The first time I saw John Orman was in 2003. I had just finished playing pick-up basketball in the Rec Plex at Fairfield University, and I glanced over at the next court over.
Most of the guys playing were students, with some grad assistants and a few young teachers from Fairfield Prep joining them. All of them were athletic. Some of them could dunk.
One of them didn’t fit in. He had gray hair that flopped around as he ran. He wore warmup pants, not shorts. Most noticeably, he had a deadly jump shot that you could count on him making from seemingly anywhere.
I asked a guy near me who the old guy was.
“That’s Doc Orman,” the kid said. “Plays here all the time.”
Maybe it’s fitting that the last place I saw Doc, who died suddenly early this week, was right next door to the Rec Plex, at Alumni Hall. I was in town to cover the Fairfield-Rider game in January, and he was perched in the stands, where he was for every Stags home game.
There are college people, there are basketball people, and there are college basketball people. A lot of people you meet while covering college hoops – or while attending college, for that matter – are one or the other.
There are brainy academics who thumb their noses at athletics and cocky point guards who don’t bother showing up for class more than once or twice a semester.
Then there was John Orman, who could never get away from politics or from basketball.
Regretfully, I never took one of Doc’s classes. I should have, because he was the best professor Fairfield had – a guy who, rather than assign readings on Congressional races, actually went out and ran for Congress, which he did in 1984 against unbeatable incumbent Stuart McKinney. After McKinney predictably sloshed Doc, Doc invited the Congressman to his classroom to speak to his students.
Two decades later, he didn’t just tell his students why Joe Lieberman wasn’t a good Democrat. He went out and challenged the former Veep nominee in a primary that Lieberman eventually lost, albeit to millionaire Ned Lamont.
In that short-lived but entertaining campaign Doc waged in 2005 (he dropped out of the race, fittingly for a professor, when he couldn’t afford the gas to drive across the state), I got to know him well when I covered the race for The Fairfield Mirror. I’d sit in his office and look over the campaign documents he handed me, but talk always – always! – drifted to hoops.
In addition to being a season-ticket holder, he was the faculty advisor to the men’s basketball team, doing whatever he could to make sure the Stags’ graduation rate stayed near 100 percent.
His office had books about everyone from Reagan to Castro and plenty of campaign memorabilia on the walls. Nothing was more eye-grabbing, though, than the framed photo of a fellow Indiana State alum named
Larry Bird. (Doc's photo was of Larry in a Celtics uniform, but Doc would love this shot, of the Hick from French Lick in ISU blue).
Doc’s classes, I’m told, were like games. At the end of each semester, he’d hand out an award to the MVP of the class. He was far to the left on the political spectrum but would have given Newt Gingrich an ‘A,’ then had a beer with him at the end of the semester.
Anthony Genovese, a former suitemate of mine and the most ardent Republican I’ve ever met, thought the politics department that Doc ran was the least
politically biased department on campus.
Doc loved the sport of politics more than any particular pol or party, but he got a twinkle in his eye whenever he talked about the potential revitalization of his beloved Democratic Party during the Bush years, when I was a student.
When I saw him for the last time last January, his face lit up with the first mention of Barack Obama’s election, which he could analyze as well as anyone on MSNBC or Fox News.
I mentioned that perhaps the biggest surprise of that night was that Indiana – Doc’s beloved home state – had gone to the Democrats for the first time since 1964. He let out a hearty laugh, the kind that never failed to light up a room. I wish I had had more time to talk, but the game was about to start.
I had to get back to the press table, and Doc had to settle into his seat.
For a hoops junkie like John Orman, no time was better than Game Time.