Fifty years ago this week, Washington’s sports pages were full of stories on the Green Bay Packers’ recent Super Bowl II victory over the Oakland Raiders.
In sports news closer to home, local basketball fans were starting to notice a kid named Jim O’Brien, who kept showing up in the Stuart High School boxscores with 20 or 30 points to his credit. The rail-thin, 6-foot-7 redhead averaged 17.8 points per game as a sophomore on a team that finished just 11-10.
But by January of 1968, O’Brien had shifted his game into a different gear. He’d had a 42-point, 29-rebound game against rival Falls Church to open the 1967-68 season – a stunning statistical achievement in a 32-minute high school game.
When the calendar flipped over to January, O’Brien kept right on scoring. He pumped in 25 points against McLean on Jan. 5, added 20 more during a win over Marshall on the 10th and went for 26 points and 20 rebounds in a victory over W.T. Woodson on the 12th. Then came a 32-point performance against Fort Hunt, a 28-point effort against Jefferson and a 37-point outburst on the 21st against Groveton – all victories.
By that point, O’Brien had upped his average to 28.4 points per game – the top figure in the entire state of Virginia in Group I-A, the state’s largest classification. When the dust cleared at the end of his junior year, O’Brien finished as the state’s top scorer, averaging 31.3 points per game. As a senior, he led the state again – despite being double- and triple-teamed all season – pumping in another 30 points per game. Both years, he was a first-team All-Met selection in both of Washington’s primary newspapers, the Washington Post and the now-defunct Washington Star.
O’Brien scored more than 1,600 points in his high school career – then a record in Northern Virginia – and his 26.6 career scoring average still rates among the half-dozen best all-time in the state.
But O’Brien was more than just a scorer. Other players have put up dazzling numbers, but O’Brien was something else. He was a complete player, the kind nobody in Northern Virginia had ever seen before.
At 6-foot-7, he could and often did bring the ball up the floor. He possessed remarkable vision and thus an ability to slip passes through openings that nobody else saw. He could handle the ball and fire away from the outside like a guard. Underneath the basket, he might have looked frail, but he always seemed to be where the ball came off the rim.
He led Stuart in scoring, rebounding and assists in all three of his varsity seasons and averaged 30 points and 18 rebounds per game over his last two years at Stuart.
He brought a certain flair to the game as well, which delighted some and offended those who were anchored to a more traditional view of how the game should be played.
“He did stuff nobody else did,” said John Knoche, who played for W.T. Woodson against O’Brien in the late 1960s. “He was really tough to cover that way. He could score with either hand. He could make passes that were just scary. He was like (Pete) Maravich.”
O’Brien would throw passes behind his back, dribble between his legs – stuff nobody was doing in Northern Virginia at the time, and certainly nobody that tall.
“A lot of people weren’t used to seeing big guys do those types of things,” O’Brien said.
Despite his unorthodox style, O’Brien could count any number of fans among the Northern Virginia coaches – even those who would never dream of letting their own players throw no-look passes or dribble between their legs, as he did.
Nobody was more old-school than Washington-Lee’s Morris Levin. Levin always kept a tight rein on his own players, largely because he abhorred turnovers, and preached careful, fundamental basketball. So, what was Levin’s take on the flashy Stuart star?
“Oh my god,” Levin once exclaimed when O’Brien’s name came up. “What a ballplayer!”
O’Brien became Lefty Driesell’s first topflight local recruit when he committed to Maryland right after the bombastic new coach took over. O’Brien enjoyed a solid career at Maryland, averaging 14.9 points during his three-year varsity career. He might have been a bigger scorer there, but Driesell kept adding standouts like Tom McMillen, Len Elmore and John Lucas to the program. That meant that O’Brien’s had to adapt to a more team-oriented style, which he did without complaint. Although he was never the Terrapins’ biggest star, he was certainly a fan favorite in College Park.
He had plenty of fans in Northern Virginia, too. Stuart never had much basketball success and never did well enough in the playoffs while O’Brien was there to raise the school’s profile. Consequently, he gets forgotten when the great players in Northern Virginia are mentioned.
But those who saw him know what kind of player he was.
“I’m not sure he’s not the best player ever in the (Northern) region,” said Chris Knoche, who watched his brother go head-to-head with O’Brien in the late 1960s, played for W.T. Woodson in the 1970s and then recruited the northern Virginia as American University’s head coach later on. “He was a kind of once-in-a-generation type of talent.”