Pausing, O'Brien then recalled a time in the Oval Office when Lyndon Johnson was considering what he might do about some antiwar protesters in front of the White House. Finally, he dismissed them as just a bunch of misguided youths who would go away. "You've got to read the message in the wind," O'Brien told the owners, "and if you don't, I'm not with you. I'm not going to get involved in anything that is not part of the American way of life.
"For Chrissake, we're no different than anyone else. We've got to prove ourselves. C'mon, let's see if we can do it."
And so they did, forging compromises that paved the way for the merger with the ABA five months later. For some owners the effect has been downright liberating. "For the first time in my memory," reports Buffalo's Paul Snyder, "the press and the people are talking about the team, the players and how good they'll be. They're talking basketball. Before, all we heard about was who's suing who this week. It's wonderful."
Off and on, O'Brien has done his share of talking basketball as well. Sometimes at football games, of all places. Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, recalls, "One day some years ago Larry and I attended a Washington Redskin game together. During the half we were kidding around and I asked him, if you had your druthers, what would be the one thing in the world you would want to be?' And he said, I'd like to own the Boston Celtics.' Now, at the time, he was Postmaster General, so that illustrates a latent basketball interest."
And an odd turn of fate as well, since basketball and O'Brien were both born in the same town, Springfield, Mass. "Just coincidence," he says. "I don't lay claim to anything coming down from the heavens." Though the gym where Dr. James Naismith tacked up his peach baskets has long since given way to a shopping center, the street of Victorian rooming houses on which O'Brien was raised was recently refurbished and declared a historic site—though for reasons having nothing to do with him. When he went back to attend the dedication ceremonies this past summer, the local press heralded it as the return of the Mattoon Street Gunner.
Seems that in his playing days as a chunky forward with a fiery red brush cut and failing eyesight, O'Brien was known to fire away at will. From half court. One-handed. All the time.
That tendency foreshortened his career with the Cathedral High Purple Panthers but did not stop him from launching his ICBMs at the YMCA on the corner of Mattoon Street. "I'd go to the Y at eight in the morning and stay in there throwing it up until I starved to death," says O'Brien. Near closing time he would sometimes hide under the Y pool table and then, when everything was locked up, turn the lights back on and keep gunning away. "I was nuts for it," he says.
Later on he attached himself emotionally to the Boston Celtics, often driving the 200-mile round trip with friends to see a game. "There was no Massachusetts Turnpike then," he says, "so we'd strike out on the icy roads, watch Cousy and Macauley win another one, and then get home at 4 a.m. and think nothing of it." For away games he would get in his car and drive around town until he found the best spot for picking up the action on the car radio. "Oh, I tell you, I was a fan," he says.
O'Brien was also and always a pol. As a boy he had accompanied his father, a rooming-house operator and Democratic organizer, on door-to-door canvassing through the poorer sections of Springfield. Once, as they trudged along together, the elder O'Brien said something his son never forgot: "The votes are here, Larry, if we can only get them out."
Both Larry Sr.—or the Old Red Fox as he was known in the wards—and his wife Myra Sweeney O'Brien, who had worked as a domestic in Springfield before they were married, had come to the U.S. from County Cork in the wake of the potato famine. Inevitably, they encountered and resented the Yankee-bred hostility toward immigrants and the NO IRISH NEED APPLY signs on the factory gates. "My father ran into bigotry," says Larry. "It made him a strong Democrat. It was one place for him to go. He wasn't wanted elsewhere. It was the old story of the Irish immigrant becoming a citizen, a first voter and a politician at the same time. I can remember my father coming back home from the '24 election convention. He brought us hats in the shape of teapots."