The Last WordKevin O'Neill, a devout Irish Catholic who lives and breathes basketball, brings an almost religious zeal to his job as head coach of the Raptors.
By MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun
Kevin O'Neill is taking ground-eating strides as he crosses Front St. at Bay.
He simultaneously is pulling away from the mob and explaining the moment for which he lives.
"It's when the buzzer goes, when you've won a really big game," he says, shouting to be heard above the traffic. "It's better than anything."
"Better than sex?"
"Better than anything."
O'Neill, the Raptors' 46-year-old rookie coach, is a junkie for basketball and for winning. He sees his addiction as a fact, as immutable as gravity.
"It's in my blood," he said. "It always has been. It's the only way I can explain it."
During the season, he is at work at 5 a.m. He leaves the office at 6:45 a.m. for mass, every morning. "Golfer's mass," he said. "Thirty-five minutes and out."
Every remaining minute is given over to basketball. His wife lives and works in New York City. His 16-year-old son is a promising baseball player, living with O'Neill's first wife in Tucson, Ariz.
O'Neill does not read during the basketball season. While he loves live theatre, he never, ever takes in a performance when there is a basketball bouncing somewhere. Anywhere.
It is basketball, just basketball, after games, on off-days, always. Always basketball.
All of the attendant stuff, the endless travel, the prying media, those are one cent on the dollar distractions compared to those rare payoffs at the buzzer.
His dad, Ken, retired a few years back from driving school bus. Dad hated being at home and found work driving buses loaded with criminals between prisons in New York State. "He'll work until he drops," his son says proudly.
IN THE BLOOD
It's in the blood.
O'Neill grew in New York State, a few miles from the Canadian border in Chateaugay, and headed to McGill University in Montreal to play basketball and, if absolutely necessary, study dentistry.
It took about two weeks for O'Neill to find out that dentistry was way, way too difficult.
"I went to see my student advisor. I said, 'What's the easiest subject you have?' He said 'Probably elementary education.' I said, 'That's it, I'm a teacher.'"
He graduated in 1979 and started coaching high school in Hammond, N.Y. He has worked his way up ever since, through to community college and then the college ranks , first as an assistant, then the head man at Northwestern and Marquette and Tennessee.
The NBA took notice and he hired on as an assistant with Jeff Van Gundy in New York ("the best coach there is at any level," is O'Neill's assessment) and with Rick Carlisle in Detroit.
The daily mass began at Marquette and so did a relationship with the late Al McGuire, the memorable New Yorker who led the school to a national championship.
"I loved Al McGuire, just loved him," O'Neill said. "He was one of the greatest men I've ever known. He would call me all the time, any time, and say the most ridiculous, funny things. Out of the blue, he would call and he knew I was a hard worker, he would say, 'If you can't get your work done in four hours, you're a lousy coach.' "
Catholicism may be the ultimate pragmatist religion. Sin is understood as a regrettable but nonetheless daily by-product of endeavour.
"I'm Irish Catholic," O'Neill laughed. "We ask for forgiveness instead of permission."
The NBA is riddled with profane wealth and its incumbent vices, unyielding pressure and never an ounce of charity.
The daily communicant sees no conflict between the golfer's mass and the coach's life.
"I'm no church mouse. I encounter my fair share of sin . My whole thing is to keep pushing ahead and don't worry about the day before. Keep moving on. The world I live in, church is a very good sanctuary."