In January of ’68, nobody was hotter than Jim O’Brien

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.

O'Brien head shot
Jim O’Brien played with the NY Nets in 1973-74.

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.”


  1. I played for Jefferson H.S. against Jim O’Brien in 1968-69, and he was by far the best player we ever faced. He could dribble, pass, rebound and shoot outside & inside. He was amazingly quick for someone so tall, and he was also one of those guys who could “jump out of the gym”. (If I remember correctly, he was also the VA state champion in the 100 yard dash as well as high jump.)

    When we played him, our coach (Dick Wickline) put in a special defensive scheme: a “Box and 1”. One player stayed with O’Brien all over the court, and the other four played a box (2-2) zone around the basket. We also tried to double-team him whenever possible and force him to give up the ball to his teammates. During one of those double teams, I drew a charging foul on O’Brien. He knocked me flat on my back, and in the collision I lost one of my contact lenses. The refs stopped the game while everyone looked for the contact lens — except for O’Brien, who took a seat on the bench. None of this slowed down O’Brien, and I’m pretty sure we lost the game.

    I followed his career when he went to Maryland and the ABA, but I lost track of him after that. Does anyone know what he did after his basketball career?

  2. I was at that game. It was at Jefferson and the crowd was so large they put rows of chairs underneath the baskets at each end of the court to try and accommodate the overflow. O’Brien for Stuart and a player named Malloy (I think that was his name) for Jefferson put on a show. Stuart won the game but not before a little controversy right at the end. Stuart led by 1 as the final second ticked off the clock. The noise in the gym was deafening. A Jefferson player, which I believe was Malloy, hit a jumper and the Jefferson students and fans poured onto the court to celebrate. It was pure pandemonium. The only problem was the referee ruled that the buzzer, which no one could hear. had gone off before the shot was released giving the win to Stuart whose fans then went equally wild. Coach Wickline challenged the call of course but to no avail. It was a classic game. Great memories from a wonderful time in Northern Virginia HS sports history.

    1. If I remember correctly, the TJ player who dueled Jim O’Brien in that game was Mike Mileur. He was similar to O’Brien in some ways — tall, skinny, good ball handler, and with a silky jump shot. And I remember the crazy ending of the game — we thought we had won, and then we didn’t. It’s a close as we ever came to beating Jeb Stuart when O’Brien played for them.

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