THE KIERAN SHANNON INTERVIEW: Pete Strickland is rekindling an Irish romance

The pied piper of Neptune is back. He’s recruited and coached against NBA talent, scouted Steph Curry and watched more game film and planned more sessions than just about any coach involved in Irish sport. Now, after three decades in the all-consuming ‘rabbit hole’ that’s NCAA basketball, Pete Strickland is back where his coaching career began, in Ireland, masterminding the revived national senior team programme.

Pete Strickland gets used to his new role as Ireland coach, more than three decades after he first arrived on the Irish scene. Picture: Rolf Stenberg.

BEFORE any of the others — his namesake Terry, or Jasper, or Lennie, Kelvin, Jerome, or Ed — there was Pete.

He was the first great pied piper of Irish basketball, arriving here in the autumn of 1980 and soon mesmerising the chain of local kids that followed him around the hills of the northside of Cork, only too glad to show him from his flat in Patrick’s Hill through Shandon to the Parochial Hall in Gurranabraher, so they could catch some of the American accent, charisma and showmanship.

His ball-handling was so masterful, he’d take song requests; the kids would name a song and he’d pound out its beats on the pavement with a ball in each hand and a great smile across his face.

Every day he’d have a new drill for them to try, like wrapping the ball around the waist in one continuous motion as quick as possible, or make the figure of eight through the legs. Almost every kid in Ireland who has picked up a basketball sometime the last three decades is au fait with those drills but Pete Strickland would have been the first to bring them to these shores. He was the original hoops pilgrim, the great evangelist, spreading the word and love of a game about to catch fire in that city.

Everyone who encountered Neptune’s young American player-coach that year would be won over by his vibrancy and geniality, even the initially sceptical.

One morning Strickland was walking down an off-street when he got the smell of bread. He followed it into this little bakery and informed the man behind the counter he’d love if he could bake for him.

The man shook his head. He couldn’t afford to take anyone else on.

“I said nothing about money,” smiled Strickland. The man looked him up and down, then shrugged. “Fine. Tomorrow morning, half-five.”

The baker never expected Pete Strickland to show up that morning. But he did. By the end of the week Tim’s view of the Yank had altered — instead of some kind of drifter, he was obviously some kind of zealot — but his suspicion of his new assistant remained. What would possess a stranger to start work at 5.30 every morning without taking a penny? It could only be one thing. This Yank knew the baker was partial to the odd spliff. This Yank was working for someone like the CIA.

In time the baker would soon come to appreciate this Yank didn’t work for any agency or money. Pete Strickland just wanted to bake for its own sake, because the experience would be “kinda neat”.

Another time Strickland ventured just off Cork’s commercial boulevard, the South Mall, to the small theatre, Father Matthew Hall, to audition for a play. Zigger Zagger might have been about English soccer hooliganism but Strickland had majored in speech and theatre at the University of Pittsburgh as well as breaking their all-time assists record. Naturally, he landed a part as the producers tweaked the script to accommodate the character of a charismatic American preacher man.

Bill Murray on his last Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney? That was Pete Strickland every day in Cork, 1980-81.

Now, all these years later, Cork and Irish basketball is falling back in love with Pete Strickland all over again. Last November he was appointed head coach to the revived senior national team programme.

He’s still based in the States, living in Capitol Hill of all places, but he’ll be over and back to Ireland and wherever the national team will be playing over the next couple of years.

At the end of January he was over for the Cup finals. As well as spending time in Dublin and Galway, he naturally paid a visit to Cork where he coached the local youth internationals and caught up with some old familiar, friendly faces.

Like Liam McGinn, the former Neptune chairman who first collected him at Shannon Airport all those years ago. Francis O’Sullivan, who was on that first national league team that he coached over here and alerted him last winter about the national team coaching vacancy. And Paul ‘Spider’ Keohane who has a shock of white hair now but still enough of the child within him to light up at the memory of when he’d lead the gang that used to follow a 23-year-old Strickland around town, craving to see his latest trick and drill.

One night during his visit to Cork, the Ambassador Hotel hosted a Q&A session with Strickland at which coaches from other sports were in attendance. It’s something that should be replicated elsewhere because in a way it would be a shame if a coach of Strickland’s experience and expertise was just to be confined to Irish basketball instead of the wider Irish coaching community enjoying the benefit of his insights.

Here’s someone who played in De Mattha, Washington DC, the number one high school basketball programme in all of America. Every day for four years he was coached by Morgan Wootten and then, after his stint with Neptune, would return and serve as an assistant at DeMatha for another four years under Wootten.

You might never have heard of Wootten but you’ve heard of John Wooden; there’s hardly a coaching conference in any sport in this country that doesn’t quote the wisdom of the Wizard of Westwood who’d coach UCLA to an astonishing 11 NCAA titles. Well, Wootten was Wooden’s guru. “I know of no finer coach at any level — high school, college or pro,” Wooden would once say. “I stand in awe of him.”

At DeMatha Strickland would be indoctrinated in a philosophy for life, not just basketball. Long before terms like “culture” and “process” were trendy, Wootten lived by them. He especially understood the power of words. “What you say to your players can determine how good their dinner will taste and how well they sleep that night,” he’d write in Coaching Basketball Successfully, considered one of the sport’s bibles.

“An incidental cutting remark which you forgot as soon as you said it can be a source of pain longer than you may ever know.”

It’s because of such precise attention to detail that no other high school in America has produced more NCAA coaches as well as more Olympians or NBA players.

Mike Brey, a classmate and close friend of Strickland’s, has coached Notre Dame the past 17 years. Strickland himself coached at the college level for over 25 years, either as a head coach with the likes of Coastal Carolina, or as an assistant in numerous other Division 1 schools like NC State.

You think of the detail and history that goes with college basketball coaching, the clamour and competition for jobs with a Division One programme. Professional soccer may have that depth of competition but not that history of detail.

Professional rugby might now have that detail but not that history or depth. College basketball is coaching in both its purest and most exacting form and that is the world that the new coach of the Irish national basketball team has inhabited for most of the last 25 years.

“You’re in a rabbit hole when you’re a college basketball coach,” he says. “I mean, it’s a completely public job. After a game you’re getting a meal. ‘Hey, we’re going to Jimmy’s Bar and Grill; you guys coming?’ And the next morning you’re watching film at 7.30, back in the rabbit hole getting ready for the next game. It’s so limiting. It’s why a couple of years ago, I stepped out for good.”

The madness wasn’t restricted to March. Every July he’d be on the road, recruiting. “That was the one thing I didn’t like, being away from my kids for a whole month when they were young.

“‘See you guys, big kiss, remember Daddy. Here’s Daddy’s picture.’ That was hard. But otherwise, I loved recruiting. Loved it.”

The recruiting process is one of the most fundamental, criticised and grey areas in American sport where, depending on who you listen to, middle-aged men either sell their programmes or their souls to get some 17, 18 year-old kid to join their team. Strickland has seen and can quote Blue Chips, the film starring Nick Nolte who at one point claps and sings along in a black church to try to woo Shaquille O’Neal to his programme; then, the next day comically professes to be another religion to suitably impress the family of a rural white dead-eyed shooter. All, the Nolte character confesses at the end, because this kid “holds our future employment in his hands”.

It doesn’t have to be that way though, Strickland maintains. You don’t have to be that way.

“I think you have to be genuine. I mean, take me — buck teeth, bald head, urban recruiting. Didn’t matter. If you’re yourself, it works.”

First rule: Always recruit the kid — not the parents — first.

“Always. Non-negotiable. Most good parents are going to let the kid make his decision. It’s his first big decision. The next one is who he marries. But the first big one is where he goes to school. So, you can’t forget to recruit the player.

“At the same time you do want to figure out which parent is more influential. Early in my career, I thought that was the parent who spoke the most, the one who’d grab the phone when you called. ‘Let me talk to you, Coach...’ But I’d come to learn that it was usually the parent who didn’t speak the most was the bigger influencer. They were the ones taking everything in.”

Over the years he’d see a shift in the dynamics and demographics. Less nuclear families, more uncles. “There were times I recruited the wrong uncle. If he even was a real uncle.” But again, he’d adapt.

“I’m pretty garrulous but you have to be quiet. Listen and watch and you’ll get all the information you need. Eighteen-year-old kids, especially when you’re meeting them at first, are going to be monosyllabic. But then you’ll spot they’ve got LeBrons on and might say, ‘Hey, the Cavaliers lost last night. You see that?’ ‘How you know I root for the Cavs, Coach?!’ ‘Nice shoes!’ You just have to take things in. Wait and listen.

“The more you get to know them, the more trust you build.”

Pete Strickland gets animated during his time at North Carolina State. Strickland has coached at college level for more than 25 years.

The same applied when he’d get his recruits on the floor: watch what they’re giving you. “I hate coaches who say, ‘Tonight I’m going to rip into them!’ Wait and see what you see! They could be ready to give you the best practice they’ve ever given you. And you’re going in with the blinkers on because you’re pissed about something else?”

He’s mixed and competed with the best. For five years he was an assistant coach to Sidney Lowe at NC State, the same school the legendary late Jim Valvano inspired to a national championship in 1983. Duke University, home to Mike ‘Coach K’ Krzyzewski, is only 13 miles away; North Carolina, the house that Dean Smith built and Michael Jordan rocked, just 12. Last year John Feinstein wrote a book on the rivalry between the three colleges and coaches, though Strickland, who regularly lunches in DC with the famous sportswriter, “thought it was only okay – I give John a hard time about it!”

In that part of the world, you’re up against powerhouses, giants, geniuses.

“Duke won the national title the year we beat them. We were the last team to beat them. Sidney is really good at halfcourt offence, encyclopaedic, because he’s a pro [NBA] guy, it’s all half-court sets. So we’re running this high ball screen for this kid called Brandon Costner. And Duke always, always, hedge on the ball screen and don’t really rotate; they just expect the guy who hedges to go back and get his man. So Sidney turns to me. ‘Is he [Coach K] going to keep doing that?’

“The short answer is the one I gave him. ‘Yes.’ But the long answer is, ‘You mean the guy who has won three national championships just doing it one way? Is he going to change? For you? No.’

“Brandon Costner finished with 32 points that night and Sidney would finish 2-4 against them in his time, which is pretty good; they were better. Because he [Coach K] just doesn’t change. That was one of the most fascinating things I ever saw.”

Almost everyone else has to make adjustments. Especially when you come up against a talent like Steph Curry. Ask Strickland who was one player who made him go ‘Wow!’ in all his time in college basketball and he’ll point to the guard from nearby Davidson College.

“One season [2008] we were in the NIT [National Invitational Tournament], we didn’t make the NCAA tournament, but our building was hosting the regionals. Mark Few [coach of Gonzaga, currently ranked fourth in the country] was there after they’d practised so we got talking.

‘Hey, Mark.’

‘Hey, Pete.’

‘All the best tomorrow.’

‘Thanks, Coach.’

“They were playing Davidson the next day. ‘Don’t forget,’ I said, ‘Curry’s 0 and 1 in this building this year!’ We’d beaten them a few months earlier.

“And Mark goes, ‘Yeah, I must use that! By the way, what do you think?’

“Now, you won’t come across many veteran coaches use this term much but I said, ‘Mark, you know this, but Curry is special. I mean, he’s really special!’

“He said, ‘Yeah, he’s something else, but what about the big kid, [Will] Archambault? I mean, he screens and slips...’

“I said, ‘Yeah, he will, but Mark, I’m telling you, Curry is something special – he’d be a guy that I think you’ve gotta do something different against.’

“Next day, Curry got 40. The Archambault kid got two points on the slip. Gonzaga loses. I felt like calling Mark. ‘Yeah, you stopped Archambault. Big freakin’ deal! Told you Curry’s special!’”

But hey, they’ve all been there, especially Strickland. He does a lot of corporate speaking these days. About what did work and what didn’t work in over 30 years coaching and he’s noticed which his clients tend to have a preference for.

“They kind of like hearing more about what didn’t work,” he grins. “It’s more colourful!”

One of the great things about being back living in DC is he gets to spend a lot of time with his old mentor Morgan Wootten.

Morgan’s 85 now, but “still mentally as sharp as a tack,” vouches his disciple.

Recently Strickland brought Morgan and their wives to see Mike Brey’s Notre Dame go up against Coach K’s Duke.

“It was a great game. Went to overtime. So for the jump ball in overtime, Notre Dame get the tip, go down and are fouled going for a layup. I lean over to Morgan, ‘It’s amazing; Duke giving up a layup on the jump?’ And then I quoted one of his diktats. ‘Hey, Morgan, point guard at the top of the key on a jump ball?’ And Morgan, sharp as a tack, says all deadpan, ‘Page 21!”

Even after stepping out of the rabbit hole for good in 2013 to watch the last couple of years of one of his son’s college career, he still has to get his fix of hoops. He still goes to games. He co-commentates for ESPN3 on some local college games.

This Irish team job now is another way of coaching the game without it consuming him.

He’ll be back over here next month for provisional squad tryouts, then over the summer the team will play in two international tournaments, all with the view to preparing for the 2018 Small Countries Championship in San Marino.

There’ll be plenty of other times to expand on how he’ll go about that job, only to say for now that his goals for the team are as follows.

“That the team becomes important to the people who play the game here. That the team is the best team on the island of Ireland. That the team plays the way you want a basketball team to play. And that we win.”

Watch them all follow the great pied piper once more.


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