(Zaporozhye, Ukraine) — As soon as Jake O’Brien disembarked from his plane, it was apparent to the former Boston University forward that he was worlds away from his native New England.
“Very few people here speak English, and the ones that do can barely speak it,” said O’Brien, sitting in his apartment in Zaporozhye, an industrial city on the banks of the Dnieper River. Taking a breather from training camp with Ferro-ZNTU Zaporozhye, a team in the Ukrainian Superleague with whom he will begin his professional career, O’Brien reflected on the drastically different landscape from life in Boston.
“It’s kind of weird… [They’re] definitely 20-plus years behind as far as buildings, cars – just the overall landscape,” said O’Brien.
The last year has been a whirlwind journey for O’Brien, who was supposed to spend his entire career in Boston – punctuated by leading his hometown Terriers to the bright lights of the Big Dance – only to have fate get in the way.
A near career-ending injury, two surgeries, four college coaches, a post season ban, a transfer, and a graduate degree later, O’Brien finally can bask in his memory of the grand stage of the NCAA Tournament.
“I definitely gotta’ remind myself how fortunate I am,” reflected O’Brien.
A native of Weymouth, MA, a small, steak and potatoes town in the no man’s land that lies halfway between The Cape and the city on Massachusetts’ south shore, Boston has always been in O’Brien’s blood.
O’Brien’s paternal great grandfather, Buck O’Brien, was a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox who started the first game ever played at Fenway Park on April 20, 1912 and won the World Series later that same year. Jake’s uncle on his father’s side, Joe, was a star pitcher and quarterback at Boston College, who had cups of coffee with the Red Sox and in the NFL.
In high school, O’Brien first flashed potential on the mound as a pitcher for BC High, before growing – and growing, and growing – to 6’8” and gravitating to the hardwood. As a long, lanky and athletic four-man with range behind the NBA arc, O’Brien was considered a huge recruiting coup by then-Boston University head coach Dennis Wolff.
O’Brien set a BU freshman record for minutes played, finished third on the team in scoring (12.5 ppg), fourth in rebounding (4.6 rpg), sixth in the league in blocks (1.0 bpg), eighth in the league in free throw percentage (77.2) en route to America East Rookie of the Year honors.
After O’Brien’s freshman year, Wolff was fired. But while many players fail to flourish playing for a new coach in a new system, O’Brien thrived, earning third-team All-Conference honors while leading the Terriers to the 2010 Championship Game. During the year, new BU head coach Pat Chambers called O’Brien “a very special player,” stating that, when his career was over, O’Brien would be one of the greatest players in school history. O’Brien appeared to be living up to Chambers’ predictions as a junior, earning the nod for the preseason First Team All-Conference team before leading the team in rebounding and ranking second in scoring through the first 14 games of his junior year.
Then everything went wrong.
In the second half of a New Year’s Eve game at UMass, O’Brien crumpled near the baseline, breaking a bone in his foot. He would spend the rest of the season on crutches. O’Brien was a spectator on the sidelines as the Terriers ran through the America East Tournament to win the league championship game and when the 16-seed Terriers took on top-ranked Kansas in the NCAA Tournament.
After the NCAA Tournament season, Chambers left for the head gig at Penn State and O’Brien faced his third head coach in four seasons. More daunting, after the first surgery did not take, O’Brien once again went under the knife, and spent the next season on the sidelines as a red-shirt.
During yet another season on the sidelines, O’Brien won over another new head coach, Joe Jones, with his ability and attitude.
When he returned to the court in the spring, O’Brien stood north of 6’9” and was playing, by all accounts, the best basketball of his life. With O’Brien returning to the court to team with blinding-quick, rising junior point guard D.J. Irving and even-faster incoming freshman play-maker Maurice Watson, along with a host of supporting role players, the Terriers looked like the team to beat in conference.
But on June 15, BU dropped a bombshell on the conference – and its own student athletes – announcing the school was leaving the America East after the upcoming year for the Patriot League. The remaining AE schools acted quickly, voting to ban the Terriers from America East post season play in all AE-sponsored sports, leaving O’Brien caught in the crossfire.
With no chance of playing in the NCAA Tournament at Boston University, O’Brien spent several sleepless nights soul-searching. With the blessings of his coaches, teammates and Athletic Director, he decided to leave the only program he had ever known and was granted his release to chase his dreams of finally playing in March Madness.
O’Brien eventually landed at Temple, and once again won over a fourth different head coach in Fran Dunphy. After a year and a half away from competitive ball, O’Brien broke into the rotation halfway through the year, giving the Owls a boost as instant offense off the bench and from behind the arc, averaging 9.3 points in 20.2 minutes per game while drilling 43 percent of his three’s.
On March 22, O’Brien ran out onto the court in Dayton, Ohio, finally playing in the NCAA Tournament.
“It was pretty incredible,” he remembered. “I was there with BU, obviously, but it was not the same sitting out – the whole atmosphere and the attention was pretty indescribable.”
And under the bright lights of The Big Dance, O’Brien he made it rain, shooting 7-of-9 from the floor and 4-of-6 from behind the arc en route to 18 points and five rebounds as the ninth-seed Owls knocked off eight-seed North Carolina State to survive and advance.
Temple fell two days later to top-seed Indiana, 58-52, but it didn’t diminish the magic of O’Brien’s moment.
“Just to be able to get a win in the tourney made even that much more of a difference.”
After graduating with a master’s degree in marketing, O’Brien returned home to Weymouth for the summer, before signing with Ferro-ZNTU. According to O’Brien, living in the Ukraine has been an adjustment off the court.
“The language barrier and the food,” laughed O’Brien as his biggest obstacles.
On the court, he’s hit the ground running and is slated to start at the power forward, while also spending some time at the small forward and center positions. The Superleague is a strong upper-mid level league stacked with high-level Americans.
“[The] competition is good; the league is loaded with some pretty good Americans. The Style is a little different; my team really likes to get out and fast break,” he explained.
“Four-men over here have to be able to shoot it — good for me I guess,” he laughed.
After overcoming injuries, the unexpected and the unknown, O’Brien is embracing whatever may lie ahead, even if its Ukrainian food.
“I’m going to get something to eat,” he laughed as he headed out the door and on to whatever awaits.