After experiencing pain in her back in December, it was discovered that she had a tumor near her spine. After a successful operation to remove the tumor, she was recovering at an Astoria rehabilitation center and complications from an infection set in. She spent her last few days at Sloan Kettering in Manhattan, surrounded by close friends from her Astoria home.
O'Connell was a major part of the youth basketball scene in Astoria for four decades, coaching at the Variety Boys & Girls Club, St. Pat’s, St. Joseph's and St. Margaret Mary’s CYO programs, and a host of AAU programs.
“She looked out for all her kids. She got them jobs, introduced them to high schools and made sure they committed themselves to excel on the court and the classroom," said George Stamatiades, a friend and former president of the Variety Boys & Girls Club.
“Miss Carol dedicated her entire life to giving her time, resources and her heart to kids who lived in the housing developments in Queens and kids from all over New York City. She developed countless boys from being able to dribble a basketball through high school, college and the NBA,” he continued.
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, and primarily African American kids,” said coach Rich Gordillo, who coached with and against her for the past ten years. If they won, great. If they lost, it wasn't the end of the world and the kids learned something as life went on."
Artie Cox, a friend and longtime basketball coach affiliated with Christ the King, first coached with O'Connell in the 1980s.
"She was truly a pioneer in the game,” he said. “After coaching girl's softball in the early 80s at St. Pat's 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. She was the most humble person I know. “She was a mentor to me and other young men who wanted to coach these kids."
Hundreds gathered at O'Connell's wake / funeral
One of the men at the wake talked about how he and a group of his friends were stuck in Flatbush, Brooklyn at 2AM one night in 1979 after finishing a pick-up basketball game quite late. They decided to call their coach on the rotary phone to get them out of this jam. "Sure she came to pick us up and we heard it for weeks after that, but she didn't even hesitate to come and drive us back to Astoria. That's the kind of woman she was .... there is nobody like 'Miss Carol,' he said. One mourner commented "..... if she does not make it to heaven then the rest of us are in real trouble."
O'Connell was known to surround herself with coaches who cared more about making young men better able to handle basketball and life. In the AAU world where many coaches have a priority on lifting their own reputation, O'Connell made it a priority to put the boy's needs first.
"Miss Carol was one of the few coaches who believed that I could become a Division 1 ballplayer," said Thomas Sanchez from Maspeth. "I felt I was too small. But she kept poking at me to work hard and believe in myself because she believed in me."
“In one tournament at the Variety Boys & Girls Club in Astoria, when I was 14, I found myself sitting on the bench waiting to go into the game when there was this large person who came and sat next to me. Wondering what was going on with someone not on the team sitting down next to me I glanced over and had to do a double-take. It was Joakim Noah and he started talking to me about what was going on with the game. He explained that he was once the smallest kid on his team and if ‘he’ made it so could I.... It was quite stunning. I had heard that Miss Carol coached him at one time, but I would never think that she would ask him to come and talk to someone like me. 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. Thomas is a now a sophomore at Fordham and plays for the Fordham Rams basketball team.
O'Connell often entered her teams in the Heroes Basketball league which plays in parks throughout Queens in the spring. League commissioner Walter Powles said all league uniforms will have a tribute patch to Miss Carol on their chest this season.
“We will never forget her bravery, her fight and her integrity. It’s a big loss for our basketball family here in Queens” said Powles.
A Probation Officer who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen
O'Connell grew up in Hell’s Kitchen and went to St. Joseph's College in Brooklyn. She had a long career with the Department of Probation for Queens Family Courts as an officer assigned to perform pre-sentencing investigations of kids who were to be tried as adults, with a typical case load of 50 kids at one time.
She was once described by Queens Family Court Administrative Judge Pearl Corrado as “one in a million” for her ability to instantly assess a child's situation.
"They know I care enough to argue with them, yell at them and worry about them, so we trusted each other," she once said. "Most just need to have contact with people who care and give a nudge to get them on the right path."
O'Connell could often be seen in her white van picking up or dropping off kids at Astoria Houses. On the court, O'Connell would try to spot that empowering moment for a kid and make them 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."
O'Connell would gather a bunch of kids into a team and enter them into tournaments, often paying out of her own pocket for the opportunity to expose them to a host of players from all over the city. When a kid reached a point where they no longer needed her, she would make sure they moved on in good hands and another child who needed her attention would pop into her life. "She left an indelible mark on the landscape of basketball in Queens. Our dear friend will be sorely missed. She was so 'giving' and she never wanted anything in return. A real hero,” said Matthew Troy, executive director of the Variety boys & Girls Club of Queens.
The wake for O'Connell took place at Quinn Funeral Home in Astoria on Tuesday, with the funeral mass at St. Joseph’s Church in Astoria on Wednesday, February 17. She had asked for donations to the “Aim High - Carol O'Connell Student Scholarship Fund” in lieu of flowers. St. Joseph's parish in Astoria has starting the fund this week and as of Wednesday morning has gotten some donations.