O’Brien, Jim. Looking Up Once Again: A Basketball Memoir. Pittsburgh, Pa.: James P. O’Brien Publishing, 2020. Pp. 480. Photos and illustrations, color and black & white. $28 paperback.
Reviewed by Richard A. Macales
“Most ABA ballplayers had a considerable chip on their shoulders. Someone had wronged them; didn’t want them in their game. Didn’t pay them what they deserved. Any slight was seldom forgotten or forgiven.” –- Jim O’Brien, “Michael Jordan and Red McCombs combine for great doubleheader.”
“The stars often take interviews for granted; they’ve done so many of them. Lesser players have wanted to tell their stories for years. Someone just had to listen.” — Jim O’Brien, “Jim Eakins was equal to the task every time out, on and off the court.”
Jim O’Brien, a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, has spent the last six decades covering sports – particularly basketball – mainly out of his native Pittsburgh; ironic, because Steel City has never had an NBA team. (For the record, the Pittsburgh Ironmen competed in the Basketball Association of America.) Thanks to O’Brien, Pittsburgh will forever remain an integral part of basketball lore through its association with Connie Hawkins, one of the most controversial and memorable players in basketball history. “The Hawk,” as he was known, is a member of O’Brien’s “Dream Team” which is displayed on the attractive cover art of volume 1 of Looking Up, published in 2017, as part of a trilogy (and reviewed by SAH on May 19, 2018). (Later in this review, we will discover the other members of O’Brien’s “Dream Team.”)
O’Brien recalls when “The Hawk” played for two Pittsburgh-based teams, in different years during the turbulent 1960’s, in rival and ultimately ill-fated leagues to the NBA. Hawkins’ first professional team, from 1961-63, was the American Basketball League’s Pittsburgh Rens (named in honor of the New York-based legendary all-Black “Renaissance” which existed from the 1920s to the 1940s). Hawkins’ second renegade-league team, in 1967-68, was the American Basketball Association’s Pittsburgh Pipers, the first champs of the ABA (1968). During the interim years, he played for the Harlem Globetrotters.
So why didn’t Hawkins play in the NBA? He allegedly accepted bribes in a point-shaving scandal while a high school basketball player. The scandal, however, did not surface until he finished high school and had already received a basketball scholarship to the University of Iowa. The consequence: banishment after his freshman year of playing collegiate basketball by the NCAA. That allegation led to Hawkins being banned by the NBA for life. Litigation followed. Hawkins was eventually cleared of the charges but it took eight long years. Hawkins finally got his chance to play in the NBA, initially for the Phoenix Suns in 1969.
While “justice” has been the watchword of 2020, Hawkins, a proud Black man, went through much hardship before being cleared to play in the NBA. But justice did eventually prevail, albeit slowly thanks, in part, to white and Black activists heavily involved in the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement. And Connie Hawkins was one of the Movement’s sports causes (along with Muhammad Ali and his banishment from boxing for refusing to be drafted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War).
O’Brien is a master storyteller, a proud Irish Catholic whose gift for writing and radio commentary is in the Gaelic seanchai tradition, albeit on the topic of American sports. Throughout his long career, O’Brien has differed from many other sportswriters. Rather than letting statistics tell the story of a great athlete, he paints a vivid word-visual whereby the athlete has great stats and is a champ precisely because of his/her life story and persona. His superb interviewing skills have enabled him to gain access to the greatest players of all-time and to get them to talk on-the-record, even about intimate details of their lives. Imagine: Freudian psychology applied …by a sportswriter!
O’Brien’s finest chapter, “On the Nose of a Seal: Nine Seasons on the Brink,” was titled as such because of a coach’s sardonic comment when asked how he felt about the ABA’s (now iconic) red, white and blue basketball. O’Brien writes:
I felt like a member of the ABA family. I think I brought some attention and respect to the upstart league by the many stories I wrote about it.
This is an understatement! He then lists the publications in which he wrote about the ABA (and NBA): The New York Post (a daily paper where he covered the NBA’s Knicks and ABA’s Nets, as well as hockey’s NY Islanders – sometimes on the same night!), The Sporting News (a weekly, where he served as the lead ABA columnist for seven seasons of the league’s nine-year existence), Basketball News, Basketball Weekly, Basketball Digest, The Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball (founding editor of the first three editions of this fan favorite) and Street & Smith’s Basketball Yearbook (founding editor for 23 years and then editor-emeritus for 14 more years in what writers and fans widely referred to as “The Bible of Basketball”).
To properly research pro basketball in the mid and late 20th century, one must use these publications as authoritative sources of information. O’Brien’s ability to write outstanding copy on short deadlines is prodigious. In sheer volume, the number of words he has written on basketball may be unsurpassed. As a result, O’Brien is possibly the most influential media driver of basketball’s popularity in the past half-century.
While there are many wonderful reminiscences of NBA players — most notably a touching tribute to Kobe Bryant’s final game on April 23, 2016 — the focus in Looking Up Once Again is primarily on the ABA. Of the 50-plus chapters, 30 focus on ABA personalities and teams. And for good reason. While the NBA garners large exposure through all media, the ABA existed (between 1967 and ’76) largely in a vacuum. O’Brien was mainly responsible for giving it national exposure.
Author O’Brien (born one month after Connie Hawkins, he proudly notes), still vividly recalls “The Hawk’s” exploits as the first bona fide star in the ABA. A chapter, “Riot on the Hill,” focuses on the Pipers’ championship run in the wake of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, as well as the riots and reopening of Pittsburgh in its aftermath. O’Brien then fast tracks the reader to the present — the May 25, 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and how civil unrest affected Pittsburgh (and many other cities across the nation in late spring and summer). Significantly, Minneapolis’ Bloomington suburb was also where Connie Hawkins played his second season in the ABA in 1968-69. The link between Hawkins and Minneapolis, however, is not addressed in O’Brien’s book. It could have made an appropriate and timely tie-in.
Since major league sports were inactive at the time of the George Floyd tragedy in the spring of 2020, O’Brien chose to tell the stories of great Black basketball players first-named George whom he knows. During the pandemic lockdown and civil unrest, he contacted George Thompson, who played for the ABA’s Pittsburgh Pipers (later renamed the Condors) in the post-Connie Hawkins era, where he became a three-time ABA all-star. O’Brien also reached out to George Gervin, who began his Hall of Fame career in the ABA for the San Antonio Spurs (now of the NBA). Both chapters are outstanding reflections on Thompson’s and Gervin’s lives as “at-risk” kids from the big-city ghettoes who made it out and now, in their post-pro basketball lives, have helped young people in similar circumstances.
O’Brien, himself, has had a bit of a nonconformist streak, dating back to his early years. He covered the ABA’s Pittsburgh Pipers for his self-described “hard-hitting” Pittsburgh Weekly Sports, which he co-published, beginning in 1963, during his senior year at the University of Pittsburgh (where he received a B.A. in English; and in later years completed his graduate studies in English Literature). He provided oft-critical examination of the 1960’s sports scene at a time in American history when the Free Speech Movement on college campuses across the nation was beginning to boil over. O’Brien is also careful to share the credit of conceiving Pittsburgh Weekly Sports with his co-publisher, co-contributor and close friend, the late “Beano” Cook, ABC Sports and CBS Sports publicist, and noted college football historian.
Looking Up Once Again is O’Brien’s second volume in a trilogy, much of it written during the 2020 coronavirus lockdown. Similar to volume one, there are warm memories by the author about the long-gone and the forgotten cast of “characters” as players, owners, coaches and club officials in the ABA.
Several chapters examine one of the ABA’s most enduring franchises, the Louisville-based Kentucky Colonels, and its eccentric, yet financially well-heeled, owners. O’Brien feels the Colonels should have been included in the “merger”; the author’s word for four ABA franchises being absorbed into the NBA in 1976. They weren’t. The Colonels’ final owner was former Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown, husband of recently deceased TV sports commentator Phyllis George. Brown, the former owner of Kentucky Fried Chicken/KFC, accepted a multimillion dollar payout and folded the team with its many all-star players, led by future Hall of Fame center Artis Gilmore. O’Brien asserts that in any future NBA team expansion or relocation Louisville should receive a team.
The cover of the book is designed by an outstanding pop culture caricaturist and miniaturist, Bob Weaver, who has designed many of O’Brien’s recent books. The cover design on the previous volume of Looking Up is Weaver’s finest of all of O’Brien’s book projects. On the covers of Looking Up Once Again and the previous volume, Looking Up: From the NBA to the ABA, the WNBA to the NCAA, we see O’Brien’s “Dream Team.” Pictured (from left; beginning on the back side of the newest volume): John Havlicek, Kevin Durant, David Thompson, Red Auerbach (coach), Bob Cousy, Anthony Davis, Oscar Robertson, Spencer Haywood, Elgin Baylor, Shaquille O’Neal, Bob Pettit, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and Kobe Bryant.
Pictured on the first volume (from right; back cover) are Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain, Connie Hawkins, Jerry West, Pete Maravich and Julius Erving. Three of these players launched their careers in the ABA—Erving, Thompson and Haywood. Two of O’Brien’s “Dream Team” players — NBA stars — are profiled in Looking Up Once Again – the late Wilt Chamberlain and Bob Pettit, now 88 and retired, whose career dates back to the NBA’s early years. Chamberlain and Pettit were the 78-year-old O’Brien’s adolescent favorites.
The book includes many rare photos from O’Brien’s personal collection and 16 pages of color reproductions, including vintage Topps ABA basketball player cards. It also features a few carefully selected magazine covers with extra special articles, as well as then-and-now photos from the various ABA reunions he had attended (in color and black & white). The inside flap, both front and back, displays an attractive collage of color reproductions of each of O’Brien’s Street & Smith’s Basketball Yearbooks that he personally edited or had served as editor-emeritus. The graphic designer, Cathy Powlowski, did an outstanding job laying out the book, giving the reader an experience of being part of a friend’s personal diary and photo album.
O’Brien wrote or re-edited chapters from Looking Up Once Again during the peak of the coronavirus; arguably, the most contentious year ever in America. As a result, the author’s usually upbeat and often gentle wit, which always comes through in his books and articles, has an uncharacteristic and more subdued tone — understandably — at times in the narrative in his latest tome. The opening chapter begins with Kobe Bryant’s tragic death on January 26, 2020, just before we recognized the full meaning of coronavirus; the closing chapter on the passing of another longtime friend and NBA great, Hall of Famer Wes Unseld, who died on June 2, 2020.
Kathie, for 53 years his wife and helpmate (particularly when he edited the Street & Smith’s Basketball Yearbooks), is concerned about her husband, not only as a soulmate, but she is a hospital social worker by academic training and profession. And Jim O’Brien is not afraid to share his feelings and concerns, and those of his wife, Kathie, with the reader.
Writes O’Brien in a rare contemplative moment, discussing his future:
Books that belong to me have scribbled notes in the margins. I have more files, all labeled as to subject, more than my wife Kathie is comfortable with having in this half of our home. She worries about what’s to be done with them when I am gone. I tell her there are people you can pay to take them away. One man’s treasure is another woman’s junk. But they are mine. My life’s work for safekeeping, and they are a goldmine of newspaper and magazine clippings, yellow ledgers with hand-written words from so many interviews, scraps with a note or two on them, personal correspondence, photos, so many photos, artwork, images. Material that is requisite and still so much alive when I hear Billy Joel in Piano Man singing, ‘Play me a memory’.
He concludes with a quote from one of his favorite columnists, Jimmy Cannon, a “scribe” during the pre-TV and Internet era when the printed daily newspaper was the most influential source of news and commentary: “Don’t start out with a tough question or you’ll end up with an empty notebook. Save the tough question for last.”
Rich Macales, a native Angeleno, was a former longtime senior writer and public information officer at UCLA. He is a contributor to the anthology/encyclopedia, American Sports: A History of Icons, Idols and Ideas, edited by Prof. Murry R. Nelson, ABC-Clio. He wrote the basketball entries on the Los Angeles Lakers, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kobe Bryant. He has also written about the Los Angeles Stars of the American Basketball Association (ABA) and Los Angeles Jets of the American Basketball League (ABL) for various other books and blogs.