Johnny O’Brien was asked on Thursday where he’d be if he and his twin brother, Eddie, hadn’t been offered a basketball scholarship by Seattle University.
O’Brien, 89, stood on an elevated stage in the dimly lit ballroom at the Westin Seattle hotel, wearing a black suit and a red tie that matched the colors of his university. Sixty-eight years earlier, he stood on a similar stage, to accept the Male Sports Star of the Year Award at the Sports Star of the Year banquet in 1952.
But what if he hadn’t?
“If we didn’t get a scholarship to Seattle U,” O’Brien said on Thursday, “table 51 wouldn’t be here right now.”
Fortunately for the city of Seattle and its fans, table 51 — one of more than 70 tables stuffed inside the ballroom, and arguably the loudest — was filled with O’Brien’s friends and family. And fortunately for Seattle U, O’Brien became the first college player to score more than 1,000 points in a season in 1952 — despite the fact that he was an admittedly undersized 5-foot-9 center. O’Brien remains the Redhawks’ career scoring leader 66 years after he left the university to pursue a career in major-league baseball.
In Thursday’s 85th annual MTRWestern Sports Star of the Year banquet, O’Brien was the recipient of the Royal Brougham Award — “given to an individual for a lifetime of achievement in sports and who exemplifies the spirit of our state.”
And, without a doubt, O’Brien’s spirit was on display.
“No one would take Ed and I (for a basketball scholarship),” O’Brien told The Times prior to the banquet. “Who’s going to go for two 5-foot-9 guys from New Jersey? Seattle U took a chance on us, so we’ve never forgotten that.”
But the night’s other winners are worth remembering as well. The Seattle Sounders — who secured the franchise’s second MLS Cup in November — were perhaps the night’s biggest winner, taking home awards for Sports Story of the Year and Male Sports Star (forward Raúl Ruidíaz). The 29-year-old Ruidíaz led the Sounders in scoring for the second consecutive season, recording a goal and/or an assist in each of Seattle’s four playoff games.
The Female Sports Star award went to University of Washington junior shortstop Sis Bates, who was both a first-team All-American and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season in 2019. Bates currently owns the top career fielding percentage in Husky history and also led the team with a .387 batting average last season, propelling UW to a 52-9 record and a berth in the Women’s College World Series semifinals.
But Bates wasn’t the only UW athlete to take home hardware on Thursday. The Wayne Gittinger Inspirational Award was given to Husky redshirt sophomore midfielder Claudia Longo, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis during her senior year at Issaquah High School.
Unsurprisingly, the Seattle Seahawks were also well represented on Thursday. General manager and executive vice president John Schneider and his wife, Traci, accepted the Paul G. Allen Award — which honors an individual or individuals who have made a significant or compelling philanthropic contribution. Their eldest son, Ben, was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3, and in 2012 the Schneiders established Ben’s Fund — a nonprofit that has raised more the $4.35 million to help Washington families support children with their diagnosis.
The Keith Jackson Award — which honors “a member of the media for excellence in communicating the sports stories of our state” — was presented to ROOT Sports Northwest’s Angie Mentink, also notably the University of Washington’s first softball All-American.
It was a worthy list of nominees and winners — and perhaps none more so than the 5-9 center at table 51.
“I kind of figured they got to the bottom of the barrel and they picked me,” O’Brien said with a laugh, when asked for his reaction to receiving the award. “But I was delighted.”