Kieran Shannon: Bitter row over Berry eligibility sours Tralee's title chase

IT’S March now, which in recent years has invariably meant a dramatic conclusion to Irish basketball’s men’s SuperLeague, just as April always guarantees us unmissable theatre in the form of a Sunday in Augusta.

Andre Berry of Garveys Tralee Warriors
Andre Berry of Garveys Tralee Warriors

Three years ago, Templeogue clinched the title on the last day, beating league newcomers Tralee Warriors in a barnstormer, 96-93, in the Oblate Hall while across town nearest challengers UCD Marian were losing to Swords.

In 2018, astonishingly five teams entered the final week with a chance of winning it all; in the end, it required a play-off final in which Marian edged Killester by a point.

And then there was last year, where going into the final weekend three teams could still win the title, including Marian and Tralee who, by a remarkable quirk of the fixtures, had to play each other back-to-back on consecutive days. Ultimately, Tralee would emerge victorious after somehow coming from 10 points down with five minutes to go in the Belfield leg of that series.

This season’s title chase would appear to be following in that tradition, only it hasn’t been as fun and as innocent. Instead it has been sullied by the likelihood that it will be decided off the court and in an arbitration committee room, Irish sport’s equivalent of Lausanne.

Here is what no-one disputes. With two games to go apiece, the title will either remain in Tralee or Star of the Sea will bring it back to Belfast for the first time in 20 years. As of now, Tralee have a 16-4 record, with Star a game behind on 15-5.

But there’s an asterisk to those league standings. If you were to think that Tralee simply needs to win their two remaining games — seeing off bottom-of-the-table Dublin Lions this Saturday night at home, then Neptune in the Neptune Stadium the following Saturday — and the title is theirs again, well, you’d be mistaken.

It all boils down to the eligibility of one Andre Berry. A 6’8” former Rhode Island player who two years ago this month was going up against Duke University and that year’s No. 2 NBA draft pick Marvin Bagley in the fabled NCAA tournament, Berry now finds himself unwittingly caught in the middle of another form of March madness.

What makes this saga all the crazier is that it goes back to mid-December. Ahead of a key game against UCD Marian, Tralee made the decision to release one of the two Americans on their books, Keith Jumper, a popular member of their title-winning team of 2018-2019 but who had been underperforming as well as injury-hampered in his second season. To replace him, they identified Berry, who had been mostly playing in Finland.

On the Friday afternoon before the Tralee-Marian game, a Tralee club officer contacted the relevant full-time Basketball Ireland (BI) administrator to process and complete Berry’s registration, the kind of inconvenience but necessary and standard procedure every club and administrator in basketball knows only too well.

This one seemed pretty routine too, only there was a minor technical problem: When the Tralee officer had gone to the BI Comortis website to pay the required €22 for Berry’s registration, the usual option to pay wasn’t available.

The Tralee officer duly alerted the relevant BI administrator, who in turn messaged the Tralee officer back about a portal glitch: No worries. “I must have pressed the button twice (while licensing Berry) so that option won’t let you pay now, but he will appear on your licence letter when you go to download and he is eligible to play.”

Although it was still opening office hours, the administrator had already left the office and their laptop with them, so wouldn’t be able to “fix it” until after the weekend. “But it’s ok,” they wrote. “I can just take the payment then.”

Having been issued a licensing number and assured Berry was “eligible to play”, Tralee duly fielded him in Belfield that Saturday, where he chipped in with eight points in the 16 minutes he gave off the bench in a 86-76 win (with only one American allowed on the floor at any one time, Berry spent more time watching compatriot Jonathon Lawton than playing himself). The Saturday before Christmas then, he played in a three-point loss to Star up in Belfast.

WHERE things took a bit of a twist was the first weekend of the new year.

In a tight, fraught game in front of another huge home crowd in the Tralee Complex, the Warriors withstood a late rally from then league leaders, Éanna, to just about prevail, 80-77. Berry had been pivotal in deciding the outcome, scoring a personal season-high 23 points, but what aggrieved Éanna most was that in the closing minutes he had picked up what had seemed to be his fifth foul but it hadn’t been noted by the match table, overseen by a neutral table commissioner; if he had been fouled out as he should have been, would Tralee have survived?

The following Tuesday, with everyone back from the Christmas break and Basketball Ireland gearing up for its most hectic weekend of the year, the National Cup semi-finals in Cork (featuring a Tralee-Éanna rematch), the BI administrator contacted the same Tralee officer they had communicated with back in mid-December: Andre Berry’s registration fee hadn’t yet been paid and it needed to be paid promptly. Within 48 hours the Men’s National Competitions Committee (MNCC), consisting of representatives from the Superleague clubs as well as independent members, was reviewing Berry’s eligibility.

Before the end of that working week, a conference meeting of that same MNCC, which Tralee sat in on, deemed that the Warriors had played an unregistered player in their three previous Superleague games, two of which Tralee had won, and thus their six points for those two wins should be deducted, on top of a €130 fine for each game the ineligible player had played.

Now that his registration fee had been processed, Berry was free to play in the Cup semi-final that Saturday and the rest of the season, but those two wins over Marian and Éanna were now two losses.

Days after losing that subsequent Cup semi-final to Éanna, Tralee decided to appeal the decision of the MNCC to Basketball Ireland’s internal and independent National Appeals Committee (NAC). Pivotal to their case was the documentation of the Friday afternoon correspondence between their club officer and the BI administrator. It clearly carried much sway; on February 7, it was announced that the NAC had ruled that the six points should be returned to Tralee, though the €390 fine would be upheld.

That triggered some divisive commentary on social media within the basketball community — one player was immediately warned of possible suspension by BI chief executive Bernard O’Byrne unless he apologised. Yet days later, O’Byrne, as the chair of the MNCC, was giving the green light to a statement from the MNCC, declaring that it would be appealing the NAC’s decision and taking it to the Federation of Irish Sport’s Sport Dispute Resolution Ireland (SDRI).

According to the MNCC, Tralee were in breach of the MNCC’s rulebook (5.3.5 in appendix 5, the same sub-section highlighted by the Moycullen player) and the MNCC had been correctly applying its rulebook “on behalf of all our clubs”.

That sub-section states: “If any player does not hold a valid licence number, then it will be the decision of the club as to whether he participates in the match. If a club elects to use a player who is not licensed, they will be fined… and automatically lose the game by forfeit.”

Tralee contend that they were issued a valid licence number; without one, the table commissioner at those three games would not have allowed Berry on the floor.

The MNCC though would also argue that as Berry’s registration was not yet paid, he was therefore not registered. To which Tralee could counter again: And whose fault was that?

In a way Irish sport and in this case Irish basketball is fortunate that the Federation of Irish sport has a mechanism to resolve or at least adjudicate on such matters in the form of the SDRI (previously known as Just Sport). It was established with such cases in mind, to save the time and cost that go with any High Court proceedings.

But whatever comes out of Tuesday’s SDRI hearing at a venue yet to be decided, the entire episode has been unedifying.

Legal fees have still had to be forked out at a time when the governing body has — rightly — been bemoaning to the Government about how financially challenging it is for it and its clubs to keep the sport going in this country. Since coming into the league four years ago, the Warriors have been its outstanding feelgood story, as much as for the hospitality as well as the bumper crowd in Tralee that greets visiting clubs. The schadenfreude and vitriol that the various rulings in this saga has prompted from others is bound to have eroded some of that bonhomie.

At the time of the MNCC’s initial ruling, up to six clubs were still in contention for the title. Since then, one by one, teams have fallen away, bar Star, and Tralee, now undefeated in their last seven league games.

Either way, it’s a sad state of affairs when instead of asking if the reigning champions can extend that unbeaten run to nine over the next couple of weekends, the big question is whether they’ll win or lose the big midweek game in some committee room.

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