The big show in town

The Cork version of the Montagues and Capulets erupts again tonight.

The clash of UCC Demons and Bord Gáis Neptune has all the constituent elements: pedigree and longevity. Neighbours. Bitterness.

A highlight of Basketball Ireland’s cup finals weekend?

“I’d say so, for a lot of Cork people anyway,” says Ger Noonan, Neptune captain. “A local derby in a national cup semi-final being played in Cork? I suppose it’s going to be the main attraction. It certainly has been for the last couple of years.”

There was a time when the rivalry came with a poisoned edge. Noonan can remember the — literal — rough and tumble days, but feels there’s been a change.

“I think there’s a lot more respect there now between the clubs. I remember when I came out of minor you’d be watching fellas getting put into the first row of seats during games, that kind of thing.

“That’s gone to a large extent, and I suppose it’s a good thing and a bad thing. There’s still a bitter rivalry, but it’s all about the basketball rather than fisticuffs.

“There hasn’t been that much crossover in terms of players lately, either. The O’Reilly brothers went to Demons but they stayed with them. I went to Killarney for a while but you don’t have that amount of fellas going to other teams, really.”

That’s part of the double bind for modern Irish basketball. Everyone has a memory of the golden 80s which they’ll whip out on the slightest pretext. Does that ever grate with the new breed, the constant references to glory days of 30 years ago?

“It does and it doesn’t,” says Noonan. “I’m an 80s baby myself, and I can remember being six or seven and having to queue for two and a half hours to get into games.

“But you have to remember that, bar a couple of games a year, league and maybe a cup game for Demons-Neptune, those were the only times you were really getting a crowd at a game — a major crowd.

“I’ve had this conversation with people. You’ve got a lot of bandwagon-jumpers when it comes to the cup, and that goes for both clubs. But if you’re not playing in the States or whatever, then playing national league is the highlight for an Irish player. From the age of 11, 12, that’s what you’re aiming for.

“But then when you make it, you can end up playing above in Moycullen on a wet night, in front of 30 people. Hard enough given the amount of training and effort, the time away from your family and so on. It’s okay for the youngsters on the team, it’s all a great experience, but it’s harder, obviously, for those of us with kids.”

There’s a heavy southern tinge to the games this weekend. Why does Noonan think the game is so popular in Cork and Kerry, say?

“I’d often hear from lads that basketball is a soft sport until they come to a game and see the elbows and the broke noses.

“When I was playing in Killarney, for instance, you had two Americans, another foreigner on a Bosman and me then, from Cork — a foreigner as well — but it’s an exciting game when it’s played right. When I first started you had the likes of Kenny Gamble, a really exciting player.

“From a personal point of view, I thought that in Killarney you’d notice that soccer wasn’t as big there as it is in Cork. At that time you were playing in front of 2,000 people every night — it was the second best sport you could watch, if you weren’t on the Kerry football team, then the next best thing was to be a basketballer.”

And if you were a Kerry footballer and a basketballer...

“I’d be pally enough with Kieran [Donaghy], and he had a huge impact on the sport below — when he won Footballer of the Year, people took a lot of interest in basketball as well, to see what it had given his football game.”

Noonan also sees what Cork has given basketball. He welcomes the cup weekend to the southern capital as a victory for common sense.

“From when Demons started to dominate in the early 2000s, I always thought it was silly for Basketball Ireland to have the cup semi-finals in Dublin.

“When I played with Killarney we played Demons in the semi-final twice in the National Stadium, whereas if those games had been played in the Neptune Stadium, a neutral venue, you’d have filled the place.

“I think it finally clicked with them, though, that having so many teams from Munster means it makes sense to have the games in Cork. Even for Kerry people, you’re only in the car and you’re out of it again in Cork, the roads are so good now.”

And you know where all those roads lead tonight.

PICTURE: GREAT GAS: Blue Demons’ Kenton Walker and Bord Gáis Neptune’s Darren Townes share a joke ahead of the National Cup semi-finals. Picture: Denis Scannell.

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