When a sports fan hears the name “Jim O’Brien, Boston basketball coach,” it conjures memories of the former Rick Pitino assistant who went on to coach a couple of low-ceiling Boston Celtics squads on surprising playoff runs in the early 2000s. But that Jim O’Brien tagged along with Pitino from the University of Kentucky in 1997 and, by all appearances, hasn’t shared a connection with Boston since leaving the Celtics in 2004.
Boston’s real Jim O’Brien is the one who sits in a subterranean office two floors below the Piano Row entrance, contemplating the rest of his third season as Emerson men’s basketball coach — a year in which the Lions have gone a respectable 10-9 overall and 3-5 in their first season in the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference.
Although Emerson’s Jim O’Brien may not be a household name to the average Boston sports fan, he shares a connection with the city that dates back to the ’60s. His accomplishments, first as a basketball player at Boston College and then as the Eagles’ head coach for 11 seasons, have cemented O’Brien’s legacy in Boston sports history.
On Jan. 22, O’Brien expanded on that legacy when he secured his 400th career win in a thrilling last-second victory over visiting Wheaton College.
A New York City legend at Brooklyn’s St. Francis Prep, the 64-year-old O’Brien was a good enough player back in his day to latch on with three different American Basketball Association teams — the Pittsburgh Condors, Kentucky Colonels, and San Diego Conquistadors — in the early ’70s. O’Brien was taken in the NBA draft as well, passing on an opportunity to play for the present-day Los Angeles Clippers. In San Diego, the coach had the interesting opportunity to play for a recently retired Wilt Chamberlain.
O’Brien came across a few other basketball legends during that same stretch, most notably at Boston College, where he played from 1968 to 1971. There, he was coached by NBA Hall of Famers Bob Cousy and Chuck Daly.
Cousy won six NBA titles from 1957 to 1963 as point guard for the Celtics.
Daly went on to coach the “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons to consecutive NBA titles and then the famous 1992 Olympic “Dream Team,” widely regarded as the best collection of basketball talent ever assembled on one team.
During his three varsity seasons at BC, O’Brien amassed a total of 1,273 points for an average of 16.5 points per game.
A 27-year veteran of Division 1 coaching, O’Brien snagged his first head coaching gig in 1982 at an Atlantic-10 school, St. Bonaventure, where he stayed for four seasons before returning to his alma mater to coach in 1986.
O’Brien’s most notable achievements while coaching at Boston College were when his teams went to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight in 1994, and when the Eagles won their first Big East Tournament championship in 1997. O’Brien-led BC teams made the NCAA Tournament in three of his last four seasons coaching at The Heights.
The coach then went on to a much larger school, taking over at Big Ten Conference school Ohio State, and eventually coaching his team to the NCAA Tournament Final Four in 1999. After leading the Buckeyes to an overall record of 133-88 across seven seasons, O’Brien was fired in 2004 after admitting that he loaned money to the mother of a potential recruit, Alexandar Radojevic, who later played in the NBA.
O’Brien’s career has revolved around coaching basketball for almost three decades, but he will be the first to say that winning isn’t the most important part of his job anymore.
“One of the reasons I wanted to get back into coaching,” O’Brien said, “was because there are a handful of professions that you could be involved with that you can have a direct impact on a young person’s life. I really want to win, but if you can have some small piece of influence over someone’s life — how special is that?”
O’Brien said he has remained in contact with some of his former players and colleagues over the years, but sometimes receives unexpected messages from players he hasn’t talked to in a long time.
“I’ve always thought that one of the most special things for me as a coach,” O’Brien said, “is years after you have contact with a kid you may have coached, and years later you get a phone call and they thank you for all the things that they say they learned. Half the time when you are talking to [players], you don’t know if they are hearing anything. When you get that call, it’s really special. [That] reinforces to any coach that maybe I have had some influence over these guys.”
O’Brien said he remembered some of these moments very clearly.
“A year ago, a kid I coached at UConn [three decades ago] that I was out of touch with for probably 20 years [calls me] and goes into the whole detail about ‘I heard everything you say’ and ‘I remember you used to say,’” O’Brien recounted. “[Then] I’m saying, ‘Oh my god, that was 100 years ago!’ I even had a couple kids at BC and OSU that get into coaching and they say they are telling their kids everything I told them. My god, it almost gets me a little emotional.”
Although O’Brien said he is a coach first, he reiterated that it’s part of his responsibility to be a mentor and teacher to his players, especially those who do not come from a typical household.
“Not every kid has a loving, well-to-do two-parent home,” O’Brien said. “It’s those scenarios that become very special that grew up in tough environments. When you get texts from them on Father’s Day and they are saying ‘Thinking about you. Happy Father’s Day,’ oh my goodness, that stuff is pretty deep.”
“Then you know that maybe something you did was pretty good for someone less fortunate,” O’Brien said. “I don’t want to get mushy, but that’s the reality of something like this.”
Jon Goldberg, senior co-captain and guard for Emerson’s men’s basketball team, said O’Brien is a man who embodies more than basketball.
“He is just like another father figure to us,” said Goldberg. “He’s always telling us right from wrong and how to be gentleman. We just don’t know how lucky we are to have a coach like [O’Brien] that has all the credentials of a [Division 1] coach.”
O’Brien said he has accomplished some of the goals that he set for himself when he was hired at Emerson, but doesn’t know how much longer he will be coaching for the Lions.
“It’s year-to-year, and at the end of this year I will evaluate it and see where I am,” O’Brien said. “It does take its toll on me, and I am getting a little older. There is no contract. If I want to do it, great, and if I don’t, then I’ll go. I don’t have any specific timeline for how long I am staying.”
This season, O’Brien’s squad has secured several important wins. Last December, the Lions claimed a 90-79 home victory over a then-No. 1-ranked Amherst College for one of the biggest upsets in the history of Emerson’s men’s basketball.
“I think about it a lot,” O’Brien said of his future at Emerson. “This school has been great to me.”
Assistant sports editor Mike Lucas, member of the men's basketball team, did not edit this story.