By Christopher James
Berkshire Eagle Staff
February 22, 2012
PITTSFIELD — Tony Simonelli still remembers when Bob O’Neil asked to meet him for coffee last summer at Dottie’s on North Street.
It wasn’t unusual for the lifelong friends to get together and talk. On this day, the two discussed basketball — they coached the Pittsfield High girls together in the early 1990s — and family for about 45 minutes. Then, O’Neil dropped some stunning news on Simonelli: He had been diagnosed with ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“This was a bad deck of cards he was dealt,” Simonelli said. “I was shocked. I was saddened for sure. I’ve known the guy for 58 years. Bob’s just a great guy.”
Simonelli wasn’t the only one who thought so. A smiling O’Neil was honored by seemingly every corner of Pittsfield — including Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi — on Tuesday in a ceremony before his former team, the Taconic girls, hosted Wahconah Regional. Bianchi presented the former coach, who led Pittsfield to three Western Massachusetts titles, with a key to the city and declared Tuesday Robert M. O’Neil day.
Perhaps the biggest honor was announced by Pittsfield Public Schools athletic director Jim Abel: The establishment of a Hall of Fame for girls basketball in Berkshire County.
O’Neil was also given certificates of recognition signed by state representative Paul Mark and U.S. representative John Olver. He was given an award from the Berkshire County Board of Basketball Officials, presented by Mike Kinne. Taconic principal John Vosburgh and Pittsfield Boys & Girls Club program director Chris Keegan spoke warmly of the former coach.
O’Neil, 64, said through his wife Betty that he was “completely overwhelmed” by the surprise ceremony on the court at Taconic High School. His daughter Angela, a sophomore for the Braves, said the Hall of Fame was something her dad had long pushed for.
“I think this will make his whole life that they’re doing [the Hall of Fame],” Angela said. “I just think giving him the key to the city is amazing. I feel so heartwarmed about it. I can’t thank everybody enough for everything they’ve done for us.”
There were plenty of good feelings to go around at Tuesday’s ceremony, the brainchild of Abel and attorney Bill Barry. O’Neil had long been a staple of girls basketball in the county until he had to step down as coach at Taconic last year. He coached Pittsfield for a decade before moving to Taconic in 2005. He also coached at the youth and AAU levels, taught at Taconic and was a longtime official.
Simonelli said O’Neil’s knowledge of basketball was vast. He was always willing to talk about the game, even recently when Kinne and his brother, former Monument Mountain girls coach Tom, visited with him. He attended camps all the time, including coaching at those run by Connecticut women’s coach Geno Auriemma.
“For the girls game in this city, there’s probably not many people that you can say has had more of an impact than he has,” said current Braves coach Matt Mickle. “He’s put tons of time and effort into it. He really cared about the girls and he did right by them.”
That impact was on display Tuesday. Besides the two teams that would play on the court, both Pittsfield and Drury’s girls basketball teams, who were playing later across town, attended. Wahconah coach June Blake, who played against O’Neil-coached teams in the late 90s, said she tried to pick up coaching techniques from him.
“ When you think about Berkshire County basketball, you think about Bob O’Neil,” Blake said. “ He was vocal. He was always a coach you would hear on the sidelines. Now, looking back at it, I learn a lot from coaches that I’ve seen and he’s one of those. … He’s definitely one I always think of when I think about coaches.”
Mickle said he was devastated when he heard the news O’Neil had delivered himself to Simonelli in the summer. It was a reaction shared by most who knew the former coach. Tuesday’s many honors were just more examples of the support O’Neil told his wife he had always felt from the city of Pittsfield.
Bianchi’s declaration simply put it in writing.
“Bob O’Neil has been such a fabric of this community as a teacher and a coach,” Bianchi said. “My kids had Bob as a teacher. They loved him. He’s just such an intelligent, nice, warm human being.”
To reach Christopher James:firstname.lastname@example.org, or (413) 496-6252.