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Thomas O'Connell lives out his dream on St. John's basketball team

Thomas O'Connell of the St. John's Red Storm

Thomas O'Connell of the St. John's Red Storm in action against Creighton at Carnesecca Arena on Sunday, March 1, 2020.  Credit: Steven Ryan

It’s more than most kids on Long Island could ask for.

Thomas O’Connell grew up in Mineola and enjoyed success in three sports. He  played a starring role for lacrosse powerhouse Chaminade and earned a scholarship to play at Maryland. He helped the Terrapins to the 2017 national championship and served as a captain on the 2019 team.

But only now is he getting to live the dream.

O’Connell may have excelled at lacrosse, but basketball always was his first love. And now he is in graduate school and using his final year of athletics eligibility to play for St. John’s, the program he grew up following.

“I always had basketball in the back of my mind,” said O’Connell, a 6-2 guard who was a 2015 Newsday All-Long Island selection. “I’m not saying I ever would have done anything differently. I got to play college lacrosse at the highest level and I wouldn’t have been able to do that in basketball. But being part of St. John’s now is a dream come true.”

Good as that is, it got even better this past month. Red Storm coach Mike Anderson rewarded O’Connell’s dedication to the program by putting him on scholarship. That scholarship is retroactive to the start of the 2019-20 school year.

After a recent practice, O’Connell was summoned to Anderson’s office by one of the team managers. “I didn’t know what to think because that’s never a good situation,” O’Connell said, “but then he told me. I was speechless.”

“He earned it,” Anderson said. “You see every day the way he shows up early and stays late, the way he loves the game, the way he loves this team. He’s an older guy, but he’s also a new guy to this team. He’s really been accepted.”

As O’Connell, who turns 23 next month, was finishing up his senior year at Maryland, he was contemplating going for a graduate school degree in the New York area. He also figured that he might use that opportunity to pursue the long-deferred dream of playing college basketball.

“I was going to apply to Manhattan and Hofstra and St. John’s,” the sports management student said. “But St. John’s has always had a special place in my heart.

“The first time that I was on the Madison Square Garden court — when we played West Virginia —  I was like the kid in the candy shop, smiling ear-to-ear,” O'Connell said. “I grew up with that as a dream and I still get chills thinking about it.”

O’Connell’s mother and father, Tara and Tim, both attended St. John’s for undergraduate and graduate school, so the ties to the Queens school run deep. Tara was a standout on the Red Storm softball team and twice was named to the All-Big East team.

O’Connell’s experience being part of a national champion and being a team captain at Maryland made the transition to the Red Storm easier because he’s accustomed to being an example to others.

“He has a way of going about things that is exemplary,” Anderson said. “He plays with the kind of effort on every play that I want to see and that I expect from everyone on this team.”

Playing time — though Storm fans delight in seeing him enter the game — has been hard to come by. St. John’s is 16-15 entering the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, and the Red Storm’s average margin of victory is less than three points. O’Connell has appeared in nine games and has two rebounds, one steal and two turnovers, but he hasn’t selfishly jacked up a shot in the final seconds to put himself in the scoring column.

That speaks to his character, which Maryland acknowledged in the fall by bestowing him one of its highest honors, the Dick Edell Award. The honor is named for the late, longtime Terrapins lacrosse coach who asked players to strive to be their best on and off the field.

O’Connell knew that if he were to attend the ceremony in College Park, it would require missing a Red Storm practice and he was loath to do that because that’s just something that isn’t done unless there is injury, illness or an urgent family matter. Anderson thought different.

“Coach Anderson is the one who made the situation easier,” O’Connell said. “I think he had talked to [Maryland lacrosse] coach [John] Tillman. And he said to me that I had spent four years there and that I should go to receive the award for closure.”

“He thought I should go and that says a lot about coach Anderson,” O’Connell said. “Yes, he’s hard-nosed on that court, but he’s understanding. He gets all my respect.”

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