The Kieran Shannon Interview: Indomitable Summers never stopped believing

A decade on from crossing paths with NBA superstar Steph Curry, Templeogue’s Lawrence ‘Puff’ Summers takes the latest step in his own incredible journey this weekend. After 10 eventful years in Ireland, there’s still one trophy he’s desperate to claim.

Puff Summers gets in some development work with youngsters at the South East Regional Development Academy in St Kieran's College. Picture: Pat Moore

“A few days before my departure the team manager told me they had signed an American point guard who would be travelling on the same flight to Shannon. When I emailed to ask who I should look for he replied ‘A short black fella named Puff.’ I thought he had to be joking but it turned out that he really was called Puff and wouldn’t hit you in the eye for saying it to his face either. Puff had grown up on the pudgy side and the family nickname stayed with him even after he became an NCAA Division One athlete. I was a little self-conscious at first. It felt strange to call a grown man ‘Puff’. But I would end up loudly calling Puff’s name many times on the basketball court.” — Pete Strobl, Deadspin

Just months before Liam McHale would heartily welcome him to the west of Ireland and regale him in the hostelries of Ballina, the man known as Puff encountered another legend, the one that would go on to be known as Steph.

Only back then, in the late summer of 2007, Lawrence Summers would have initially dismissed his alma mater Davidson College’s latest recruit as the son of Dell Curry, a former NBA player with the Hornets 20 miles down the road in Charlotte.

Summers was a couple of years out of the Davidson programme but still part of its family, so when he needed somewhere to work out ahead of trials to play in Europe, he was free to use the campus facilities and work out with coach Bob McKillop’s present roster, including its baby-faced freshman guard Curry.

“I got there the first day and they said, ‘Oh, Dell Curry’s son, he’s supposed to be real good’ but when I saw him I was like, ‘Nah, not a chance!’ I mean, he mustn’t have been 160lbs! So at the first pickup when they said ‘You got Steph’, I was like, ‘Man, this kid is too skinny!’ I mean, okay, I’m 5’9 — on a good day! — so he had a few inches on me, but I had made myself really strong from the weight room.

“Their first possession, one of their bigs comes down to set a screen on me to try to get Steph open. And I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m just going to push him off and let him I know I’m a pro and he’s just a little scrawny kid.’”

When Summers went to muscle Curry, though, Curry wouldn’t budge, with his low stance and his strong core, until suddenly springing out to receive the ball.

“By the time I got off the screen, the shot was already gone,” smiles Summers. “Swish. And I was like, ‘That’s unbelievable.’ After that I knew he was going to be pretty good, because he knew how to use his body and get his shot off.”

That week they got to hang out quite a bit, Curry getting to know Summers as Puff, Puff getting to know Curry as Steph, as they talked about their next steps, plans, and dreams.

Looking back now, a decade on from his vantage point of the marble city of Kilkenny, while Steph rules the Golden State of California with his marvels for the Warriors, Summers is amazed by how engaged and curious his fellow Davidson alumni was during those conversations.

Summers explained how he’d played the previous season in England and had just signed with Exposure Basketball operating out of Charlotte that would be taking him to showcases around the country to help him get signed by teams in Europe.

“Oh, man, that’s cool,” said Curry, quietly confiding, “I hope to be a pro one day.” The way he said it, he wasn’t thinking so much of the NBA, rather more along the lines of his new pal Puff, playing ‘overseas’. Davidson had been the sole college to recruit him. Even his da Dell’s old alma mater, Virginia Tech, had only offered him a walk-on spot because of his slight frame.

“He’d no idea,” says Summers, “that he was going to be what he is now. He was so humble.”

The rest with Curry is history, the rest with Summers geography, mixed with a little serendipity.

A few weeks after working out on Davidson with Steph, he was meant to fly out to Denmark to play with league champions Bekkan Bears, the same club that in 2015 would heavily defeat the Irish league select Team Hibernia that Summers served as an assistant coach. As that series of games indicated, the standard of ball there would have been high, a good deal higher than Ireland.

But the day before his flight, his agent called, saying this guy called Terry Kennedy had been in touch to say he thought he’d be a very good fit in Ireland, especially for his team, Merry Monk Ballina. The agent was inclined to agree. The money wouldn’t be as good but they spoke English and judging by this Terry guy, they seemed to have a real grudge against the national association over the restructuring of the league and seemed hellbent on winning the damn thing.

Ballina wouldn’t win the league. They would barely see the season out, letting go of some of their other Americans as a cost-saving measure.

“As far as my career, it was probably the dumbest move I ever made,” says 34-year-old Summers.

“As far as my life, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Puff Summers in action for Templeogue against Keelan Cairns of Belfast Star in the National Cup match in October. Templeogue face UCC Demons this evening.Pic: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

EVERYONE seems to like Puff Summers.

Follow him along the streets of Kilkenny and you’ll likely find a smiling kid raise their hand for a high five and excitedly enquiring about the next workout or camp he’s running.

Templeogue, the reigning Superleague champions that take on UCC Blue Demons in this evening’s cup semi-final in the Mardyke Arena, have him on their books not just as a player but as an assistant coach.

He’s been an assistant to numerous Irish underage and senior teams while recently when Basketball Ireland rolled out their new regional academy system, Summers was appointed head coach to the south-east area.

Even St Kieran’s College, that bastion of the ancient game of hurling, has been won over by him, this year fielding first-year and second-year basketball teams which he coaches.

It’s not just his huge enthusiasm for knowledge and his sport that makes people gravitate to him: it’s his geniality. Because Puff always seems to have a smile, Puff tends to make everyone else smile as well.

There was a time though when Summers wasn’t quite as sociable.

“I played in Portugal, Spain, London and never went sightseeing. I was in the mode of just ‘Get me to a gym. I want to get better, I want to move on to the next team.’ It’s probably one of my biggest regrets, being able to go all these different countries to play and not getting to see anything. But when I came here to Ireland, Liam McHale and Deora [Marsh] would not let me do that.”

We all know McHale: the local legend that could have gone to play in America but never left home. The whole of Mayo knows Deora too: the adopted local legend from America that came to Ballina and never returned home. And that’s how they’d make Summers feel as well: while everywhere else had been a job, Ballina and Ireland was home.

McHale would still bring Summers to the gym and shoot with him but then he’d take him for lunch and introduce him to all of Ballina. Marsh was the first person to cook him bacon and cabbage. Marsh had played college ball in Mississippi, famous for its mud pie and corn bread, yet his speciality was as Irish as it gets. That’s how full native he’d gone.

Summers would go the same way. That season he’d meet Lynda, a next-door neighbour of football All-Star Ger Cafferkey and the daughter of the club chairperson. They’d fall in love, get mad, have a baby, call her Kaitlyn, then after they’d marry, have a second, Kennedy, as good an Irish-American name as you’ll find.

After Ballina dropped out of the Superleague, Summers would stay on in Ireland. He’d play with Moycullen in Galway when Lynda went back to college there to study a HDip in teaching. He’d have a stint with Star up in Belfast, then others with Limerick, Swords Thunder, Killester, and then Kilkenny where he and Lynda would move after a teaching post arose there for her.

It can be a precarious livelihood, basketball. Summers had been an A-student in his high school in Virginia and offered various scholarships to Ivy League schools like Harvard and Browne, but Princeton had been recruiting him for their basketball programme. When that offer fell through, his heart was still set on playing college hoops so he accepted the offer as a walk-on with Davidson where he’d graduate with a major in economics. With Charlotte one of the leading banking cities in all of America, the safe option would have been to utilise his qualification and play off his local reputation as someone who played D1 ball.

“I was interviewing for Merrill Lynch and these banking jobs but then I played in a summer league in Washington DC and after I scored 26 points in one game, an agent said, ‘You could play professionally.’ And just like that all the bank interviews went completely out the window. Of course, everyone in my family then disowned me for a while.” You couldn’t blame them. His first year as a pro in the American Basketball League, he played with four different franchises: Charlotte, Toledo, Baltimore, Cincinnati. “All of them kept folding after two months.”

The Irish league hasn’t exactly been a pensionable gig either. In the summer of 2011 he was signed by Limerick. In preseason they played a couple of touring US Division Three colleges, beat them well, had a good spread of scorers, Summers helping everyone get involved. On the eve of the season proper he was at home in Ballina, little Kaitlyn on his knees, when he got a call from team coach Mark Keenan. I’m sorry, Puff, but I’ve to get rid of you. I’ve to bring in a scoring guard. I don’t think you can score enough.

Keenan could later justify the call: that season Limerick would go on win their first-ever Superleague as well as the Cup with Robert Taylor at the point. But back in one household in Ballina, there was devastation.

“It was probably the most hurtful conversation I’ve ever had,” says Summers. “I didn’t say anything to him, I was like, ‘Okay, well, good luck to you this season’ but when I put the phone down, I started crying for the first time in a long, long time. My daughter was on my lap and knew something was off because she had never seen me cry before.

“I mean, I was used to people saying they didn’t need me or that I was too short or this and that. But I had been in Ireland for five years. I was established, known as a good player, a good person, a good coach. This was in September and I was getting married in October.”

He’d soon get picked up by then Division One team Swords Thunder but with such a stacked roster, the games became increasingly one-sided and meaningless, so Summers took up a long-standing offer to play in Australia.

“I was bitter. Bitter with Mark, bitter with Irish basketball, so I said to my wife, ‘I need to do this.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, you need to do this because you’re not as pleasant as you used to be.’”

He loved it there, would have stayed there forever if Lynda and the kids could have come over, but instead he returned to Ireland and got picked up by Killester. They went through a dodgy spell in early December while waiting for Jermaine Turner’s eligibility to come through, but when they beat UCD Marian at home just before Christmas, all seemed well again heading into the cup semi-final weekend.

“After the game we were all celebrating. I’d gone for 25 [points] and 12 [assists], and with the game being streamed live, I was being interviewed and guys were pouring water over my head. Back in the locker room Jermaine was all hyped. ‘Man, I can’t wait ‘til we play together!’ But then [coach] Darren [O’Neill] said he needed to have a word. He felt they needed a bigger body for the semi-final. He was bringing in Michael Bonaparte. He had to get rid of me.”

Which makes the past 18 months with Templeogue all the sweeter.

His coach? The same Mark Keenan that cut him in Limerick. “I remember taking a deep breath when I saw his name come back up on the phone. ‘Man, this guy has a lot of balls!’ I’ve told him since. ‘Man, me coming here, I had to swallow a lot of pride.’” And the American that he has to divvy 40 minutes court-time up with, as a contentious ruling means only one player of that nationality can be on the floor at any one time? The same Michael Bonaparte that replaced him in Killester.

“I couldn’t do with anyone other than Mike. He’s egoless and knows the landscape, just like me.” Most nights they’ll split it up 22:18, but it depends on the match-up. Some games Bonaparte might play 28 minutes. Some nights it might be Summers playing the lion’s share. Either way, it works. Last season they combined to help the club to its first Superleague title. It was Summers’ first as well.

“Man, it was everything. Remember when Kevin Garnett won the championship [with the Boston Celtics] in 2008? ‘I’m certified!’ That’s how I felt, after all I’d been through.”

He has his own little basketball company now which runs camps and individual tuition sessions. Why Not Me? it’s called, not after Derrick Rose famously uttered those words foreseeing his selection as the youngest MVP in NBA history, but after an old mentor’s motto which Summers had tattooed across his stomach at just 17.

Keith Jennings came from the same small town in Virginia and even though he’d only ever grow to 5’7’’, would play three seasons in the NBA for the same Golden State Warriors franchise Steph would later become the face of.

“I used to go to him, ‘Man, I’m not getting a fair shot in high school.’ ‘Man, they’re not playing me as much as they should be. ‘I’m only a walk-on at Davidson.’ And every time he’d say I could still make it. He’d heard it all too. He was too small. He’d gone undrafted. But he’d say, ‘Why not me? Why not you?’” And so that’s the message he’s now sending to all the kids and players he mentors over here. Why can’t Irish basketball be a respectable force? Why can’t they make it?

“I think I was put here for a reason. And more than my coaching expertise or ability, I’d like to think I just bring this energy and love of the game. You can stomp me, fire me, but tomorrow I’m gonna be in the gym and I’m gonna shoot and I’m gonna be fine. Even when Mark cut me over the phone, I can assure I was in the gym the following day, just waiting on another opportunity.”

Steph Curry: The Golden State Warriors star was so admirably ‘humble’, recalls Puff Summers.

Now another opportunity is presenting itself. He’s yet to win the cup. He badly wants to add it to the league he won last season, add his name alongside the greats that have ruled in January through the decades.

“I wish that every American when they come into this country that they read the book [Hanging from the Rafters] and immerse themselves in the history and culture of the sport here.

“I remember when UCD Marian won it in 2011 their American won the MVP and he posted something on Facebook and it was obvious he didn’t understand what he had just won.

“One summer I went to an Exposure Camp in Spain and who was running it but Ray Smith and [former Marian great] Mike Smith. I went over and said, ‘Are you really Ray Smith?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’m Ray Smith.’ And I said, ‘No! Are you Neptune Ray Smith?!’ And he was like, ‘Man, what you know about Neptune?!’”

Summers explained how he knew all about him and Neptune and how he himself now lived in Ireland. And on they went, hopping games and names off each other, like Summers’ old mentor Jennings who it turned out Smith had played with in France.

As they were parting, Smith gave Summers this huge hug, delighted by the reminder of just how small and connected a community such a global game can be.

And to this day, the memory buoys Summers too.

“That fraternity,” he smiles, “lasts forever, man.” And if he were to join Smith in the exclusive club of guys who won a cup, wow, well then he’d be really certified.

And why not? Why not him?


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