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Nets in the 80s: Gminski & O’Koren, Rivals to Teammates

Drafted back-to-back in 1980 after going head-to-head in North Carolina vs. Duke series

For four years, Mike Gminski and Mike O’Koren went head-to-head in the college basketball rivalry that stands above all others: Duke vs. North Carolina. Thanks to the now-defunct Big Four Tournament that often pitted the teams to tip off the season and a few ACC Tournament collisions, Duke’s Gminski and North Carolina’s O’Koren faced off 14 times in college.

“We actually went on our recruiting trip to Duke together,” said Gminski. “That’s how far back we go. Duke at that time thought they had a good chance of getting him because he went to the same high school as Jim Spanarkel who I played with at Duke. Michael would up going to North Carolina. It was different times back then. Now it seems like everybody knows everybody from coming up through AAU. But I never met him before.”

Three months after their final game as college opponents in the 1980 ACC Tournament, O’Koren and Gminski found out they were headed to the NBA together, improbably drafted with back-to-back picks by the Nets at sixth and seventh overall.

“Michael and I wound up being best friends,” said Gminski. “We roomed together during training camp every year. Our rookie year we had to room together, it wasn’t until the second year that guys go their own room on the road. We got pretty close pretty quick. Put that stuff behind us and became lifelong friends.”

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For O’Koren, it was a homecoming. The Jersey City native had starred at Hudson Catholic. Teaming up with Gminski added another layer to his comfort zone as he transitioned to the NBA.

“It was good because we were familiar with each other,” said O’Koren. “We’re best friends to this day. We still stay in touch. We don’t see each other much because of the way it is.”

They ended up as teammates for the next six seasons in New Jersey, with O’Koren returning briefly in 1987-88 after playing for Washington in 1986-87. The first season was the franchise’s last one at the Rutgers Athletic Center. Opposing vets would often take the night off rather than test their knees on what Gminski called “the hardest floor I’ve ever played on,” longtime coach Kevin Loughery was fired mid-season and the Nets finished 24-58, even as Gminski and O’Koren had solid debuts, each averaging double figures in scoring.

Things turned around the next season as the Nets moved to a new arena in the Meadowlands and welcomed new coach Larry Brown, rookies Buck Williams and Albert King, and All-NBA guard Otis Birdsong.

Beginning with the 20-win improvement in 1981-82, Gminski and O’Koren were part of Nets teams that made five straight playoff appearances, with both players seeing time in and out of the starting lineup.

“We had 10 guys that could play,” said O’Koren. “Practices were very competitive. But in the net, you just drew friendships. I look at it this way; there was no social media, no phones, so you talked to each other. After practice you went in, you stayed around, guys would get extra shots up. The trips we would take, a bus ride to Philadelphia, we go down the day of the game on the bus. The camaraderie of the team was so much more because you spent so much time talking with each other, not being on your phones. We had great camaraderie as a team. Everybody got along well. But when we got on the floor, we went at each other. That’s a way of getting respect out of your teammates. That’s why I think those teams were pretty good.”

Gminski took a step back before he took a step forward. He called that first season under Brown, 1981-82, “a lost year” after elbow surgery led to a staph infection. He came out of the hospital 50 pounds lighter and was still on medication when training camp started. It was under new coach Stan Albeck that things started to turn for Gminski. In his sixth NBA season he became the full-time starter at center, averaging 16.5 points in 1985-86, a high during his Nets tenure.

“Stan really was instrumental in my career and he kind of resurrected my career,” said Gminski. “He believed in me. I had really kind of mentally been beaten down by Larry, but Stan brought me back. I really kind of credit the rest of my career to him.”

Traded to Philadelphia during the 1987-88 season, Gminski averaged a career-high 17.2 points the next year while starting all but one Sixers game over his two full seasons there before moving on the Charlotte and then briefly Milwaukee to wrap up a 14-year career.

He’s been in Charlotte since 1991, getting into broadcasting with the original Hornets right after his career ended and doing their games for eight years before the team relocated to New Orleans. He pivoted to college hoops, revisiting his familiar ACC territory, and the 2018-19 season was his 25th in broadcasting.

O’Koren took a similar path to Gminski, at least at first. He returned to the Nets after his one season in Washington, but played just four games in 1987-88 before retiring, then began broadcasting Nets game on radio. It was O’Koren who was Ian Eagle’s first broadcast partner when the longtime Nets play-by-play man began broadcasting the team’s games on radio in 1994.

“After I was done, the Nets were very good to me,” said O’Koren. “Jim Lampariello, Michael Rowe, guys like that, they were just great guys and I got the chance to do games on radio and I loved it. Love the Nets to this day.”

While Gminski has remained in broadcasting for more than two decades, fate took O’Koren in a different direction. When the Nets got off to a dismal start to the strike-shortened season that began in Feb. 1999, coach John Calipari and most of his staff was let go. O’Koren was tabbed to help fill in for the short term, which soon became long-term.

“They left one coach there, Don Casey,” said O’Koren. “He was the only coach left from the prior staff. I remember walking with Rich Salatri, the strength coach, and Casey was there, just got the job, and he said, ‘would you like to coach tonight?’ I said, ‘jeez I’m glad I brought a suit.’ It was actually an afternoon game in Toronto. We got wiped out too, they were good. He said ‘one more night and then we’re going to get the regular coaching staff.’ I said ‘anything you need, I’ll just go back to radio.’ He said fine. We played the next night at the Meadowlands, we beat Dallas. Then we got out to Chicago and on a back-to-back you had a meeting and during that meeting I don’t know what happened Casey announced I would be with the team the rest of the year. I was thrilled. It was a great experience.”

After Byron Scott replaced Casey going into the 2000-01 season, O’Koren remained on the Nets bench through the 2002-03 season and two NBA Finals appearances. He specialized in player development, working with young Nets of the era like Richard Jefferson, Jason Collins and Brian Scalabrine, all rookies on the 2001-02 NBA Finals team. When fellow Nets assistant Eddie Jordan — briefly a Nets teammate back during 1980-81 season — got the head job in Washington after that season, O’Koren went with him as associate head coach.

The partnership took them through five-plus seasons in Washington, another with the Sixers in Philly, and then two years at Rutgers, Jordan’s alma mater, from 2014-16.

“We reconnected when Eddie came back and joined Casey’s staff,” said O’Koren, who’s been back on the air doing high school games in New Jersey for FIOS, plus community affairs, since the Rutgers tenured ended. “We go four years together with the Nets and then Eddie, great guy, terrific coach, gets the head job in Washington. We had playoff teams, six good years there.”

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