The Big Interview with Paul Dick: Bark, bite, and basketball brilliance

The Big Interview with Paul Dick: Bark, bite, and basketball brilliance
Paul Dick: ‘I texted Donaghy and asked any chance of getting an electrician’s apprenticeship down there? That’s what tipped the scales for me. A local electrical contractor Mark Rael took me on.’ Picture: Domnick Walsh.

Is Tralee Warriors’ 6’ 4” point guard Paul Dick the best Irish basketballer in the country? Probably. But priorities have changed, and staying healthy is No 1. Where he might have ended up as a pro baller is not as important as where he’s going next. The Belfast boy spoke to Tony Leen on the eve of National Cup semi-final weekend in Cork.

The morning Paul Dick was moving from Belfast to Tralee for Superleague basketball, he wandered into the gym at St Malachy’s College in Belfast, where a new American was trying out for Star. It was August 2017 and Dick had about enough time for a quick two-on-two.

Who knows why we do these things? Do his hometown Superleague club a favour of sorts perhaps. Gut-check the Yank.Besides, the car was packed and pointed for Kerry, though he may as well have been heading for New Hampshire for all he knew of the Kingdom.

All Google could assure him was it had a windmill there somewhere.

And then something sickeningly familiar happened. He got lamped in the face by the American and stumbled into the wall, jarring his foot.

And dislocating his ankle.

“I tried to walk it off. There was a nice bit of shock in the foot. It was pointing the wrong way,” he says.

He tried to drive home but had to lean over to one side just to pressure the clutch pedal. This all had a dreadfully familiar and sour ring to it. Might even be laughable if it wasn’t so serious.

Dick had often said to himself he’d become a professional rehabber with a CV to match. When the dream of a pro career burned bright in America, Germany, and Spain, when the pathway to the upper tiers looked within reach, his ankle or foot would give way or compromise him.

“He’s a 6ft 4 guard,” explains legendary Tralee Warriors team-mate Kieran Donaghy, “who slaloms his way down a court and to the basket. That puts a lot of pressure on the lower half of his body.”

Perhaps that’s it. It’s got to be more than bad luck, because if he didn’t have that, Paul Dick would have no luck at all.

But the most intriguing thing is, despite it all, despite the injuries in American prep school, then Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire, at Limburg in Germany’s Regional Two League, at Araberri in northern Spain and Fuenlabrada near Madrid, and the dislocated ankle en route to Tralee, there’s still almost universal agreement around these parts.

Paul Dick is the best Irish basketballer in the country.

And with that issue parked, one other imponderable hangs out there: What could his career have been like if he’d stayed healthy — like, basketball healthy? Because with all such, context is everything.

When he sets head-wrecking injuries alongside the illness battle of his late mother-in-law, how much real regret can he have that he never hooked the pro dream? That he didn’t experience the peaks his talent could have delivered.

“Besides,” he points out tonight in this corner of Tralee, “peaks are a result of building something up for years and years. I don’t think of peaks because I haven’t done that. I kinda floated. I am just happy to be healthy and playing.

“It’s a lot more enjoyable than rehabbing.

I don’t get the same high off it as before, like when you were chasing the dream. But you still get that competitive fix.Us men need that competitive fix and basketball is how I get mine. If you’re able to come out on the right side of your competitive fix, then you are happy.

Dick is basketball-happy in Tralee but his time there is coming to an end. Mimi, his wife, is in Dublin and the up and down is wearing, even for a hoops junkie like him.

‘Mimi’ is Marianna Troy, the daughter of hoops legend Kelvin Troy. And Paul’s mother is Breda Grennell, the matriarch of Killester’s basketball royalty. Paul Dick isn’t so much steeped as boned, rolled, and vacuum-packed in basketball.

Tralee, the Warriors and Donaghy has been good. And not just because his two seasons and a bit coincided with his first healthy stretch for seven years. There’s been Champions Trophy success, a first Superleague title for the Warriors and a record run of standout sold-out nights at the Complex.

Donaghy knew what he was getting when he cast out the rod to Paul Dick. A driven, no-nonsense Belfast boy, all about the win. The sense that anyone could really be oblivious to the screamingComplex in Tralee materialises when you wonder how special the atmosphere is on game night.

“I have little sense of that. It’s hard to articulate, but the crowd is not in my head. I am thinking about the game, not the atmosphere, because I’d run through a wall in an empty gym as quickly as I would a full one.

“I don’t just enjoy throwing a ball around, throwing it into the hoop. I enjoy getting stuck into a competitive match-up. A lot of stuff happens on the fly on that journey. You bark at people, they bark at you; you hit someone a sly one, they get you back.

"It’s all part of it. I’d like to think people would say ‘Paul wants to win really badly’. That’s ok. Different people bounce off a personality like mine in different ways.

"In life, I would certainly bend; in basketball I can be very tunnel-vision at times. And that doesn’t bother me. You bump heads with some people, and not others.”

Being appreciated around Kerry’s capital town, with its strong hoops heritage “gives an extra bit of worth in your own head”, he agrees.

Then again, he knows the town now, its rhythms. He savours nights after Superleague wins, with the pressure vented, especially when Kelvin travels down from Dublin with Mimi and they gather in the Greyhound and the Castle Bar on Rock Street.

He gets the Tralee hop balls now too. ‘Kerry slang’, Donaghy would call it. But those first few months. Yeah, they were difficult.

After the mishap at St Malachy’s the day the car was pointed towards Kerry, Dick couldn’t speak. Didn’t want to speak. “I texted Donaghy. ‘This has happened, call you in a few days. Head wrecked.’ I sat on my mum’s sofa for six weeks in a cast watching a bunch of movies.”

Rami Ghanem, Keanes SuperValu Killorglin, goes for a lay-up, challenged by Paul Dick, Garveys Tralee Warriors, during their National Cup first round clash. Picture: Brendan Moran.
Rami Ghanem, Keanes SuperValu Killorglin, goes for a lay-up, challenged by Paul Dick, Garveys Tralee Warriors, during their National Cup first round clash. Picture: Brendan Moran.

Even after moving to Kerry, he wasn’t getting the love. “This town does talk,”he laughs now. “I’d be in the car with Donaghy, and like ‘what the f*cks going on? People were ‘are you here to play or not?’ I was ready to explode. And I’m from Belfast. I know all about people getting smart with ya.”

But Mimi had always had a good feeling about Tralee, more than Paul even. When they’d first spun south for a recce, he knew as much about Kerry as a windmill. With his Spanish sortie finished (by injury, of course), he’d mailed a bunch of clubs at home, feeling a bit silly that he had sent them as a group mail. Wise yourself up, one coach mailed back.

But he remembered a Twitter DM too from Donaghy.

‘If you ever come back to Ireland, look us up’.

“I googled Tralee and all I got was a picture of a windmill. Is that the most interesting spot in Tralee?

"We took a day trip down and when we hit Adare, we thought, ‘we must be close now’. Then we landed in Newcastlewest, and I see Garvey’s (supermarket), and I’m thinking ‘this must be it’. But the car map was telling us to keep going.

“The first thing we see when we land at the Complex in Tralee is the tiled floor, and I’m, like ‘my ankles and feet are pretty sensitive at this stage, I’m not sure I could last’.

"Donaghy is saying ‘Don’t worry, we are getting in a timber floor. He was right — but he didn’t say it was the guts of a year later!”

Back in Belfast the next day he went for a beer with his dad Francis, an ex-hurling stalwart at St Galls.

“Pro basketball was not going to happen. I’d accepted that. I needed to start working towards a career, though I’d never thought of doing a trade in my life.

"So I texted Donaghy and asked any chance of getting an electrician’s apprenticeship down there? That’s what tipped the scales for me, A local electrical contractor Mark Rael took me on.”

Tralee were pushing for their first Superleague that season. Dick drove down to Cork to watch their December 2017 Cup loss to Demons in the Parochial Hall.

He watched them get spanked at the ALSAA Complex in Dublin by Thunder too but on both occasions he left with a nice feeling about the team and the support.

He finally debuted the following spring, offering a glimpse of what the talk was all about. Tralee won the season-ending Champions Trophy and Dick was MVP in the final in Waterford. He’s tended to do that. Deliver in a very tight window when the need was greatest.

When he made his first pro move to Limburg in Germany, he damaged his foot on the second day of practice and was out for four months. But the club had seen enough to recruit. He finished the campaign as the league’s player of the season.

It wasn’t that he ever gave up on the big league dream. It sort of gave up on him. Too many birthdays came around and too often he was laid up.

How close did it get? After the 2016 Euro Small Nations with Colin O’Reilly’s Ireland squad he was named on the All-Star tournament five. He was at a crossroads that year and didn’t think he was that good for Ireland. Even his colleagues were joking ‘Imagine you actually played well?’

I thought ‘maybe the pro leagues are worth one more crack’. Mimi was always encouraging me. I contacted this agent, FJ (Francisco Javier), and I ended up in Fuenlabrada, just outside Madrid. It was the second team of a Liga ACB outfit and we were full of 16-year-old prodigies the club was hoping to develop.

"I was 26 and thought maybe there was a window to make a few practices. I’d found the stepping-stone to jump off.”

Opening night went well.

“We flew to Tenerife. It was weird because the league was comprised of all the Madrid teams and most of the islands, Lanzarote too.

"We got to Tenerife for the first game, everyone partying away on the streets. We lost the game by a point, but I was eight for nine from the field. But we lost.

"I stayed in the hotel room that night because everyone else was 16, apart from one or two of the older guys who also thought you don’t party after losing the first game of the season.”

But he’s made his mark.

And then the second game: “Fourth quarter, in transition, I went for a lay-up, landed on someone’s foot, brought to hospital, cast up to my knee, off the scene for five weeks. On the way to the hospital, the coach says to me ‘Was the first team coach onto you?’ They’d fired one of their high-cost guards and were looking for a replacement.

"There were looking at getting me in for some practices — or so I was told. You never know whether these things are really concrete.”

He remained in his apartment, too proud to come home for a bit. The club were still paying him, lunch and dinner was delivered to the apartment daily. Plus he had access to the first team physio. But Dick knew too he was only extending his CV as a rehabber.

“It was starting to wreck my head.”

Then he rolled his other ankle with a simple reverse pass when he got back fit. And at home, Mimi’s mum had gotten a bad diagnosis.

Time for home.

Somewhere, he’s written down the accumulated time he’s been sitting injured on a sofa somewhere. In America, Germany, Spain, Belfast, Dublin. “A lot of time for sure,” he sighs. “A lot of time to think about stuff.”

He’s broke the same foot twice, the other one once. More often than not, the fifth metatarsal, the outside bone under severe pressure when, as Donaghy’s diagnosis suggests, a 6’4” frame is slaloming left then right. Right then left.

“Feet injuries seem to cause problems upstream when you are not rehabilitating properly, or not functioning very efficiently. The injuries started at college in America. (Franklin Pierce) certainly weren’t my favourite years.

"I spent a lot of time hanging around rehabbing, out of the loop, in no-man’s land. In my third year, I got lamped one night at a party and tried to exact revenge and ended up getting expelled from college.

"It ended how it ended, but I was happy to leave by the time the decision was taken out of my hands. I was 22 when I came back.”

Considering he won’t be 29 til April, Dick has packed big experiences into the intervening seasons as he readies himself for today’s National Cup semi-final against Eanna at Neptune Stadium (4pm).

Tralee Warriors haven’t won a Cup, and they are knocking around with a chance to do back-to-back Superleagues. With Dick, Donaghy and co., anything’s possible.

“He’s 100% bang-on,” he says of the Pied Piper of Tralee.

I’d get chased out of town if I bad-mouthed Donaghy! He might not be more talented than the Americans who come in, but he’s just that guy who’s going to win you a game.

"Even after a long hiatus from basketball, he’s come back and is the best four (slot) in the country. He’s another year older, but he’s the to prebounder in the league. He always seems to find a way to be part of something good. He’s in tune with what he needs to be in tune with.”

And Dick’s feeding off that. He knows his wife and future life is in Dublin and she’s worth giving up a Kingdom for.

“We looked at (living in) Kerry but it’s just too far away from Dublin and Belfast. Me and Mimi are buddies since she was 12. Kelvin would have come up to Belfast to coach in my man’s ‘Hard To Guard’ camps.

"He started bringing up Alex and Mimi with him. I never saw Kelvin play but I heard plenty. He’s not the type of guy whose daughter you would want to be messing with.

“I got lucky that he mellowed in the years when I got to know him. Sometimes he is giving you the stare and you just sit there in silence and wait for it to pass. He is not a dog you bark back at.”

Like father, like son-in-law.

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