NEW YORK - It was 90 minutes before his Pacers team was going to play the Knicks on Monday night. In the cramped visitors' locker room at Madison Square Garden, with his players dressing for the game, Jim O'Brien was oblivious to his surroundings, staring at a computer screen with basketball stats while occasionally looking up at tape of Saturday's Knicks-Nets game.
With O'Brien, it has rarely been about anything but the game. A coaching lifer since he graduated from Saint Joseph's in 1974, O'Brien, for the first time in his adult life, was without the game for the 2 years after the 76ers fired him in 2005.
Did he have a few minutes to talk?
"I'm meeting with the media at 6:15," he said quietly, making it quite clear this was the time for business and that would be the time for questions.
Fifteen minutes later, he met with the media in the hallway. After answering a few perfunctory questions about his team, O'Brien was asked about those 2 years without hoops. How did he manage?
"I hung around with a beautiful woman down in Florida and just had the best 2 years of my life," he said. "Was able to spend a lot of time with my wife Sharon's family, Jack Ramsay and his wife Jean. Spent a lot of time with Jack McKinney and a bunch of guys from St. Joe's. It was a great sabbatical."
Did he miss it?
"I did, but I didn't miss it so much that I let it ruin a good time," he said. "I'm enjoying this immensely. Being in the locker room setting with a coaching staff that I really like and respect, just being around guys and a group of people that are all pulling in the same direction is a wonderful feeling."
The O'Brien/Sixers story was a strange one from the start. What looked from a distance like local boy comes home to coach hometown team never evolved that way. What might have been a feel-good story never was.
So, whose fault was that? Depends upon whom you talk to about it.
O'Brien might have a theory, but he is not sharing it.
"It's water under the bridge," he said.
Did anybody tell him why he was fired?
"Not necessary," O'Brien said. "I can't remember last week. I sure as heck don't worry about what happened a couple of years ago."
Tonight, O'Brien will coach against the Sixers at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. He won't be looking back.
The coach was prickly with the media that covered the Sixers, often questioning their questions when a little elaboration might have gone a long a way. There were whispers about him not getting along with some people in the organization, but never anything substantiated.
What is known is this: The Sixers improved by 10 games in O'Brien's one season. They made the playoffs. They have not made the playoffs since he was fired.
"He's a very good coach," former Sixers president and general manager Billy King said. "He reminds me of [Bill] Belichick. That's what came to mind. He really is just focused on trying to win. He's not anybody's friend, not the players, not the media. It's just, 'How many games can I win?' "
When the Pacers decided to hire O'Brien in May, King told the team's CEO and president, Donnie Walsh, "he was making a great hire."
So what went down here?
When asked last week whether Sixers chairman Ed Snider would talk about why O'Brien was fired, Comcast-Spectactor vice president of public relations Ike Richman wrote in an e-mail: "Mr. Snider is out of the office this week and portions of next week. Therefore, he's unavailable."
After finishing 35-47 in the awful East last season and missing the playoffs for the first time in a decade, the Pacers went looking for a new coach.
Larry Bird, the Pacers president of basketball operations, had five phone conversations with O'Brien. They met on May 31. And Bird hired O'Brien that day.
If you want personality, O'Brien might not be your guy. If you want someone totally dedicated to the game, he could very well be your guy.
He played at Roman Catholic and St. Joe's. He was an assistant at Wheeling Jesuit, Pembroke State, Maryland, Oregon and St. Joe's. His first head-coaching job was back at Wheeling Jesuit. He definitely paid his hoops dues.
He was a Knicks assistant with Rick Pitino. He became the head coach at Dayton. When that did not work out, he went back with Pitino and was his righthand man when Kentucky dominated college hoops in the mid-1990s, winning the championship in 1996 and losing the title game the next year, in overtime.
When Pitino went off to run the Celtics, O'Brien went with him. When Pitino gave it up, O'Brien became the Celtics head coach and won in the only place Pitino could not win.
In his first full season in Boston (2001-02), the Celtics made the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in 14 years. Who can forget that barrage of threes that blew out the Sixers in Game 5? The C's were in the second round the next year. Then, during the 2003-04 season, O'Brien resigned after a new Celtics regime decided it wanted to rebuild with youth and got rid of many of the players that had helped him win. The Celtics became instantly hopeless until being revived in a big way this season with a different plan.
King hired O'Brien in the spring of 2004. And, after that one season, he was gone again.
Legendary defensive guru Dick Harter, 77, was with O'Brien in Philly. He is back with him in Indiana. There is very little that Harter, the head coach at Penn, Penn State and Oregon before his long NBA run, has not seen or heard.
Sitting courtside before the Pacers game with the Knicks, Harter was asked about the man who could not call him fast enough when he got back into the league.
"He works very, very hard preparing for games," Harter said. "He's a very sound basketball mind and he teaches it very, very well. I've been around very good basketball minds, but none better than Jimmy."
When asked what went down in Philly, Harter said, "I would have no thoughts on that."
O'Brien has helped revive point guard Jamaal Tinsley's career. Tinsley, a double-figure scorer only twice in six seasons, is averaging 14.8 points, just off his career best, and orchestrating a high-powered offense.
"He's been looking to be able to be let loose," O'Brien said.
The coach is often tight with answers, but gives his players quite a bit of freedom.
Mike Dunleavy, whose career had been stuck in neutral, scored a career-high 36 points against the Knicks and is averaging a career-best 17.4 points. By the way, the Pacers smashed the hopeless Knicks, 119-92, while making 11 threes. They are 13-12.
The Pacers averaged 95.6 points last season. They are averaging 104.5 points this season. They made 481 threes last season. They are on pace to make 650 this season. O'Brien learned the value of the trey from Pitino and never forgot it.
O'Brien may have won in Boston where Pitino could not. What he could learn from his friend is that it's not a sin to share his basketball knowledge when he gets legitimate hoops questions. Pitino not only can coach it, he is willing and able to explain it. That is not really what Jim O'Brien does.
But he can definitely coach it. His record tells you that. It is why Bird, the ultimate bottom-line guy, hired him. And it might be why the Pacers find their way back into the playoffs. *