IT WAS NOT A easy to get Thomas’s blessing, to turn away from a school and program that was so good for the family. But Michael did it anyway, he had the confidence to seek redemption from his lacrosse statement of intent not knowing where he would land.
On Long Island, lacrosse is king, but the O’Connells are a basketball family first. Michael’s grandfather James was a high school referee for over 30 years. Great-Uncle Andrew played at Niagara. Aunt Theresa was an absolute winner at Lafayette. Uncle James played in Central Connecticut State and Uncle Andrew played in Albany.
Michael’s mother, the former Tara Felix, was the first All-Big East Conference first-team softball player at St. John’s. His father, Tim O’Connell, was the 2019 Long Island Catholic Youth Organization Role Model of the Year and through CYO, the Police Athletic League, and his role as Deputy Commissioner for Parks and Recreation in Nassau County, “Coach Tim” influenced countless young people. He coached his two sons in football, basketball and lacrosse.
Tim’s style as a coach and father was about discipline, respect and doing the right thing.
“Growing up, it was, simply put, books and school.” said Thomas. “That was it. My father was very strict. Get your affairs in order first and then you can enjoy it later.”
There was not much time for social activities anyway.
“It was lacrosse to basketball to weight training to homework to sleep,” Thomas said. “We always drove according to a fixed schedule, even in the summer. Camping, hop in the car, road trip for an AAU tournament or lacrosse travel tournament. It was really non-stop.”
Michael spent time with the Riverside Hawks, a Manhattan AAU team that served as the testing ground for future NBA stars like Chris Mullin, Nate “Tiny” Archibald and Kenny Smith. O’Connell later played for the Rising Stars Youth Foundation on Long Island, but his New York City roots were crucial.
“It’s different in the city,” said Thomas, who played for a club in Queens. “It’s hard basketball with a hard nose. That was the best for us. No errors were called. You’re in the backcourt and you’re stuck alone, and no one is coming to your rescue. The public is going crazy. You have to grow up quickly.”
Michael learned to never be rattled on the field or on the field. He never panicked. Those qualities remained true at Chaminade, a Catholic high school for boys that was as strict as his upbringing.
Both O’Connell brothers first played lacrosse in addition to basketball. They were so good, “we grabbed the first opportunities that were given to us,” said Thomas, who earned the chance to compete in a Maryland lacrosse program that has won 12 national championships.
Even with his future in hand, Michael never stopped playing basketball. Lacrosse was his ticket, but basketball was never for fun. It was more important than that.
“I did everything I could to be the best and help my team win,” said Michael.
On the lacrosse field, O’Connell was a force as an attacking midfielder and Chaminade’s main scoring threat. But in basketball, he was a distributor rather than a scorer. He rose to fame as an unflappable playmaker, making the varsity as a freshman and earning his first All-Long Island honors a year later.
Michael was so good it was only natural to wonder what his ceiling was. Even Michael had no idea. After O’Connell’s junior season with Chaminade, Rising Stars coach Dan Gimpel advised O’Connell to give basketball another shot and suggested he transfer to Blair Academy, a New Jersey boarding school and a basketball powerhouse. O’Connell agreed.
“You’re going to have a kid you love, who’s a winner and will probably be one of the toughest players on the team,” Gimpel told Blair basketball coach Ted Mantegna, as he recalled Jacob Rayburn in Cardinal Sports Report.
Even Michael’s coach at Chaminade, Bob Paul, approved the transfer.