Chaminade senior guard Thomas O’Connell looked out across the court on Friday, Feb. 27, during the quarterfinal playoff game against St. Dominic’s High School. He was just a spectator at that point, taking in the full bleachers around him, the four point overtime lead he and his teammates had accumulated as the clock inevitably wound down, the rhythmic chants of his name from the Flyer Faithful off to his right, acknowledging the scoring of his 1,000th career point as a varsity player, making the new Activities and Athletic Center on Jericho Turnpike sound as close to the old bandbox of a gym across Saville Road in the main school as it ever had before.
“He had no idea,” Chaminade head coach Bob Paul would say of how close his star player knew where he was in relation to quadruple career digits. “I had kind of an inkling that he was really close, then I knew that he was going to do it today.”
Earlier in the game after O’Connell’s milestone, he had been fouled and careened across the hardwood into the pylon of the Flyer’s hoop. Visibly limping, he was helped off the court by teammates, his left knee cut and bleeding as he was eased onto a seat on the bench, clearly in pain, obviously done for the night. This would definitely be the last time he would step on his home court in his high school career as a player. And the fans and his classmates knew it, chanting his name.
“It wasn’t a good feeling at that point,” the 6-foot-2-inch guard would later admit about his injury and having to watch the rest of the game—and potentially the rest of the playoffs on the sideline. “(But) it’s nice to have support from all my friends.”
A quarter earlier, he had been pounding the court with the rest of the Flyers, who had been doing their best to create openings for him, needing only eight points to get him to the 1,000-point plateau and join Dan Nawrocki, a 2003 graduate who went to Johns Hopkins, as the only other varsity player known to achieve the four-digit total at the all-boys private Catholic high school. Nawrocki however was an inside player, big in the paint and focused only on the hardwood. O’Connell by contrast is a three-sport athlete—football, basketball and lacrosse—the latter of which he will play at the University of Maryland.
Paul had the privilege of seeing both men’s milestones; Nawrocki’s as an assistant under former head coach Jim Quinn and now O’Connell as Flyers head coach in his own right.
“There’s one thing I did not teach him is how hard he plays. That was innate,” Paul said of O’Connell, reflecting on how they both started together three years ago, both newcomers to the varsity level.
“He has taken criticism really well, he’s a really good teammate. He was really upset that he was going to get it today because he just wanted to win the game. For Thomas, it’s never been about the points, it’s always been about the wins.”
For O’Connell, No. 1,000 finally came 6:52 into the third quarter, a layup in the lane from the left side that banked off the top of the box, falling against the inside of the rim. He ended the night with nine more, totaling 17 points and 1,009 as a probable career total.
Whether flashes of memories from O’Connell’s three-year varsity career managed to penetrate the Mineola native’s facade as he now watched from afar, he never said. A pack of ice was now wrapped tightly around O’Connell’s left knee, complementing the heavy black brace on his right, the consequence of an injury in a game against LuHi earlier in the season that caused him to miss several weeks of playing time, including his senior appearance in Chaminade’s annual Haggerty Tournament, which the Flyers also won over Westbury.
As harsh as it sounds, the Flyers had to learn to play without O’Connell, without his leadership on the court, his talent and his ability to take his teammates with him with what at times seemed like acts of pure will.
“His toughness helped us win the championship (in 2012),” Paul said, adding a harbinger of the inevitable all athletes face, no matter the level. “It’s tough but it allowed us at an interesting point in the year to see what we could do without him. He’s not going to be here forever. It allowed us to grow a little bit as a team and guys had to step up in their roles.”
That doesn’t mean they won’t have his support, or he theirs. They only have to take a glance at the bench to see that. Even if it will only last for one final run.
“I just tell them to keep playing, keep playing, we’ll get through it,” O’Connell. “It doesn’t matter how you do it, you’ve just got to get the win.”