Celtics forward Antoine Walker clasped his arm tightly around his mother's waist, guiding her through another spasm of grief. As he sat in the front pew of the Beautiful Zion Church, choking back his own sobs, mourners came forward and paid their respects to his grandmother, Dorothy Walker, who had helped to raise him and his five siblings, who had cajoled and cursed and coaxed him into becoming a man.
Funerals are no time to keep score, but as he tugged at his collared shirt last February, Walker wondered who would make the trip to this church in his native Chicago. For a fleeting moment, he searched for his ex-coach, Rick Pitino, who had fled the Boston Celtics three and a half weeks earlier, leaving behind a trail of fractured relationships and broken promises. Before coaching him in Boston, Pitino had recruited Walker to play at the University of Kentucky. He had sat in Walker's grandmother's living room, clutching her hand and vowing to take care of Antoine. Pitino knew how precious his grandmother was, Walker reflected. Surely he'd come. . . .
But Pitino wasn't there.
“He always told me how much he cared about me personally,” Walker says. “He said I was like a son to him. But he never called. He never even sent a card.”
Guess what? This doesn't matter anymore. Rick Pitino is gone and nearly forgotten in Boston because his successor, Jim O'Brien, has so quietly and expertly picked up the pieces. He shifted from the assistant's chair to the head coaching seat with so little fanfare last January that he wasn't even taken seriously as a permanent replacement until his team, invigorated by his pointed directives, started piling up late-season wins.
O'Brien slipped into his players' psyches as unobtrusively as he slipped into the Beautiful Zion Church last February 3. When Walker's eyes locked on O'Brien praying at Dorothy's coffin, he felt a surge of hope.
“It put me in his back pocket,” Walker said. “Coach O'Brien's got me now. I'm going to do whatever it takes to return the favor.”
Want to make Jim O'Brien happy? Join him in focusing on three pressing matters: basketball, family, and taking the Boston Celtics to the playoffs. An increasingly frustrated and fickle fan base has anointed O'Brien its new favorite son because of his humility, his discipline, and his ability to communicate with the players. (Those Irish-Catholic roots don't hurt either.) Boston is pulling for Jim O'Brien because he appears to be everything Pitino was not: genuine, understated, forthright.
Do not bother his supporters about the traits he shares with his glittery predecessor. Surely O'Brien's single-mindedness will not sour into stubbornness the way Pitino's did. Clearly his emphasis on conditioning won't beat the players into submission like you-know-whose did. No one seems concerned about O'Brien's almost maniacal attention to detail, which keeps him locked in the film room for hours, rewinding and fast-forwarding pick-and-rolls. “He loves it,” reports Leo Papile, the Celtics director of player personnel. “To him it's like watching the Academy Awards.”
O'Brien's laser intensity in practice is also being tallied as a positive, as startling as it sometimes can be. “OB's voice really jumps out at you,” says forward Paul Pierce. “It's not that he's screaming. But when he talks, you listen.”
They listen because they believe in the man as well as the coach. When he tells them family is important, it rings true because he will fly to Chicago to say good-bye to your grandmother. Because he will go on road trips with his wife, Sharon, and his daughter Caitlyn alongside him, checking the scouting reports while Caitlyn takes in the movie on the team charter. They listen because they like Jim O'Brien. Always have. When Walker decided to turn pro, the first person he told was OB, his assistant at Kentucky Â— not his head coach, Rick Pitino.
O'Brien protests that these things are irrelevant. “Players don't win games based solely on emotions,” he insists. Yet his athletes appear determined to convince him otherwise. The Celtics have not been to the post-season since 1995. It's imperative, say team captains Walker and Pierce, that it happens now, under O'Brien's watch, so that the residual good feelings OB created when he led Boston to a .500 record over the final 48 games last season will not be wasted.
“It's almost like a now-or-never situation,” Walker says. “No more excuses.''
O'Brien has been patiently waiting for a break like this since he began his nomadic basketball journey in 1974, which led him to five different jobs in five different cities in his first five years on the job. For a family man, it was a challenge. His son, Jack, was born in Oregon, his daughter Shannon in Pennsylvania, and his youngest, Caitlyn, in West Virginia in 1982, shortly after he accepted his first head coaching job at tiny Wheeling Jesuit College.
He was 30 years old, and inherited a team that had gone 3-25 the year before. Wheeling Jesuit basketball was so woeful that the school briefly considered dropping the program. During O'Brien's interview, the team's academic advisor, who remembered O'Brien as an assistant at the college eight years earlier, wagged a finger at him and said: “Jimmy, if you take this job, you're a fool.”
O'Brien took it anyway and recruited heavily out of his native Philadelphia. Among the players he signed was 17-year-old Tom “Doc” Conroy, a point guard with solid skills and a big heart. Conroy worried about being away from his family; O'Brien, with two small children at home and one on the way, promised to look out for him.
The new coach's workouts were so punishing seven kids quit the first week of training camp. He made his players run a set of stadium steps sideways, up and down, on one foot. He hired an aerobics instructor, suited up, and performed the routines alongside his team.
“His conditioning program was brutal,” Conroy said. “He later admitted to me, 'I should have been arrested for what I put you guys through.'”
Shortly before Christmas break, Jim and Sharon O'Brien welcomed the birth of their third child. They were so thrilled when Caitlyn arrived that they didn't really notice how quickly the doctor and the nurses whisked her away. The man who normally prided himself on details hadn't picked up on the slightly slanted eyes, the hernia around the baby's navel, the unusually low muscle tone Â— all signs of Down syndrome.
The doctors called O'Brien into the hallway to tell him the news. They left it up to him to go back into the hospital room to tell his wife.
“It was devastating,” O'Brien admits. “But only at that moment. After the initial shock, you just go.”
Within hours, the O'Briens were arranging physical therapy to strengthen Caitlyn's muscles. As the young couple discussed the challenges ahead of them, O'Brien received an urgent phone call from campus: Doc Conroy's 44-year-old father had collapsed and died from a heart attack. For the next several hours, O'Brien hustled back and forth between the hospital and campus, caring for his wife and new baby, and his young, grieving freshman.
Jim O'Brien assumed the role of Conroy's surrogate father in the ensuing months, while his own daughter's health deteriorated. At first Caitlyn couldn't keep down her formula, then her lungs filled with fluid. She was airlifted to Pittsburgh, where she underwent heart surgery at two months old. Fifteen months later, she underwent heart surgery again. Conroy, who saw his coach every day, didn't even know she was sick.
“I spent hours in his office saying nothing, just crying,” said Conroy. “Jim got me through it, without ever saying a single word about his own troubles.''
Wheeling Jesuit finished 17-14 in 1983, and lost to eventual national runner-up West Virginia Wesleyan in the league championship. The man who hosted the coach's show on cable TV for West Virginia Wesleyan was a guy by the name of Chris Wallace, who later became the Celtics' general manager.
“Jim's team had no business being out there with us,” Wallace says. “He had a bunch of Catholic altar boys, and we had a bunch of street guys from Nashville. But there we were, down to the wire, sweating out a missed basket at the buzzer. I remember walking away thinking, 'That guy is a helluva coach.'”
University of Dayton officials were similarly optimistic when they hired O'Brien as head coach in 1989. OB led the team to a 22-10 record and an MCC tournament championship in his first season, to the delight of the rabid Dayton fans. But the euphoria was short-lived. It was the only winning season O'Brien enjoyed at Dayton, and in his final two seasons, his teams stumbled badly, posting abysmal marks of 4-26 and 6-21.
O'Brien, who worked so hard to keep his family separate from his work, found himself consoling his two oldest children after they were taunted by their classmates. Hate mail arrived with the morning paper. In the middle of the night, someone stuck “For Sale” signs on his lawn. No wonder Sharon O'Brien says her family is prepared if the Boston fans change their mind about her husband.
Dayton athletic director Ted Kissell, who fired Jim O'Brien, says: “While I have no doubt some terrible things occurred for the O'Briens, and I'm sure they were very harmful, it would be making a huge leap to say that was the tenor of the whole community. At the end of the day, in spite of his poor record, most people in Dayton felt Jim O'Brien the man was to be admired.”
But Jim O'Brien the coach had been dealt a near-fatal blow. Pitino quickly hired him as an assistant coach at Kentucky, but OB didn't land another head coaching job until seven years later, when the Celtics officially removed his interim tag last April. So what went wrong at Dayton? “It's the eternal mystery,” Kissell says. “I haven't found anyone who can pinpoint why the bottom totally fell out like that.”
The whispers that dogged O'Brien as he left town were he wasn't an effective recruiter, and he closed his inner circle tighter and tighter as the losses mounted.
O'Brien's explanation is more concise: He and former Athletic Director Tom Frericks made the joint decision to upgrade Dayton from a regional team to a national power. They loaded up with nationally ranked non-conference opponents, with an eye on eventually joining the Conference USA, which included such powerhouses as Cincinnati and Memphis.
But the plan quickly went awry. Frericks fell ill with cancer, and died midway through O'Brien's tenure. A number of key injuries in O'Brien's fourth year, in which he went 4-26, sent the program on a further downward spiral. The non-conference schedule proved to be too ambitious, and the defeats far too demoralizing.
“In retrospect, we made this enormous decision to be very aggressive in upgrading the program, and we had so many things going against us,” O'Brien says. “And when Tom passed away, I lost my power base. But I hate to make excuses. There are no excuses.”
O'Brien may have closed ranks when things went sour in Dayton, but that's how you survived growing up on the hardscrabble streets of North Philadelphia, when you were one of eight kids being raised on a cop's salary, which usually meant living paycheck to paycheck. O'Brien's family never owned a car Â— if you needed to get someplace important, you hopped a train or stuck out your thumb.
Most of O'Brien's early years were spent trying to beat his brother Barry, two years older, at anything. “I was 0 for 2,800,” O'Brien says. He played basketball all day with Barry at Hunting Park, and when the sun went down, the boys hustled inside and tried to shoot coins into a cup, or rolled-up socks into the sink. O'Brien grew up worshiping the Sixers and hating the Celtics.
O'Brien's daily battles with his older brother paid dividends: By the time he finished Roman Catholic High School, he had skills far superior to those of most of his peers. He signed on with St. Joseph's, a hallowed Philly basketball school, and established himself as a gritty, cerebral point guard whose unwavering focus was his signature trait. He was a three-year starter during what turned out to be a Big Five Hall of Fame career. Along the way, he snagged the girl who worked at the hoagie shop on campus. Sharon Ramsay was the daughter of another Philly basketball great, Jack Ramsay, so she knew the intensity coaching entails. But O'Brien assured her he'd keep family and basketball in perspective.
The O'Briens' family life has been tested every time a better job uprooted his children. When, in 1988, after just 18 months as an assistant with the New York Knicks, O'Brien announced to his family that they were moving to Dayton, Ohio, Shannon burst into tears. She remained inconsolable until her father promised she could have her own room in the new house.
Not all matters were so easy to fix. How do you spend 12 hours a day trying to figure out what's wrong with your basketball team, then walk into your home and peel off that burden like a layer of clothing? O'Brien confesses he hasn't always succeeded in leaving his work at the office.
One afternoon, as he was tying her shoe, Caitlyn began relaying an elaborate story about something that had happened to her earlier that afternoon. When she realized her father was only half listening, she sighed knowingly, then tapped him on the head and said, “You know what your problem is, Dad? You don't have any personality.”
Caitlyn, it seems, has enough for both of them. Although her birth originally threatened to be one of the most catastrophic days of her parents' lives, it has, instead, yielded their most treasured gift. A fixture at most Celtics home games, Caitlyn is the one hopping out of her seat, her arms outstretched, her voice in full throttle, cheering for the Celtics, often outfitted in a green-and-white-striped sweater. Her enthusiasm for her team, her family, and her life is infectious. She serves as all the perspective her father could ever need.
“Even now people say to us, 'Oh, it must be so hard,'” says Sharon O'Brien. “But we say, 'Why?' She is such a great blessing to us.”
There were many good reasons why the O'Brien family hoped owner Paul Gaston would give Jim the title of permanent head coach. One of the most important was that Caitlyn, 18, is enrolled in a renowned special needs program in Bedford, and is eligible to remain until she is 22. If O'Brien had not been retained, the family would have moved on. Instead, when her dad signed a three-year deal in April, Caitlyn was assured of completing her schooling with her classmates.
O'Brien, meanwhile, has bought himself time to prove his interim success was no fluke.
The first thing he did when he took over the Celtics was to shorten the rotation, and explain to the team why. The second thing he did was to embrace Walker publicly and privately. When Walker was left off the NBA All-Star team in February, O'Brien's anger and indignation was not only sincere, it was passionate, and Walker wasn't the only player who noticed.
Last spring, when some Los Angeles agents invited teams to attend private workouts with their clients, most coaches showed up with their clipboards and made notes, while former Lakers General Manager Jerry West ran the potential draft picks through a workout. Not O'Brien: He showed up in his workout clothes and put the players through drills.
“He has this great ability to work these kids to death and have them walk away liking him,” says Celtics assistant Dick Harter. “I bet if you called the 20 or so draft prospects we had in here and asked them who gave them the best workout, and who they liked the best, the answer to both questions would be Jim O'Brien.”
Perhaps the most significant move O'Brien has made is to show his players respect. On draft night Walker and Pierce were invited into the team's war room to watch the proceedings and make suggestions. On the court, O'Brien limited his sideline play-calling to allow his players to make their own decisions in critical situations.
“The most important thing Jim did was to get away from the need to control the entire game,” says Celtics broadcaster and Hall of Fame point guard Bob Cousy. “If you ask me what's wrong with the NBA today, it's the hotshot John Caliparis and Rick Pitinos who come in and insist on controlling every movement of their players. Pitino had three and a half years to get these players motivated. Jim O'Brien accomplished it in three minutes by giving them the opportunity to succeed on their own.”
Praise that comes at the expense of his mentor is hard for O'Brien to digest. He remains fiercely loyal to Pitino, so much so that when he took over as head coach, the first thing he asked his players was to refrain from criticizing Pitino.
“Rick does everything with intense passion and emotion,” says O'Brien. “He shouldn't have to apologize for that. My relationship with Rick has been one of the most important ones in my life. Under no circumstances will I ever let anyone drive a wedge between us.”
But, then, Pitino is a moot point in this town. Or is he? It's worth speculating on what motivates Celtics players more: proving Pitino's tactics wrong or proving O'Brien's right.
“Let's just say there's a whole new attitude,” Pierce says. “Look at Antoine. So many times Coach [Pitino] pitted himself against Antoine to the media, never to 'Toine's face. That would get to anyone.
“We know that won't happen this year. If Coach O'Brien has a problem with us, he's going to tell us, man to man.”
Maybe O'Brien is right. Maybe emotions have little to do with victories. But there must be a reason Walker is in the best shape of his life, and hell-bent on ensuring his coach's success.
“I don't know why Pitino turned on me,'' Walker says. “But you know what? I don't really care. I haven't heard anything from him since he left, and I don't want to hear from him ever again. I'm ready to move on.”
As the Celtics look forward, there remain concerns for this season. Boston still doesn't have a proven center who can rebound or block shots, and it's a toss-up which is more fragile: point guard Kenny Anderson's body or his ego. The Celtics are ecstatic about first-round draft pick Joe Johnson, who they believe can contribute immediately. But can the rookie score consistently from the perimeter to relieve the double teams both Pierce and Walker will surely face? Asked if he hopes his team will make it to the post-season, O'Brien calmly answers, “I don't hope it. I expect it.”
The players, and the fickle fan base, nod their approval. They've heard this kind of talk before, but this time around they believe the man who is speaking it.