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Higher learning

Hurt by bitter endings at BC and Ohio State, O’Brien has found his calling at Emerson

By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / December 27, 2011
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Quick, define “apogee.’’

Stumped?

Jim O’Brien was.

A teenager who wanted to play basketball for O’Brien, the new men’s coach at Emerson College, dropped the word on him as if it were as common as a jelly doughnut.

Playing for O’Brien and Emerson would represent the apogee - or pinnacle - of his basketball career, the prospect said.

O’Brien thought he had heard it all in his A-to-Z basketball life.

He had been coached by three NBA Hall of Famers, Bob Cousy and Chuck Daly at Boston College, and Wilt Chamberlain in the pros. He had run the floor as a pro with the likes of Julius Erving, Artis Gilmore, and Zelmo “Big Z’’ Beaty.

As a coach, O’Brien had maneuvered BC onto the cover of Sports Illustrated with a March Madness upset of top-ranked North Carolina in 1994, and he had guided Ohio State to the ’99 Final Four.

Apogee?

O’Brien all but reached his own zenith before his basketball house came tumbling down seven years ago. In a life-wrenching event, O’Brien lost it all when Ohio State fired him and the NCAA banned him from coaching for two years amid allegations he improperly gave $6,000 to the mother of a 7-foot-3-inch recruit from Serbia.

Hurt and bitter - O’Brien insists the payment was a humanitarian loan - he returned to Boston and went into self-imposed exile after the NCAA ban expired.

Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers offered him a job on the Celtics staff. A few Division 1 schools inquired about him. The Holy Cross job opened and he thought about it.

Big-time basketball? He wanted no more of the “rat race,’’ as his friend, Cousy, called it.

“I did a lot of soul-searching,’’ O’Brien said. “I thought about what kind of coaching I might want to do, even if I wanted to coach again.’’

He idled, all but divorced from the game, until he learned about some kids who needed him. City kids. Student-athletes in the Boston public schools.

Inspired by a Globe series about the hardships facing the city’s interscholastic sports teams, O’Brien dusted off his coach’s whistle and joined the new Boston Scholar Athlete Program. He roamed daily from his Back Bay condo to underfunded public schools, from East Boston to Roxbury, Charlestown to Southie. He quietly worked for free and got compensated with a new life.

“I realized what I had been missing, just being in the gym, coaching kids,’’ O’Brien said. “I started getting antsy.’’

Enter Emerson.

Could O’Brien go from coaching future NBA players, including Bill Curley at BC and Michael Redd at Ohio State, to drawing X’s and O’s for Division 3 student-athletes more interested in apogees than scoring averages?

Could he go from recruiting LeBron James at OSU to scavenging for low-level prospects at a school far better known for producing Jay Leno and Denis Leary than basketball talent?

Heck, yes.

No more scheming to beat the Dukes and Louisvilles. Now he game-plans happily for the Anna Marias and Albertus Magnuses of the Great Northeast Athletic Conference. He has a new home and a humbler mission.

“Those of us who are Jim’s friends have been urging him all this time to get back into coaching,’’ Cousy said.

“This looks like an ideal fit for both sides.’’

In court off the court

Admission is free to games in Emerson’s basement gym across from Boston Common. Parking is dicey, but not for O’Brien, who walks to work. All in all, life is good - a far cry from his final days at BC and Ohio State.

In 11 seasons at The Heights, O’Brien coached BC to six postseason tournaments and reached the NCAA’s Elite Eight in ’94. He was poised to sign a multiyear contract extension after the Eagles won the Big East title in ’97, only for his relationship with the school to blow up over an admissions conflict.

The dispute landed in court, O’Brien arguing that BC unfairly denied admission to two academically qualified prospects from the Boston schools: Elton Tyler and Jonathan DePina. He also alleged that a school official slandered him by saying he “could not be trusted.’’

The case was settled, but not before O’Brien accepted a five-year contract worth an estimated $3.25 million from Ohio State.

The Brooklyn kid had reached the big time. In 1999, Ohio State rewarded him with an eight-year contract extension valued at more than $1 million annually, and he went on to capture Big Ten titles in 2000 and ’02.

Then came trouble. O’Brien was fired in 2004 after he reported making the $6,000 payment six years earlier to the newly widowed mother of Alex Radojevic in war-wracked Serbia.

Another court case followed, with O’Brien claiming he was wrongfully terminated. An Ohio judge agreed, awarding him more than $2.5 million. The judge ruled that the payment to Radojevic’s mother appeared humanitarian and that “this single, isolated failure of performance was not so egregious’’ to warrant O’Brien’s firing.

The NCAA disagreed. O’Brien became a Big Ten asterisk, as Ohio State forfeited 113 games he coached, including the Final Four run and the two conference championships.

O’Brien said during an interview at Emerson that his perception of the Ohio State episode is “drastically different’’ from how the saga has been portrayed. He generally declined further comment, although he asked to make one thing clear: “I have never once given a kid a nickel to play for me.’’

All that matters now is that his new employers believe in him.

“Emerson is excited to have attracted a basketball coach of Jim’s caliber and experience,’’ athletic director Kristin Parnell said. “Jim will be a terrific teacher and mentor for our student-athletes in a way that will benefit them throughout their careers.’’

Not in it for the money

O’Brien is working on a one-year contract with a modest salary commensurate with the conference average. He gets no perks (a free BMW came with the Ohio State job), no opportunities for extra radio or television income, and his recruiting budget is minimal.

This time he is coaching for the love of it.

“I did a lot of reflecting in the seven years I was away from it all,’’ O’Brien said. “This was the perfect opportunity to get back into it for the right reasons. I don’t want to get crazed about winning and losing anymore. I want to focus on the impact I believe I can have on some of these lives.’’

His players are all in. Even though his relatively young squad has won only once in nine tries, O’Brien’s players respect his rich basketball history, particularly his four-year career in the star-studded American Basketball Association in the early 1970s.

“It’s kind of surreal sometimes,’’ senior cocaptain Alex Yoh said. “I have his ABA player card. He has a funny-looking mustache in the card, but to be able to hold it and say, ‘Hey, that’s Coach,’ is pretty awesome.’’

Yoh, like most of his teammates, is pursuing a communications career. He hopes to be a sports broadcaster, and he helps pay for his education by working for the athletic department, washing laundry, cleaning floors, serving as the PA announcer for the volleyball and softball teams.

Yoh harbors no fantasies about playing a higher level of basketball. He is focused instead on absorbing O’Brien’s wisdom.

“I can’t say enough about how lucky we are to have him,’’ Yoh said. “The small things we’re learning about building a good team are also the small things that will build a good future for us.’’

No sooner did O’Brien accept the Emerson job than Curley, the star of his ’94 BC team and a five-year NBA veteran, resigned as the varsity coach at Thayer Academy to serve as O’Brien’s volunteer assistant.

“Who’s luckier than me?’’ O’Brien said. “I have Billy Curley on my staff.’’

For Curley, it was a no-brainer. O’Brien has won Coach of the Year honors in the country (1999), the Big Ten (’99 and ’01), the Big East (’96), and the Atlantic 10 (’83) with St. Bonaventure.

“How many coaches in New England have done that?’’ Curley said. “Being with him again is an education in itself.’’

Which means everyone is happy: O’Brien, Curley, Emerson, and the young men who are learning indelible lessons in a coach’s second life.

Bob Hohler can be reached at hohler@globe.com.

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