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Sam Smith: Ociepka offers first-hand take on mob movies

Bulls assistant coach Bob Ociepka lived it, then he wrote about it in "Minestrone for the Mobster Soul: Life Lessons from the Movie Mafia."
Sam Smith at Bulls.com

Sam Smith: Ociepka offers
first-hand take on mob movies


Bob Ociepka Bulls assistant coach Bob Ociepka has over 30 years of coaching experience and has been in the NBA for 19 seasons.

There was the time the priest in the K-town neighborhood—which Chicago West Side kids know as that area around Kildare, Kedvale and Keeler—had been, as they said, laying hands on one of the kids.

When the other guys heard about it, they caught the priest one night coming home from bingo and banged out more shots with some Louisville Sluggers than old Billy Williams used to do at Wrigley. Justice was a dish served judiciously.

Or the time the guys, after the cops came around to shut off the fire hydrant—or johnny pump—the kids were using for a shower on that stifling summer day, heard one of their old men moaning about his finances and bills and how he would be better off if his garage burned. So the guys decided on their own to do a "good deed" and torched the place, only to have one caught, though the kid didn't rat out any of his buddies. You're never a rat, though the kid spent a few years away at juvvy.

The sights and sounds of Chicago are there, from 16-inch with a Clincher to fast pitch after hopping the fence at the schoolyard, the wise guys in Eldos, the moms off to mass as often as they can, Phil Georgeff calling at Sportsman's, the '69 Cubs and the Goat. Everyone's got an uncle, though as the kid wondered in a Sopranos episode, "Why do we call all these guys 'uncle' if we're not even related?" You just do.

There was the jukebox king who got whacked, the wise guy who shouldn't have been making drug deals on the side and how those five bullets weren't good for his health, the kid who had to become the precinct captain and get that garbage collected when his dad kicked, the nuns at Catholic school, the BVM's—Black Veiled Monsters—and the clickers to signal the kids to genuflect and tying the nun's habit to the podium in class and the Our Lady of Angels fired—50 years ago last week—and flying down the stairs like Willie Galimore and escaping, which 90 or so kids couldn't.

It's all part of a delightful "fictional" account of 1950's, 1960's and 1970's life in Chicago, especially the West Side near Chicago and Ashland and Grand and Pulaski, where Bulls assistant coach Bob Ociepka and his cousin Bruno Ociepka lived and wrote about in "Minestrone for the Mobster Soul: Life Lessons from the Movie Mafia."

Ociepka, who coached for seven NBA teams before joining the Bulls this season, and Bruno have collaborated on an entertaining story underlined with teachings of morality and reality from their parents which they have lived by and passed on to their children and lie at the heart of the great mobster movies of the era, like Godfather, Bronx Tale, Donnie Brasco, the Departed and the TV series, The Sopranos.

Since the book is intended as "fiction," Bob lists himself as Bobby Madura and Bruno as Joey DiBruno, and a large part of the volume is their lists and summaries of the best Hollywood has offered about life in the mob, which they see as a reflection of the American family.

It is tales of family, loyalty, trust, justice, politics, respect, business, responsibility, love, honor and friendship.

So what else is there?

"There's truth to all the stories," says Bob, who has his own remarkable story coming from Gordon Tech and York high schools directly to the NBA, something of the Kevin Garnett of coaches. "We did change the names. We didn't want to get clipped."

You know, people who know people. You know how it is.

"My mother's aunt did work for the juke box king who one day a guy ends up in the trunk of a car after getting caught skimming money," Bob recalled. "She wanted to quit but they wouldn't let her. Everyone was nervous. There was some crazy stuff.

"One of the guys I grew up with his brother ran a gambling club and was involved with laundering money," Bob said. "Guys I grew up with did some of those pranks."

You, too, Bob?

"I don't want to say."

Though Bob does recall the horrific Our Lady of Angels fire on December 1, 1958 that killed more than 90.

"We were between Our Lady of Angels and St. Philomena's and we just went the other way," Bob recalled. "I remember coming home from school that day and my mom hugging me and saying, 'Thank God we sent you to St. Philomena.' We knew kids who survived that fire."

Bob was voted into the Catholic League Hall of Fame in 2000 and had played at Providence St. Mel's in high school. He played basketball at Quincy College, though his fondest memories were of the regular games at Navy Pier which would draw the best players from around the city. He settled into high school basketball coaching and figured it was a good life.

A good living, something right, and a chance to still see the old neighborhood guys.

He had been doing some scouting at the Chicago Stadium for mentor Dick Versace when Versace was a Pistons assistant. "They probably were just throwing the stuff in the garbage and not looking at it," says Bob. "But I didn't care. I was getting to sit courtside at NBA games."

Versace was a legendary coach at Gordon Tech and kept his eye on Ociepka, who is regarded as an offensive specialist and has written two basketball books on offense.

"I'm at York in my office and one day Versace calls and asks if I want to come coach in the NBA," Ociepka recalls, still laughing about the surreal moment. "I said, 'Sure. When do I leave? 'I knew it was him joking. He said if I get the job at Indiana (Pacers, which Versace did) it would be right away. You go Gordon to York and you don't have the same kids. Versace was throwing me some stuff, I later realized, to prepare me for that one day. So I'm at Proviso West scouting and three days later I'm on the bench in the NBA.

"I didn't even dare dream anything like that then. It was too unbelievable."

After Versace was dismissed from the Pacers, Ociepka earned his way around the NBA with the Clippers, 76ers, Cavs, Pistons, Bucks and Timberwolves and now almost 20 years on NBA benches.

He says he and Bruno had this idea about writing lessons for life that derived from their West Side roots and which they'd seen and was celebrated—at least in their view—in so many of these movies.

Not exactly the gangland executions. But providing for family and friends, being loyal and circumspect and working hard, and all the old sayings and clichés, like keeping friends close and enemies closer, stuff they'd heard around the house and passed on to their own kids.

So they toyed with writing a book for fun. Kicks. Jerome Kersey, who played with the Trail Blazers, introduced them to a Hollywood writer who suggested stories to illustrate the lesson and messages. A Cavs coach suggested the colorful ranking of the top 100 mob films of all time, the worst, the funniest, the TV shows.

So Bobby and Joey one day are cruising Lake Shore Drive on the way to Oak Street Beach (they're in sleeveless t-shirts) listening to that "jamoke" Mike North on the radio. That's how the book begins.

The language isn't for young children, but they do hear it in the neighborhood. And the guys on the Score aren't talking sports for a change, but mob movies, and listeners are calling in with their favorites. And it has to be the Godfather, but some guy says Miller's Crossing and there was Donnie Brasco and Goodfellas and, geez, someone says Scarface, and hey, that's no mob movie, but Pacino with a messed up accent.

The ride didn't happen quite that way and they didn't get the idea from a radio show, but it's a clever Chicago entry to begin a book about Chicago. For Chicagoans, about Chicagoans, whether you are from the North Side or South Side or Sox fan or Cubs fan or just want to know why Chicago guys sound like they do.

The dialogue is authentic because the Ociepkas sound like that and they know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy.

Bob's favorite?

"Godfather I and II. It's the Bible," he says.

The book is available on Amazon.com and you can find it at mobmovielessons.com. There's also a YouTube "commercial" the Ociepkas put together that's terrific (check it out below).

It's really not completely personal, to paraphrase Michael Corleone. It's also business.

They could have tried to get out. But why bother? You'd only get pulled back in. And Bob says they kind of like it that way.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors.