Living the hoop dream

AFTER years of success with Glanmire in ladies basketball, Mark Scannell realised his appetite wasn’t what it used to be.

He reckons he brought through three different senior teams and didn’t know if he fancied developing a fourth.

Then Neptune knocked on the door.

“I played for them for ten years and coached them straight after I finished — probably too soon after I stopped playing — though we did well: they’ve only been to two Cup Finals in the last nine years and I coached them to one.”

They came agonisingly close on that occasion — Scannell can talk you through the defining play, a turnover which saw Lennie McMillan, who’d once played for Neptune, break down the court to score and win a foul throw.

“That cost us the title. If we’d won I might have stayed and grown as a coach, but the timing, going back, was right.”

Neptune aren’t quite the force they were, but Scannell’s experience in promoting youngsters with Glanmire should help them.

“I think we’re ahead of schedule. At the start of the year the plan was to rebuild the squad — you have to do that and have continuity for the next few years.

“The foundations are there at juvenile level, it’s just a matter of bridging the gap to senior level.”

What are the other differences in coaching men and women? “It’s very similar, really. One difference is the men are a bit more athletic, which is not to say that I didn’t have great athletes among the girls.

“Another is that the women’s game tends to be a little bit more structured at times — they run their sets and score from a lot of sets, while with the men, you run the set to a point but a certain point the athleticism can take over.

“The men’s game is a lot of one-on-one, two-on-two, while the women’s can be more team-oriented, more five-on-five.

“One other difference between Neptune and Glanmire is that a lot of the girls were college students and didn’t have many commitments, while a lot of the Neptune players are young married men, so they have jobs, small kids, so the commitment is much harder and you’ve got to be more flexible with training.

“With the girls, a lot of them were playing and training in college so you’d nearly have to keep them away from training in case they overdid it, while with the lads you try to organise extra sessions.”

That flexibility is something Scannell has learned in his coaching career.

“You must listen to your players, though that doesn’t mean they tell you what to do.

“The likes of Liam O’Connell and Noel Allen would have influenced me but you have to find your own way, too. You must look at every team differently, so the one thing is you look at your personnel and adapt your style to suit them.

“The players can tell you that without saying it openly: in training you’ll see a certain set doesn’t suit your team because they’re too small, or whatever, so you have to change.

“You have to be flexible — the more rules you make the more you pigeonhole yourself. A guy might miss training because his child is sick, but if you’ve got a rule, ‘you don’t train, you don’t play’, then you’re painted yourself into a corner.

“You can only get players to respect what you’re doing, and most of the times they do. They love training, don’t forget — we’re all under pressure but I tell them all, ‘when you walk in for training, try to leave your problems outside and enjoy yourself’. That’s how we all fell in love with sport, by forgetting our troubles and playing.”

Neptune lost to Demons two years ago in the Cup semi-final in a fine game, while they lost to Killester in the league final last year, so as Scannell puts it, he didn’t inherit a team of slouches.

“The difference is that our younger lads wouldn’t have the experience the Demons players would have had at underage level, going for national cups.

“Every coach will tell you the league is where it’s at, but any coach in basketball who says that is lying. The league is great, and we’re going really well in the league, but I’m sure any of our lads would swap our league position for a Cup final spot.”

Having a broad view helps Scannell in other ways. He runs a basketball camp every summer with Mark Ingle and Adrian Fulton, and they bring in top foreign coaches to help — the Real Madrid and Barcelona coaches, for instance.

“Those coaches give you something different. There are more European players now in the NBA than there are Americans, something no-one’s picked up on.

“The leagues in Greece, Turkey, Spain — their underage structures have improved and now the league stars are going to the NBA, and a lot of that is down to the coaches. In the NBA it’s about the superstar a lot of the time, but the coach is the man in European basketball.

“We had the Real Madrid assistant coach last year and he went on to coach CSKA Moscow, and he taught us a lot.”

Scannell’s Spanish connection pointed to the initiative in Spain ten years ago where basketball hoops were put up in every community in the country, and local coaches were trained properly.

“They’re getting the benefits of that now,” says Scannell, “and obviously a lot of money went into it. But the style of basketball is very inclusive, teaching kids to dribble and have fun and not get them pigeonholed with tactics.

“We had 50 kids in the all the first time a Spanish coach came in, and I blew the whistle to bring the kids in. The coach said ‘no, no no, let them dribble’ and he walked in among them, chatting to them and so on, and eventually they all started to move towards him, and he got them into circles.

“Their attitude is, ‘teach them properly, if they like what you’re doing they’ll listen, but you can’t make them listen’. The first thing we teach kids is the lay-up, but the Spanish start them shooting at the three-point line. They say the kids love shooting, so they let them fire away, so the kids have some fun straightaway before starting them on the fundamentals. It’s a different philosophy.”

An interest in other sports gives Scannell the insight to point to other lessons basketball can teach.

“In his book Eddie O’Sullivan spoke about what he learned from basketball and brought into rugby.

“In Gaelic football I’m surprised more coaches haven’t looked into basketball to combat this diagonal ball into the corner-forward, because in basketball you teach players to keep the ball and the player in their peripheral vision, and that would help to cut that out.”

But this weekend it’s all about the basketball.

“It’s the biggest weekend in Irish basketball. Because it’s the semis you’ve got a lot of teams involved, while with the finals themselves there are a lot fewer. There are 32 teams in with a shout, from all over the country. It’s the one weekend of the year you don’t have a lot of other sports going on and basketball gets a good run.”

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