She’s come an Offaly long way
Hall of Famer Susan Moran is probably the greatest female basketballer Ireland has produced. Today in Manhattan, her contribution to college basketball in America will be recognised. We spoke to the Tullamore native about her career in Philadelphia and her official elevation to legendary status
By John Riordan
It’s a grey, sharply cold Sunday afternoon outside one of the oldest sports facilities in the US, the Rose Hill Gym, home to the basketball teams of New York’s Fordham University.
Dede Danagher has been waiting around to say hello to Susan Moran before the Tullamore native hops on the St Joseph’s University team bus and heads back to Philadelphia. Later, after the Irish Examiner gets our turn to chat with the former Irish international basketballer, widely regarded as the greatest the women’s game in Ireland has ever produced, Ms Danagher is waiting outside the stone walls of the venerable old Bronx institution.
“We used to come and watch Susan play for St Joe’s here all the time,” she tells me, beaming as though she’s speaking about one of her own. “She really was a big deal. Nobody from Ireland ever coached in the game in the US before her. It’s pretty incredible.”
Later this morning in Manhattan, Moran will be inducted to the inaugural Atlantic 10 Conference Women’s Basketball Legends class, representing her beloved St Joe’s on what will be a big day for the team she now helps coach. As soon as the ceremony is over, she will make a break for Brooklyn to the new basketball arena across the East River where Fordham will again provide the opposition but this time with so much more at stake, an A-10 decider to which the Hawks advanced courtesy of a sensational win over Dayton last Sunday.
Recently promoted to Associate Coach by her own former coach Cindy Griffin, Moran enjoyed a stellar collegiate career as a player which allowed her experience a few seasons of professional basketball in New York, Spain, New Zealand and Australia. The Women’s NBA team, New York Liberty, recruited her in 2002, swayed by some impressive stats, not the least of which was the fact that she started all 122 of her college games. She led the team in scoring and rebounds in all four of her seasons and by the end of her career, she was captain and cult hero.
A few days after watching her side lose in Fordham in an overtime thriller, a follow-up phone call finds Moran in a car park in Camden, New Jersey waiting for a high school game to begin so that she can continue to build a profile on a potential 2014 recruit. It’s never advisable to sit alone in a car park in Camden, New Jersey but this prospect is “worth it”, claims Moran who is also responsible for international recruiting. She says she’s pretty content with how they’ve build their team but if there’s another diamond out there in the rough, lonely trips like these are well worth it.
Camden is practically a suburb of Philly, located as it is just over the Delaware River. Any youngster with athletic ambition in South Jersey would tend towards the Philly where basketball schools in particular thrive: Villanova, Temple, University of Pennsylvania, La Salle and St Joe’s make up what is informally known as the Big Five.
Moran describes those games with the local rivals as intense — “every game was a battle” — and the fact that she has also been named a Big Five Hall of Famer has a special place in her heart. The fact that she has been named an A-10 Legend is also a source of pride but she does admit that it’s a title which has given her father Martin a huge kick.
“He thinks it’s hysterical,” she admits laughing. Every phone call home to Offaly, she adds, is answered with mock deference: “Is that the legend?”
Her journey to this point could never be described as orthodox. The priority was tennis initially and she was good enough to represent her country for the first time, a couple of years before she excelled on a different court.
At the Sacred Heart Secondary School, she and her tennis friends were looking for something else to put their energy into so they decided to give basketball a go.
“We figured we might have an extra excuse to get out of class,” she recalls laughing. “We started at the lowest level. It was new to our coach Ann Ganley as well but she kind of realised, ‘wow I have a bunch of athletic girls here and they’re all good friends, we might be on to something’. She started going to coaching classes and by the time we left school, we were A Division champions.”
She’s still best friends with them: Susan Flynn, Ciara Quinlan and Emily Bryan who coaches in Waterford.
Division I is the highest tier of college sports in the US. Moran says she doesn’t remember when exactly this lofty ambition started to become a reality. She had offers in Boston and New York (Fordham ironically) but St Joe’s offered the right combination of city proximity and playing potential as well as boasting a picturesque campus.
“I knew I wanted to go east coast so I wouldn’t be too far from family. I wanted to be in a big city. If I was going to do this, I had to be in either Boston, New York or Philadelphia. “St Joe’s is perfect — you feel like you’re in the suburbs. There are trees and yet you’re so close to the city. It has a nice balance.
“I figured that if I went Division II, I’d always be wondering what could have happened but by going Division I, I could easily drop down if it didn’t work out.”
Her new team mates were mystified by her. The polo shirt she wore when those first introductions were made may have been a la mode in the midlands in the late 1990s but that was never going to cut it Philly.
“Yeah they made fun of me,” she acknowledges with a chuckle.
Thankfully, the second impressions were more important and impressive as she settled in to the playing side quickly. By career’s end, the SJU Hawks had retired her No 10 jersey, only the second time in the college’s history that’s happened.
“It was all such a blur that first year. At home you’d practice three times a week and now all of a sudden I was up at 6am at the track. I wasn’t sure what I’d signed up for. But I was so busy and so overwhelmed by everything that I just kept going. I was adjusting as I was going along but homesickness didn’t even hit me.
“There were people around me supporting me, my class was amazing. They were great, they took care of me. The first year I only went to the city twice because I was petrified. But I’m a city girl now.”
Coach Griffin arrived to take the reins at her alma mater just before Moran’s senior (or final) year at St Joe’s began.
“I had watched some film of her and had seen the stats on paper but it’s not until you see her live… it’s so hard to grasp,” says Griffin. “Why is she scoring all these points? You can watch all the film you want on her but it’s not until you see her in person that you really begin to see what she’s capable of.
“She played the game in slow motion. She played at a speed that was remarkable. That’s what the best players do.”
So taken by her leadership qualities, Griffin’s radar never left Moran out of her sight even when she was enjoying the professional lifestyle in Manhattan and Barcelona.
“I wanted to get my MBA and get into the business world. I hadn’t ever thought about it until Coach Griffin said it to me one day that she’d like me to be on her staff. At that point I’d been with the Liberty and I’d been to Spain. I wanted to play a little bit more and see a bit more of the world, have an adventure I suppose. She offered me a coaching job during the year and then go play where I want during the summer. I was being offered the chance to further my education for free during the winter and go play professionally during the summer. I was like, ‘Great! Sign me up!’
“At first it was just a practical choice but then I realised I couldn’t leave it behind so I stuck with coaching. There aren’t many jobs where you’re excited driving into work, like on gameday for example. I feel really blessed that I can have that. It doesn’t feel like a job. What it gives back is incredible.”
Her contentment is palpable. Yes, she admits, she has head coaching ambitions and yes she has received the odd phone call from elsewhere but she’s happy at St Joe’s right now and has never let those ambitions get in the way of the job at hand.
“Do I want to be an assistant forever? No. But I work for an incredible boss. It’s not like I’m trying to get out. I love the school, I love the people. For me to ever leave it would have to be the right fit. I’m not going to swap Philly for a college in Iowa. But never say never — I have an adventurous streak.”
Her one career regret is the dissolution of the national teams back home.
“There were maybe five girls who came out to the US to play before me. But then after me, there was a sudden increase. Michelle Fahy, Siobhan Kilkenny, the O’Reilly sisters a little later. This great group of basketballers came out here and they knew it would be a step up but training wise and facility wise, it would be another level and it would benefit them.
“The last time we all went out to play for Ireland, we almost qualified for the A Division. We lost in Iceland and we were all ready to roll the following year. We were getting older but you still had a good core. Then they cut the team. It makes me really sad. I loved playing for my country. I think it’s a shame that that opportunity is gone now. It’s hard for young kids playing the game. What are they looking towards?
“That’s the thing about this (Hall of Fame) honour I’ll be getting. People will be asking where in Philly I’m from. I’m not from Philly — I’m from Tullamore.
“We’re really good at what we do. We have some great athletes. I think we need to push them on to the next level We never got the chance to really make some noise. We almost made it and the chance was taken away.”
“Susan has a great love of the game,” notes Griffin. “She’s a competitor. From a teaching standpoint, the kids learn a lot from her. When she steps on the court she has immediate respect just because of all the accolades she has received.
“The big step for her was to evolve from the Susan the player into Susan the coach. That is hard for players sometimes who have that (win) every day attitude and find themselves coaching players who aren’t as competitive as you or as smart as you or as good as you. It’s about bringing out the best in every player. She has evolved into a very good coach and very good representative of the university.”
Much of New York City will be focused today on the St Patrick’s Day Parade up Fifth Avenue. But in a state-of-the-art arena in Brooklyn, the one time polo shirt wearing girl from Tullamore will be doing the tricolour infinitely more justice.
“The fact that it’s the inaugural class makes it extra special,” she admits. “I’m pretty humbled they chose me to be honest.”
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