Suspended Holy Family coach O'Connor tells his side of story

Posted: February 23, 2011

HOW MANY OF US would want our lives to be judged on a few seconds of video? That is where John O'Connor, a basketball coaching lifer, finds himself today.

That he grew up in the Northeast, went to Archbishop Wood and then Penn State, coached at Bishop McDevitt, Germantown Academy, Villanova, Drexel, Lafayette and Georgia Tech, is all a footnote in his world at the moment.

The first-year Holy Family coach has been suspended by the school, pending an investigation. There was an incident at practice last month. There is a private criminal complaint from Holy Family player Matt Kravchuk, alleging simple assault by the coach. Kravchuk originally reported the incident to the athletic department the day it happened, Jan. 25. He submitted a complaint to police on Feb. 11 after not feeling satisfied with the university's response.

According to a statement released yesterday by the District Attorney's office, "The DA's private criminal complaint unit will determine in the next few weeks whether or not to file charges in this case." A civil suit is possible.

Video from that practice was shown on Fox29 Saturday night. And O'Connor's world has not been the same since.

There is no context to the video on Fox29, which showed only a small portion of the practice. If you watch roughly 2 minutes of practice that include the incident, you can see a much clearer picture of what happened.

The video was shot at the first practice after the team had been embarrassed by Concordia on its home floor.

Yesterday afternoon, seated with Fay, his wife of 10 years, in a conference room at attorney John Gallagher's office in Center City, O'Connor, 52, talked exclusively to the Daily News about the incident in detail.

"I just felt like my kids weren't competing," O'Connor said. "I had a film session the day before [the practice]. At the end of it, the Concordia kids throw an alley-oop and they dunk on us and they're all laughing. I was saying to my guys, 'You've got to have more pride, that HF's got to mean something to you, you can't let people walk into your gym and laugh at you.' "

Pretty standard stuff for a coach whose team just got badly beaten. Then, they had the practice.

"It's 5:30 in the morning, it's me and my kids, and I said to them, 'Guys, we're going to compete, you're going to compete against yourself, you're going to compete against the guy next to you, and we're going to compete as a team,' " O'Connor said.

His drill is called "combat rebound." It is about teaching toughness. Two players are in the lane. A coach throws a ball up and the players go after it. If the ball leaves the lane, a new ball comes into play. The drill is supposed to go quickly. Each group probably will get two or three chances to go after the ball.

Just before the incident, the ball had gotten loose a few times and then started to come out of the lane again. O'Connor wanted to get the ball and throw it up again. He went to get it the same time as two players, Kravchuk and a teammate, went after it.

"I instinctively grab it with both hands and, in what they call in basketball, just kind of cleared my space," O'Connor said. "I have always been very hands-on with my players. Normally, it's me that ends up getting hurt. I never had any intention of ever hurting one of my players."

O'Connor's lunge forward knocked Kravchuk off balance and to the floor. Seen out of context, it does not look good. Seen in context, it looks like something that could happen at any high-intensity practice.

Kravchuk described his version of the incident in Monday's Daily News.

"We were in basketball practice and we were doing a drill, and the next thing I knew my coach approached me," he said. "He struck my face, then I landed on the ground. I went to the back of the line. He came swearing to me, made a comment on the blood on my face."

Kravchuk, 19, added that he did not know what might have triggered the attack.

Said O'Connor: "I didn't realize Matt was hurt, but I didn't want him flopping on the ground. It was what the drill was all about, just keep competing."

O'Connor went over to the fallen player and nudged him with his foot to get up, telling him to get up, urging him to get back in line. Kravchuk got back in line, where he can be seen talking to an assistant coach. O'Connor did not like what he was hearing and, throwing in a few curse words, ordered Kravchuk to leave practice.

According to the complaint, Kravchuk got a bloody nose and a scratch on his forehead and inside his lip. There was some contact with the teammate during the drill, so it's not completely clear what caused the injuries.

O'Connor said he realized pretty quickly he had made a mistake. That evening, at a team meeting, O'Connor apologized to Kravchuk and the team. Kravchuk is no longer with the team. Other team members have since released a letter supporting their coach, saying they know he knows he made a mistake and hope he gets another chance to coach them.

"They always say you get your 15 minutes of fame," O'Connor said. "This was certainly not the 15 minutes I was looking for. I was hoping more for more of a Final Four, something like that."

Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said his former assistant coach is the "friend to the friendless and has a home for the homeless."

Fay, who is from Scotland and met her future husband at Disney World in 1998, saw what Fox aired before she saw the entire video.

"I wasn't sure I knew who this person on the court was," she said. "It wasn't the man I was married to. It just seemed like somebody mean and mental . . . I was shocked at what they were trying to portray him as, as this villain, somebody who was beating up on a kid."

Then, she saw the entire video.

"It totally changed [the perception]," Fay said. "It's not this heightened, crazy tirade that he's on all at one time. It's things that happened over a sequence of events."

Attorney Gallagher, the father of John Gallagher, the former player at Cardinal O'Hara and Saint Joseph's and now the head coach at Hartford, took the case over the weekend.

O'Connor took a salary cut and came home to coach at Holy Family for several reasons.

"I wanted an opportunity to coach my own team," he said. "I was an assistant for 18 years in Division I. For me, it was time to try to see if I could do it on my own."

And he wanted to see his parents more.

"I hadn't been home for Christmas for, like, 6 years and they're in their 80s now," he said. "It was nice to get back and be around them."

When he was suspended last week, O'Connor had to make the drive to tell his parents in Richboro. It was the toughest drive of his life.

"I think the biggest thing is I love the game of basketball and I love coaching kids," he said, his voice quavering. "I never intended it to ever get to this point where I'm being accused of hurting one of my players. It's always been about the kids and teaching and trying to get them to learn that, in life, there's lessons to be learned in this game."

And those lessons can help down the road.

"Anybody can be average," O'Connor said. "I wanted them to be more than that. I wanted them to be proud of Holy Family. That's what I was doing, and I did it everyday."

And then, one day, everything changed.

"I've gone from being a ninth-grade basketball coach to being an assistant in the ACC, because I'm intense and I have passion, and that's what I want people to know about me," O'Connor said.

Now, he is the man on the tape.

"I just can't believe it's gotten to this point," John O'Connor said. *

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