“We are delighted that John O’Donnell has received this high honour. He has meant so much to our basketball programme and he has contributed to campus life in so many ways. I congratulate him”. Dean Smith, Basketball Hall of Famer and University of North Carolina legend
Who was the first Irish born player ever to be drafted in the NBA?
John O’Donnell is without question the best Irish basketball export that Irish basketball has never heard of.
Born in Ballinlough (home of the 15th Taoiseach Michael Martin) on the southside of Cork in 1951, John O’Donnell grew up on Leeside until he was seven years old. The O’Donnells were a sporting family as his mother was a well-known diver and swimmer in the Cork area and his father was a GAA man from Gleann Na nGealt near Camp in County Kerry. John’s mother’s side of the family would be very well known nationally as her grandfather was James Barry the founder of Barry’s Tea. The Barry’s would be heavily involved in Irish politics and would have TDs within the family, including former Tanaiste Peter Barry. John’s father was raised on a farm in Kerry but would go on to become a member of An Garda Siochana (Irish police) for over twenty years. Like so many Kerry men, he was born and raised on Gaelic Football and it would be through football that the O’Donnell name would become best known. John’s uncle Tim would play for Camp but would also play county for Kerry between 1928 and 1937 winning three All Ireland titles during his career. It would be away from Ireland though that the O’Donnell’s greatest impact came on the GAA and it would also form part of the reason that John and his family would leave Ireland.
John’s uncle was John Kerry O’Donnell another proud GAA man, who had emigrated from Ireland multiple times and was making a living for himself in New York. Originally working on building sites, the Great Depression had a major impact on him, but he would make a huge stride in New York and managed to build up a small collection of properties in the city. While there, he would remain involved with the GAA with New York both as a player and later a coach. His biggest impact though would come in the 1940s in New York when he helped to save one of the biggest Irish cultural landmarks in the city. Gaelic Park is seen annually on television in Ireland as part of the Connacht Football Championship, as New York try to end their long losing streak in the All Ireland Football Championship. The ground (originally called Innisfail Park) was bought by the GAA in 1929 but after ten years it went bankrupt and the ground looked like it could be lost to other sports or developers. Two years later as the lease was about to be given up John Kerry O’Donnell would step up and sell some of his properties in order to take over the historic ground that was home to not only Gaelic Games but also dances and other Irish social gatherings. Initially renamed Croke Park, the ground would become Gaelic Park and the O’Donnell’s would be central to its existence. John’s father who had served in the Garda for so long would emigrate to the Bronx with his family in order to work at the park for his brother and with it started a new life for John in New York. It was at Gaelic Park itself that John would have his first jobs as his uncle paid him to sweep down the special box seats for spectators and later as a twelve-year-old he would use his entrepreneurial spirit to set up a dining room table at the turnstiles and sell the previous weeks regional Irish newspapers to the fans coming to watch games.
Growing in New York, John would attend Our Lady of Refuge Grammar School in the Bronx and this is where he would be first introduced to basketball, a game his family knew absolutely nothing about. He would continue to play and when he went to High School at Fordham Prep his career started to really take off. At the time in the late 1960s, New York Catholic Schools basketball was where the majority of the top players came from. NCAA coaches recruited there because the standard was so high and critically the students had sufficient grades to be able to attend college. John had grown to be 6’6 and was blossoming into a star by his junior year in school and in his senior year he would go on to become First Team All-Catholic High School Athletic Association as he broke the scoring record of Donnie Walsh (the future Indiana Pacers President). Walsh’s younger brother Jim was one year behind O’Donnell in school so let his older brother (who was then an assistant coach at South Carolina) know that they needed to recruit John. Despite then South Carolina coach Frank McGuire sending flowers to Mrs O’Donnell at Easter and lots more attention, John was enamoured with the possibility of going to play for Dean Smith in the University of North Carolina and he would accept a scholarship to become a Tar Heel.
At the time Freshman players weren’t allowed play Varsity so John’s first year was spent with the Freshman team. He would lead the team in scoring, despite playing alongside future NBA All-Star and Champion Bobby Jones. As a sophomore, he would graduate to the varsity squad where he would play sparingly for one of the top teams in the country. The story of the 1971-72 season was the potential showdown between North Carolina who were ranked second nationally all year and UCLA who were in the midst of what would become an 88-game winning streak between 1971 and 1974. The matchup was being built up all year as UCLA’s star Bill Walton vs North Carolina’s big man Bob McAdoo. McAdoo a future NBA and Euroleague Champion was the NBA MVP in 1975 and was set to provide a major matchup problem for Walton. North Carolina though got caught with one eye on the Championship game and would lose to Florida State in the semi-final robbing college basketball of the final it wanted as UCLA won its sixth straight title as part of a run that would see John Wooden coach them to ten titles in twelve years.
After the disappointment of the Final Four in 72, John would start to see much more playing opportunities in his junior year as he averaged 6.8 points as a junior. In his final year, he would start for the Tar Heels with future NBA Rookie of the Year and five-time all-star Walter Davis backing him up. Despite being ranked nationally in the Top 10 for both his Junior and Senior year, the NCAA had a one bid policy for each league at the time so North Carolina never made it back to the NCAA tournament as David Thompson and NC State won the ACC both years and the NCAA tournament in 1974. Looking back on his career there was always one matchup that stuck out for John “I had a lot of good games against Duke. They were between being great and I think I scored between 18 and 20 one night I just got really hot in Durham. It was always fun to play them because the students were so obnoxious, so we loved going over there and beating them, there was nothing better.”
As his college career ended John wanted to start his studies in medical school but the basketball itch hadn’t been satisfied. First came an honour that he wasn’t expecting, “I didn’t think I was good enough to play in the NBA but Dean Smith said you’re from New York do you want to get drafted by the New York Knicks? I said sure! So, I was drafted by the Knicks in the 10th round which was a courtesy round that they don’t have now”. Playing in the NBA wasn’t a reality for him, but Europe was. At the time not many European leagues had strong setups professionally, but France was one that could offer a living. “In the US we have the United Way which corporate people donate to provide food and charity to the homeless, in France the big corporations donated Americans! So, I was, in theory, an executive in Peugeot but myself and another guy played for the town team and Peugeot paid our salaries, but we never did anything for Peugeot”.
After a year of playing abroad though it was time to start his medical studies; “While I was in medical school I was a graduate assistant with the basketball programme, which was a thing Dean Smith did to help you pay for your postgraduate studies. I did that for a while but I had to stop doing it in my junior year of medical school because it was too time-consuming at that point…..My job as a graduate assistant was minimal, I had to run the study hall where the freshman scholarship players had to report to study every night from 7 to 9pm to study. I had to sit there and make sure they showed up. And then I’d have to clip the newspapers before the internet UNC would subscribe to every local newspaper of any kid they were recruiting and I would have to go to the sports section and clip out anything about that kid so dean Smith could send that kid a note four days later ‘hey Jimmy I saw you scored 22 points against Park High School keep it up. That was my job. When I was done with that and couldn’t do it anymore, Roy Williams took my job, that was his first job in the Carolina Office.” Roy Williams of course would go on to become the Kansas head coach and later would take over North Carolina and win three National titles.
With his direct involvement with basketball over, John would go on to become an orthopaedic surgeon in Baltimore before retiring in 2020. In a life that could have easily seen John become a towering footballer for Cork, his family situation instead took him to New York and on a journey to be a part of one of the most prestigious basketball programmes in the USA. Unfortunately for Ireland, Irish basketball was never on the radar for John, “I would have been interested in (playing for Ireland) if I knew about it. I didn’t know anything about people playing in Ireland at that time.” Instead, it would be years later that Ireland would start to benefit from the sons of John’s generation who would want to play for Ireland. “I identify myself as Irish. I would be an immigrant but my children would be first generation, but there’s a great deal of pride of first generation to say they are Irish and they would say they are Irish rather than Irish American…..I knew a ton of first-generation Irish Americans, they considered themselves as Irish as their parents and they took as much pride in Ireland as their parents and they followed all the things in Ireland.” Understanding John’s journey and what he went on to achieve, helps understand the generation that came after him. Guys that were part of Irish families but that got opportunities in basketball as they grew up in America and excelled both at the NCAA and professional levels. John in many ways was the precursor to Pat Burke, Dan Callaghan and so many more. Understanding John’s journey will hopefully help understand the journeys of so many more of the players in the book.