BRAND recognition has never been Irish basketball’s strong suit. Clubs have come and clubs have gone down the years, many of them victims of the painfully thin margins on which they exist. Others have withstood long financial winters by donning the name of whatever sponsor can come up with the goods to keep the wolf from the door.
But it doesn’t take much digging to find roots that have been planted deep in the soil. Among the 28 teams competing in the 18 cup semi-finals across this next three days will be Neptune, Brunell, and Glanmire from Cork. DCU and UCD come from the capital boasting long and distinguished family trees. Two sides will carry the name ‘Killester’ on their crests.
Other traditional heartlands, from Belfast to Waterford and Limerick and Tralee, will be represented but none in greater volume than Portlaoise — yes, Portlaoise — whose Panthers uniform will adorn four of the contests. The midlands side’s singlet will feature in the Women’s Division One, U20 and U18 cups, as well as the men’s U20s.
It’s an extraordinary achievement and all the more so as it comes on the back of a similar push this time 12 months ago. No other club — not from the Dublin or Cork strongholds or anywhere else on this island — will bring more than two sides to this elevated stage of the season than the Panthers who are only a dozen years young but based in a town long wedded to the game.
The mid-60s brought something of a sporting revolution to Portlaoise. The first soccer and rugby clubs were founded in 1966 but, while basketball stole a march on them a year before, it was 2007 before the loose strands of a boys club, separate adult teams, and a new girls section were amalgamated into the Panthers.
The operation that exists now caters for players from kindergarten right up to Masters levels, more than 400 people and rising, with in and around 30 teams on the go. Honours have been claimed across all grades, including at national level where the women’s team has won the National Cup twice and spent time in the Super League.
Last year, 11 of their players represented Ireland.
The Panthers are now recognised as the strongest club in the midlands and players are making the journey from Monasterevin in Kildare, Rochfortbridge in Westmeath, and even Galway to play for them. That’s an extraordinary reference in itself and a useful source of talent for a club that has no third-level institution on its doorstep.
The schools make up for that.
The relationship with Scoil Chríost Rí in the town is particularly long and strong, thanks in no small part to Pat Critchley. A one-time hurling All-Star, Critchley has been pivotal in building a basketball programme at a school which will contest the All-Ireland ‘A’ final later this month. It is the one remaining major title to have eluded them.
If Portlaoise’s successes as a club set them apart in some ways then the struggles they have had to endure are all too symptomatic of the difficulties endemic to such volunteer efforts all over the country.
Home is St Mary’s Hall on the Dublin Road. An institution in the town for generations, it was old and shabby decades ago. It is certainly no longer big enough for the needs of an expanding basketball club that is proving to be a victim of its own successes, or for the wider community for whom it is supposed to serve.
A partnership with Portlaoise College that will allow them to avail of their indoor facilities at a reduced rate — and make it a feeder school — has recently been agreed but one media report had it that the Panthers are spending €40,000 per year just on the hiring of facilities. That’s an enormous and potentially crippling outlay for a club its size.
“It’s massively difficult,” says Peter O’Sullivan, coach with the women’s National League side.
“We set up the Panthers lotto draw five years ago and I honestly think that if we hadn’t done that at the time then the club wouldn’t still be going now.
“We have some brilliant local sponsors but no national sponsors and that’s just so difficult for a town like Portlaoise.”
And this, it should be noted, at a time when the economy is said to be booming.
The future holds both promise and problems. The population of Portlaoise has doubled in the past two decades. Talk of city status even emanated a few years ago. Accommodating that growth and demand is a priority, though it doesn’t seem to have been one shared by the local authorities who have all but missed an open basket.
Almost €70,000 of a government grant that was made available for critical refurbishment work on St Mary’s Hall has not been drawn down by Laois County Council because of a failure to come up with the matching funding.
Worse again is the fact that proposals for a new indoor facility in the town have been allowed to wither on the vine.
Imagine how high they could reach without one hand tied behind their back.