This is Miss Carol with her AAU team in 1983
The Queens youth basketball family is in mourning today. Carolyn O'Connell, affectionately known as "Miss Carol" in youth basketball circles from Astoria to Los Angeles, passed away early Friday morning February 12th. She was seventy-one years old.
After experiencing some pain in her back area in December, it was discovered that she had a tumor near her spine. Miss Carol had undergone an operation to remove the tumor, which hindered her ability to walk. While recovering at an Astoria rehabilitation center complications with an infection set in. She spent her last few days at Sloan Kettering in Manhattan, surrounded by close friends from her Astoria home base.
Miss Carol had been a fabric in the youth basketball scene in Astoria for decades, coaching at the Variety Boys & Girls Club of Astoria Queens, St. Joseph's CYO program and a number of AAU programs dating back more than thirty years. Most recently her squad was called "Team Noah," named for a friend and team supporter, Joakim Noah of the NBA Chicago Bulls.
"Miss Carol dedicated her entire life to giving her time, resources and heart to kids who lived in the housing developments in Queens and kids from all over NYC. She developed countless boys from being able to dribble a basketball through high school, college and the NBA," said George Stamatiades, a friend and former president of the Variety Boys & Girls Club. "She looked out for them, got them jobs, introduced them to high schools and made sure they committed themselves to excel on the court and the classroom."
O'Connell had a glowing career with the Department of Probation for the Queens Family Courts. She was assigned to perform pre sentencing investigations of kids who were to be tried as adults in the Criminal and Supreme Courts. Her typical case load was 50 kids at a time. She was once described by Queens Family Court Administrative Judge Pearl Corrado as 'one in a million,' who read a situation with kids before anyone could. Her recipe: "They know I care enough to argue with them, yell at them and worry about them - so we trusted each other." After working for the Department of Probations, Miss Carol always said she saw so much 'good' in people. "Most just need to have contact with people who 'care' and give a 'nudge' to get them on the right path". "I'm a New York girl," she would say. O'Connell grew up in Hells Kitchen and went to St. Joseph's College in Brooklyn.
She would often be seen in her white van picking up or dropping off kids at the Astoria Houses. She would make sure they got to where they needed on time and feed them along the way if needed. On the court, as a coach, Miss Carol said she would try to spot that empowering moment for a kid and make him understand just how that felt. "It's not only about hitting that game winning shot," she would say. "In fact it's usually about being at the right place at the right time on the court and doing the right thing to make your team better...That's basketball and that's true growth for a child."
Her MO was quite obvious to those who coached with or against her. She would gather a bunch of kids, not charge them a dime, and enter them into tournaments. She would pay out of her own pocket to expose them to a host of players from all over the city. But when a kid reached a point where they didn't need her, she would make sure they moved on in good hands and another child who needed her attention would just pop into her life.
Coaches who know her well looked at her as a breath of fresh air on the AAU circuit. "Here was this short, stocky, silver haired Irish woman yelling out commands to these quick, talented, large primarily African American kids. If they won, great. If they lost it wasn't the end of the world and the kids learned something as life went on," said Queens based coach Rich Gordillo, who coached with, and sometimes against her for the past ten years. "It was always wonderful to see and her kids really listened to her," he said. Artie Cox, a friend and long time basketball coach affiliated with Christ the King first coached with Miss Carol in the 1980s. "She was truly a pioneer in the game. After coaching girls softball in the early 80s at St. Pats and then St. Margaret Mary's in Astoria she started coaching young boys and saw that there was a real need in the community to make an impact on young boys who wanted to follow their basketball dreams. She coached for 'Aim High' and a great bunch of kids called 'the Outlaws.' She was the most humble person I know," said Cox. Even though she coached young boys she was a mentor to me and other young men who wanted to coach these kids."
Her coaching edict was quite simple, yet different than most. She was known to have surrounded herself with coaches who cared more about making the boy better able to handle basketball and life. In an AAU world where many coaches have a priority on lifting their own worth, it was quite obvious that Miss Carol made it a priority to put the boy's needs first. She certainly 'left it all on the court.'
One of her players we spoke with talked about her belief in him that made him never want to let her down. "Miss Carol was one of the few coaches who believed that I could become a Division 1 ball player," said Thomas Sanchez from Maspeth, Queens. "I felt I was too small. But she kept poking at me to work hard and believe in myself because she believed in me. Then in one tournament when I was fourteen, Miss Carol had Joakim Noah come. He sat next to me and explained that he was once the smallest kid on his team and if ‘he’ made it so could I... It was quite stunning and I thought if she cared enough to reach out like that for me maybe there is something to this. I know she inspired kids like me all the time" he said. Sanchez is now a sophomore at Fordham and plays for the Fordham Rams basketball team. "She left an indelible mark on the landscape of basketball in Queens. Our dear friend will be sorely missed,” said Matthew Troy, Executive Director of the Variety Boys & Girls Club of Queens.
She entered her teams in the Heroes Basketball league, which plays in parks throughout Queens in the spring. League commissioner Walter Powles said today that all league uniforms will have a tribute patch to Miss Carol on their chest this season in memory and with respect for Miss Carol. “We will never forget her bravery, her fight and her integrity,” said Powles.
The wake for Miss Carol will take place at Quinn Funeral Home, 35-20 Broadway, Astoria 11106 on Tuesday, February 16, 2016 from 2-5PM and 7-9PM. Funeral Mass at St. Joseph’s Church, 43-19 30 Avenue, Astoria 11103.