While many households supplement their Thanksgiving dinner with some football, Westchester native Tim O’Toole − the University of Pittsburgh basketball associate head coach − has always kept hoops in his Turkey Day traditions.
The Stepinac and Fairfield grad has been coaching Division I college basketball since 1988, and there are hardly any days off on Feast Week.
This year, though, he’s thankful to be back home in New York for Thanksgiving − a rarity for a coach. He and the Panthers are playing in the NIT Season Tip-Off Tournament at Barclays Center in Brooklyn this week.
“Beyond excited, one thing growing up in the metropolitan area is that basketball is well-respected in the area,” O’Toole said. “I’m all over the place right now, but in the number of times I’ve been back in the preseason NIT tournament, or coming back to Barclays or New York, and you bring teams from California − I was at Stanford at the time, and guys in the subway would see our team and they knew the rosters, and it was shocking to me because Stanford is 3,000 miles away, but that’s New York. Hoops − people just get it in New York. They like it and they love to watch it.”
Pitt is 4-0 entering its semifinal game against Florida, which is set to tip off 9:30 Wednesday night. Depending on the result of that game, the Panthers will face either Baylor or Oregon State in the conclusion of the tournament on Friday.
Florida is 3-1, its lone loss coming by a 73-70 score against Virginia.
“It’s early in the season, and we’ve gotten off to a good start, and we’ve got a whole slate coming down our path,” O’Toole said. “Florida in the first game, then Baylor and Oregon State. These are all Power 5 guys and it’s time to test your mettle. Like them, I think we’re ready for them, and we’re going to find out. We better be ready to come in and compete.”
O’Toole remains proud of his Westchester roots. Although he’s moved many times over his 30-plus years of coaching, he’s retained his 914 area code phone number. And there’s been many stops along his coaching career, which includes Fordham, Army, Iona, Syracuse, Duke, Seton Hall, Stanford, California and an eight-year head coaching gig at his alma mater, Fairfield.
Although he resides in Pittsburgh, he says he comes to Westchester about once every two months, and still has his brother, two sisters, other family members and friends in the Lower Hudson Valley.
“My home will always be White Plains,” he said. “I was born in Brooklyn, raised in White Plains. Growing up as a basketball guy, my father was a hell of a player in Brooklyn and went to Boston College where he’s in the hall of fame there. He took me and my siblings to every gym in the New York area, so it just became a second home − all these gymnasiums throughout the five boroughs and Westchester.”
Whenever he comes home, he makes sure to hit his favorite Westchester and New York City spots, like Sal’s Pizza and Walter’s Hot Dogs in Mamaroneck, Katz’s Deli in New York City, and other O’Toole family favorites in Rye and White Plains.
This time though, he’s unsure if he’ll get a chance to meet his family in Westchester on Thursday for Thanksgiving dinner. Between film breakdown, meetings and game prep for Friday’s game, there might not be much time.
His sons, Collin and Jameson, are also both preoccupied with their own Feast Week duties. Collin is a sophomore at Villanova, which is headed to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. Meanwhile, younger brother Jameson plays at Fordham.
“It’s hit-or-miss, but the reality is with basketball you understand that you usually don’t get both Christmas and Thanksgiving,” O’Toole said. “I don’t know where we were last year, but now with Collin and his little brother Jameson playing, your family’s never together. Since we’ve moved to Pittsburgh, you don’t have that many opportunities to have Thanksgiving.”
As the Panthers prepare to take on Florida to begin the tournament, O’Toole left some tidbits of advice for aspiring collegiate hoopers or those trying to make a name for themselves, as high school basketball practices begin across the Lower Hudson Valley.
Scouts and college coaches pay plenty of attention to attitude, body language and other intangibles, in addition to box score stats and highlights from each game.
“Be a great teammate,” O’Toole said. “At the end of the day, everyone’s trying to win, so wherever you can help your team win, then you’re gonna have a great chance to be a member of that team. Then, it becomes a question of where you fit in with your role, but be a great teammate and that can take on different forms.
“That would be No. 1, and No. 2 is keep learning. Most people think they’ve arrived and you can score, but night in and night out you play different opponents. They’re going to do different things. They scout what you do, they’re always going to try to take away your strengths and maximize your weaknesses, so your ability to stay with it and keep learning is important.”