How the Gooch compares to Michael Jordan

BACK when he was still coaching both Kerry and Dr Crokes, Pat O’Shea recommended a book on Michael Jordan to his Kerry players.

Kerry at the time were reigning All-Ireland champions and plenty of people had advised O’Shea to stay clear of the job, but he relished the prospect of finding ways to help the likes of Declan O’Sullivan make the transition from brilliance to outright greatness.

How To Be Like Mike by Pat Williams might have excessively romanticised Jordan the person but it still provided some fascinating insights, especially one offered by the Chicago Tribune’s Bob Greene.

“Mike,” noted Greene, “plays every game as if it were his last because he knows that in the stands are some fans that will never see him play again, other than that night.”

The only time I saw Jordan play in the flesh was a regular season game against the Bolton Celtics on April Fool’s Day, 1997. It wasn’t remotely as glamorous a fixture as it sounds: Boston were enduring the worst season in franchise history, while the Bulls were enjoying the second greatest in the league’s entire history. But back in the ‘90s Chicago was the Mecca of the sports world, a pilgrimage many of us believers just had to make, and any chance to visit his temple and give thanks had to be grasped.

Only those of us who’d never seen Jordan before can recall that game. The Bulls didn’t even have to suit up Denis Rodman, who instead was suited up in a glittering gold jacket and during time outs was more interested in watching the cheerleaders strut their stuff than what play Phil Jackson was drawing up in the huddle. The Bulls could even afford the luxury of resting Jordan for 21 of the 48 minutes, and, alongside me, my brother was miffed that we hadn’t got to see more of Jordan.

I didn’t feel that cheated though. We still got to see plenty of what Jordan was all about. He nailed eight of the 11 shots he put up, including one monstrous dunk right through the middle. What really stayed with me though was the intensity of his warm-up, the sheer focus with which he took a series of turnaround baseline jump shots. You would have thought he was getting ready for a Game Seven of the NBA finals, not a pedestrian regular season game, but the way he probably saw it, he owed it to those guys up in the cheap seats from Ireland to prepare and play his best.

The great ones seem to think like that.

“League, championship, challenge game, I don’t distinguish between any game,” Mick O’Connell once said.

“League football isn’t any different to championship football. There isn’t a different shaped ball.”

His friend Christy Ring had a similar mindset. “There was no such thing [to me] as an unimportant match,” Ring once remarked.

“Every game had an importance for me and I looked forward eagerly to every outing, whether it was challenge, tournament or championship.”

John Doyle once noted Ring was as fit in early spring as he was in July which explained why he won so many Railway Cups for Munster. Maybe Ring appreciated that for tens of thousands of people up the country, St Patrick’s Day was their best chance to see him play in the flesh.

We’ve all met people who saw Ring play, and often their recollections aren’t of Munster or All-Ireland finals but of some ingenious score in a tournament game, or maybe for the Glen in some challenge game. Ring’s primary drive was a sheer love of the game but intuitively he also understood somewhere in the crowd was someone waiting to take home a lifelong memory.

It’s been one of the great blessings of 21st century football that we have been spared the grind of pre-Christmas league football, but we should also appreciate the joys of winter football and the kind of fare Colm Cooper routinely offers up at this time of year for Dr Crokes. Some of the time it is televised and served up in county and Munster club finals. Other times it could be in front of just a hundred brave souls in an O’Donoghue Cup or Munster league game.

The other day we came across a rerun of Laochra Gael’s tribute to Mickey Linden in which Sean Bán Breathnach remarks that the great players are the ones who rise to the big occasion. He’s right but another measure of a player’s greatness is how he played in games that either nearly everyone has forgotten or when hardly anyone was looking.

We’re now fortunate to have YouTube record for posterity some of the wonders of Gooch. Just check out his delicious lobbed free against Kenmare last year. It’s there now for everyone to enjoy but still, there are only a few people who can proudly say they saw it in the flesh.

We should cherish these days and these years and the ‘tell the grandkid’ moments he keeps providing us with.

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