believe I was representing Ireland. I’m not saying it means more to an American kids parents, but it was one of the most remarkable things in our family’s history that I jogged out in an Irish uniform. And I know that was the same for guys like Dan Callahan, Ken Lacey, Frank Powell we grew up in an Irish American home and you idolise everything Irish. It was the most important thing in the world to us". The uniform was so important it rarely made it home with him: “Any bit of gear I got that said Ireland on it, my family took it before I even got to put it on. It was the most valuable thing to it. I showed it to my dad and he nicked it right away. Anything that said Irish basketball my family couldn’t believe that we had it.”
What his teammates thought of him:
“John O’Connell there’s another fella who’s as Irish as you can get. You can’t get more Irish than john. Anyone who questions his legitimacy around playing for Ireland is a joke themselves. He’s more Irish than the majority of people.” Gareth Maguire
Post Playing Career
John tried his hardest to go against the family tradition and even looked at coaching basketball at one point. But the lure of the NYPD was eventually too much for him. Not only has he joined the force but in recent years he has risen to be the Captain of the 9th Precinct in New York, a major honour, yet one that almost escaped him because of a love for basketball and for Ireland.
When looking back on his career though it won’t be for his club play or even his college work. O’Connell was one of the foundation pieces for a new era of Irish basketball. Not only that but he was as patriotic as any player born on the island and was very protective of that right. Without John O’Connell, there is never a Jay Larranaga or Marty Conlon playing for Ireland and yet for the O’Connell’s it was more than just basketball: “My dad driving me to the airport couldn’t believe he was dropping his kid off to go play for Ireland. We had that conversation on the way to Kennedy Airport every single time. It always meant the world to him. I remember having cousins coming on to the court and taking pictures with them, I’m standing there with an Irish jersey and my dad took so much pride in that that we came back home and were wearing that uniform. It meant a lot. He never forgot we’re Irish.”