Kearny hoops awards dinner brings former Net O’Koren to speak

For all intents and purposes, it was not a season to remember for the Kearny High School boys’ basketball team. The final record was lopsided in the wrong direction. There were struggles to get the best players on the floor for a host of reasons. It was virtually a nightmare of a year.

But that doesn’t mean that the players on the team didn’t try hard, that they didn’t care about their general welfare as basketball players. No, this bunch of Kardinals tried their very best to be successful. Sometimes, that doesn’t translate in the win column.

In the eyes of head coach Bob McDonnell, the Kardinals deserved to have a chance to celebrate their efforts.

That’s what happened recently when the 60 or so members of the entire program _ freshman, junior varsity and varsity _ gathered for the annual awards banquet at the American Legion on Belgrove Drive.

“My personal feeling is to have a banquet outside of the school,” McDonnell said. “We give out various awards. Besides getting varsity letters, it’s a way to recognize their individual efforts. We didn’t have a good year, but the kids learned a lot and they grew up a lot. We lost 10 games by eight points or less, so that shows the effort.”

The players’ parents were also in attendance for the banquet.

“This gives the parents a chance to appreciate their efforts of their kids,” McDonnell said.

The featured guest speaker was former New Jersey Net standout Mike O’Koren.

The Jersey City native, who played high school basketball at Hudson Catholic in the 1970s, went to the University of North Carolina and earned All-America status under legendary head coach Dean Smith. O’Koren was a first round selection of the Nets in 1980 and spent 10 years in the NBA with the club. O’Koren eventually became an assistant coach with the Nets and the Washington Wizards for 10 years, before becoming an assistant coach at Rutgers University under former colleague and friend Eddie Jordan.

Getting someone of O’Koren’s status to come speak to the kids of the Kearny basketball program was no small feat.

It started because O’Koren’s childhood friend Ron Steinmetz was McDonnell’s CYO basketball coach in Jersey City. McDonnell’s teams went an amazing 169-0 under Steinmetz’s guidance.

“I reached out and spoke to Mike about coming to speak,” McDonnell said. “Mike was great about it and had no problem. I tried to get him in the past, but things didn’t work out. This time, they did.”

O’Koren, who now resides in Westwood in Bergen County, was glad to be able to come to speak to the youngsters.

“I’ve known Bobby for about 100 years,” O’Koren laughed. “We practically grew up together.”

O’Koren said that he had a simple message for the Kearny players.

“I told them that they had to focus on going to school and getting a good education,” O’Koren said. “I told them that they had to work hard in school and then work hard at their game. I said that the fundamentals of basketball will never let you down.”

O’Koren focused on his incredible basketball background, coming from a humble background in the Jersey City housing projects to getting a chance to play for one of the greatest coaches in the history of college basketball in Dean Smith.

“I touched on playing for Coach Smith and what that was like,” O’Koren said.

O’Koren’s play at Carolina opened the door for another former great Tar Heel named Michael Jordan. In fact, O’Koren said that he actually scored two points more in his North Carolina career than Jordan did _ but O’Koren spent four years at Carolina, where Jordan left early for the NBA Draft.

Still, that story gave the kids in attendance a perspective of just how great of a basketball career O’Koren enjoyed.

“At first, I never heard of him,” said senior Mike Fitzpatrick, who earned the Academic Achievement Award at the banquet. “But then when I knew he was coming, I looked him up and seeing his background was crazy. To think he was coming to speak to us. He played in the NBA and has all the basketball background in the world. I was very impressed to hear him speak and to get to meet him. He has a lot of knowledge. It was very humbling that a guy like him would come to speak to us.”

“I didn’t know who he was,” said Nicolas Souza, who earned the Coaches’ Award. “But when he was talking, I couldn’t stop listening. He said some great things and I was absolutely impressed. He stressed fundamentals and when he talked about that, I said, ‘Wow, it’s true. This guy is really good.’”

O’Koren said that he spent countless hours playing in the St. Joseph’s School courtyard in Jersey City, a place that had metal backboards and metal nets.

“I spent hours upon hours there,” O’Koren said. “I wish I had a nickel for every hour I spent there.”

O’Koren said that he had a great time with the kids and their parents.

“I hadn’t seen Bobby (McDonnell) in such a long time, so it was good to see him,” O’Koren said. “I felt really comfortable with the kids. They were great. Their parents were there. It was a great night.”

O’Koren had one final message to the youngsters.
“I said that the camaraderie I had with my teammates was so important,” O’Koren said. “The memories are priceless. That’s very important. I’ve come to the fact that I’m getting older. I think I had a good career. If someone recognizes me for what I did, then that’s great. I enjoyed the game.”

“For him to share his knowledge with us was incredible,” Fitzpatrick said. “I learned a lot from him.”

Fitzpatrick said that he was honored to get an award, even after the Kardinals struggled so much this season.

“I learned a lot this year,” said Fitzpatrick, who is headed to Rutgers-Newark or the New Jersey Institute of Technology in the fall to study business. “It was more of a rebuilding year for us. We grew a lot as a team and got closer. That meant a lot to me. It showed that all my hard work on the floor and in the classroom didn’t get unnoticed.”

Souza was also happy to receive an award at the banquet.

“It makes me work even harder,” Souza said. “It shows me that I’m doing the right thing on the court. It makes me believe in myself more and more. I know I’m doing my job and I’m going to help the team get more wins in the future.”

McDonnell couldn’t thank O’Koren enough for his appearance. It’s not every day that an NCAA All-American and NBA star comes to Kearny.

“I have to give credit to Mike,” McDonnell said. “He stuck around and talked to the kids and their parents. The kids all researched him and recognized who he is.”

The individual award winners were Francisco Penaherrera (Freshman Award), Ryan Guttadauria (Junior Varsity Award), Oscar Szymzcak (Varsity Most Improved), Chris Serrano (Hustle Award), Esteban Martinez (Defensive Award), Souza (Coaches’ Award), Fitzpatrick (Academic Achievement Award) and team manager Angel Rodriguez (Charlie Dolan Award for dedication and work within the community).

In fact, Rodriguez played with the varsity on Senior Night against Irvington and scored the first two points of the game.

All in all, it was a great night for the Kardinals. It was a night to celebrate after a season where there wasn’t much celebration.


Former North Carolina All-American and New Jersey Nets standout Mike O’Koren (second right) was the guest featured speaker at the annual Kearny High School boys’ basketball banquet recently at the American Legion on Belgrove Drive. With O’Koren from left are head coach Bob McDonnell, senior captain Mike Fitzpatrick, O’Koren and senior captain Esteban Martinez. Photo courtesy of Bob McDonnell

Learn more about the writer ...

Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”