Seattle University had no idea what it was getting.
Al Brightman, the Seattle University men’s basketball and baseball coach, had greatly exaggerated about the 5-foot-9 twins from New Jersey who were going to help both his programs.
Johnny and Eddie O’Brien flew in late one night, stayed overnight in the airport, then took a bus to Seattle U.
“We were standing like two bumps on a log,” Johnny O’Brien said. “Then a priest (A.A. Lemieux, the president of the college) comes around the corner and sees us and says, ‘Oh my god, are you the O’Briens?’ Ten minutes later he comes back with (athletic director) Bill Fenton, who says, ‘I thought you guys were about 6-3 or 6-4.’ They darn near died when they saw us.”
It all worked out of course for Seattle University and the O’Briens, who led the school to new heights in basketball and baseball and became two of the greatest athletes in the city’s history.
Johnny O’Brien, playing center on offense despite his size, became one of the great scorers in NCAA history with a lot of help from his brother, who played point guard.
In the 1951-52 season, Johnny became the first college player to score 1,000 points in a season, and gained even more fame by leading Seattle U to a victory over the Harlem Globetrotters.
Johnny was a unanimous first-team All-American in the spring of 1953 as Seattle U reached the NCAA tournament for the first time. A few months later, the brothers were starting infielders for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Johnny O’Brien now is 87 and just recently quit playing tennis because of a bum knee, but now plans to join a health club. The affable and unassuming O’Brien has been married for nearly 64 years to Jeanne, whom he met in college: the star basketball player and the homecoming queen.
They had seven kids. Now, between following his 11 grandkids, working with charities and going to Seattle U games, he keeps quite busy. Three of his grandsons are playing high-level baseball: Riley O’Brien is a touted prospect in the Tampa Rays organization, his brother Brendan plays for Linfield College in Oregon, and Connor O’Brien is a freshman at Seattle U.
“Brendan is 6-2, Connor is 6-3 and Riley is 6-5,” Johnny O’Brien said. “Where did they get the height? What we like is that all three of them were on academic scholarships at the same time.”
Eddie died four years ago, and it’s obvious how much Johnny misses him. They were inseparable. The two even got engaged on the same night, though neither had known the other was planning to pop the question.
“I kind of talk to him every now and then,” Johnny said. “Until the day we got married, we were with each other every day.”
Together, they became huge stars in Seattle in the early 1950s, even if that would have seemed impossible a few years earlier.
Finally, a chance
The O’Briens were cut from the basketball team as juniors at St. Mary’s High School in South Amboy, N.J. “We were taught by the Sisters of Mercy, who only showed a little,” O’Brien quipped.
But one day that season, when an opponent didn’t arrive, the coach went into the stands looking for volunteers for the varsity to scrimmage.
The fill-ins, led by the O’Brien twins, whipped the varsity.
“The next day, we got uniforms,” O’Brien said.
Even though the O’Briens led St. Mary’s to a state basketball title as seniors, there were no scholarship offers. They tried out for Seton Hall’s basketball team and were rejected. Legendary Dodgers executive Branch Rickey was willing to pay their way to St. John’s if they would agree to sign with the Dodgers. But the two would have been ineligible for sports and said no.
A doctor offered to pay for their education at Mount Saint Mary’s if they would agree to become doctors.
“Ed said we’re going to get a degree in business administration and play sports, and we’re not going to become doctors. You can’t believe how many lives that saved.”
So the O’Briens spent the year after high school working in a factory and playing semipro baseball. Their New Jersey team won the state title and was playing in the national championships in Kansas City, Mo. Playing first base on a team from Mount Vernon was Al Brightman, the Seattle U baseball and basketball coach.
Brightman had gotten a tip from a friend from New Jersey who knew about the O’Briens.
“We played Mount Vernon and Ed leads off the 12th inning with a walk,” Johnny said. “He gets to first base and Brightman has a little piece of paper and a pencil. And he said, ‘How are your marks?’ and Ed said we both graduated cum laude from high school. He said, ‘That’s great, give me your address.’ Ed does it and says, ‘I’m sorry Mr. Brightman, I just got the steal sign.’ And Ed stole second base and that was it.
“That was the whole conversation. About two weeks later, we get a letter from Bill Fenton, saying we had a scholarship (to play basketball and baseball). We just needed someone to take a chance on us. If we didn’t get a scholarship to Seattle U, we’d probably still be driving a truck back in New Jersey.”
Seattle University went 90-17 in the O’Briens’ three years on the varsity basketball team, and 62-14 in their three years of varsity baseball.
Johnny hit .455 overall with 17 homers in his three seasons, and was an even bigger star in basketball.
In 1952, Johnny set a college scoring record with 1,051 points. In 1953, he was a unanimous first-team All-American.
Johnny had a vast array of shots, including a right-handed and left-handed hook shot. He had a great ability to hang in the air, and drew a lot of fouls. Playing in the middle against much bigger men could be punishing.
“I tell people I wasn’t born this ugly, I worked at it,” he said. “I was always getting banged around. I got three sets of front teeth and seven broken noses to prove it.”
One of the broken noses came in one of the most famous sporting events in the city’s history, Seattle U’s 84-81 victory over the Harlem Globetrotters on Jan. 21, 1952, in front of a sold-out crowd of 12,500 at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. The Globetrotters had the game’s highest-paid players, and if their plan was to get a big lead and then clown around, they soon learned Seattle U was unwilling foil.
“Before the game, (Globetrotters owner-coach) Abe Saperstein looked at us and said, ‘Is this all you got?’” O’Brien said. “And we got mad. And I think that’s where we won that game.”
O’Brien finished with 43 points despite missing a big chunk of the third quarter to tend to his broken nose.
“I don’t think it’s possible to completely check O’Brien without using a net,” Globetrotters forward Louis Pressley told reporters after the game.
On to the big leagues
After finishing at Seattle U in 1953 with degrees in business administration, the O’Briens were drafted by the NBA’s Milwaukee Hawks, but chose baseball when they got big bonuses (“I think $20,000 to $25,000, including the $6,000 minimum first-year salary.”) from the Pirates. By the end of the season, Johnny was starting at second base and Eddie at shortstop.
The O’Briens missed the 1954 season after being drafted and they spent 21 months in the Army.
Johnny returned from his service to play five more seasons with the Pirates, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Milwaukee Braves, not only as a middle infielder but also as a pitcher, appearing in 25 games.
The O’Briens played against 52 Hall of Famers, and he says, “I helped some of them get there while I was pitching.” Johnny said his favorite athletic memory was in baseball.
“It was when Ed and I played our first game together in the major leagues,” he said. “We were the first twins to play together in the majors.” They also were the first brothers to play the middle infield together in the big leagues.
Life after sports
After spending time working on Seattle U radio broadcasts as legendary Keith Jackson’s partner, O’Brien got into politics. He served 12 years as a King County commissioner and councilman, then for nearly two decades he was in charge of Kingdome operations, retiring in 1993. But that didn’t mean his public service was done.
He was a Santa Claus for 35 years for the Forgotten Children’s Fund, and spent seven years recently as the organization’s president. He has worked with kids with leukemia at Swedish Medical Center and is on the board of the Saint Francis House, a Seattle nonprofit serving the homeless and working poor; he drove a truck for them for years.
For Johnny O’Brien, it all became possible because Brightman took a chance on his brother and him. Johnny said it was a big gamble giving away a pair of scholarships to two 5-foot-9 athletes. And though they became legendary athletes here, that was never their aim.
“We never thought about anything like that (about how good they could be),” he said. “We just did our thing. There was no looking for trophies. The thing that we loved was a college education. That was the goal.
“And basketball and baseball happened to be the thing that got it for us. And we were very grateful for that.”