1999 ATP TOURNAMENT THE CINCINNATI ENQUIRER MONDAY, AUGUST 9, 1999 One-armed player never saw himself as handicapped
Ky. champ just ordinary Joe
BY SAM MELLINGER
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Joe O'Brien swears he didn't know he was different. Just a good tennis player, that's all.
He never spent much time feeling sorry for himself just because he was born with a left arm that stopped at the elbow.
"You can't help it, so what are you going to do about it?" he said. "Besides, even if you have two arms, that doesn't mean you can do anything. You still gotta prove it."
O'Brien did just that May 17, 1932. Using his left arm to toss his serve and his right for everything else, O'Brien beat Charles Coleman (6-0, 6-2, 6-2) to win the first Kentucky tennis singles state title.
"That made me feel great," said O'Brien, now 86 and still living in Fort Thomas. "It wasn't because of the arm, but I always had a bit of an inferiority complex. I always felt I had to prove myself. After that, I looked at the map of Kentucky, all those little towns like Glasgow, Raven, Ashcamp. And I said, 'Wow, I'm the champion of that whole state.' "
O'Brien's victory attracted attention, as much because of his physical disability as his tennis ability. O'Brien didn't think of himself as handicapped -- "I didn't even know I had one until I read about it in the newspapers," he says -- so he wasn't ever comfortable being the "one-armed man."
"Then and a few years after that, all the headlines would be something like, 'One-armed tennis player defeats club champion,' " he said. "I was very happy then, after a few years, when people, especially the local newspapers, started referring to me as just Joe O'Brien. That was nice."
FUN FACT Hall of Famer Frank Shields, winner of the Tri-State in 1930, is the grandfather of actress Brooke Shields.
Perhaps they stopped thinking of O'Brien as handicapped and started thinking like one of his childhood friends, who once told O'Brien, "Maybe we'd think about it if you didn't always beat the hell out of us in whatever we play."
Tom Price never thinks of O'Brien as handicapped. Nine years younger, Price approached O'Brien for some advice. Price, then 19, was having trouble in tournaments with players backing him up too far.
"He just looked at me and said, 'I haven't seen you play, but maybe I can help,"' Price said. "We went out there for 30 minutes or so and he told me to start my backswing as soon as possible. I never had any problems after that.
"You know, he was the only player who really helped me. Some bad players, they'd give me advice, but he was the only good player who really helped me. I'll never forget that."
Price isn't kidding. He stays in regular contact with O'Brien, who is now legally blind, even takes him out to lunch every few weeks or so.
The instant Price's name is mentioned, O'Brien smiles and knows exactly what's coming.
"I could probably tell you word-for-word what he said about that day," O'Brien said. "He says that to me every time I see him, he really never has forgotten that.
"It was no big deal, I liked him, I would help anybody, it's just a natural thing to do. He talked to me about the problem and I helped him. And he appreciates it, that's always nice when people appreciate it. Of course, at the time, I didn't know he'd remind me about it everyday."
O'Brien may not think it was a big deal, just like he didn't think his lack of a left hand was a big deal. And that's the impression that O'Brien leaves on a visitor.
He doesn't ask for attention in words, he attracts it in action.
"This thing about the arm, I just never thought about it," he said. "My family never talked about it, my friends never talked about, so I never really thought about it. Besides, when I was playing, I wanted people to know about me because of my tennis, not my arm."
A LOOK BACK...
Copyright 1999 The Cincinnati Enquirer, a Gannett Co. Inc. newspaper.
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