Making the big calls

As both a player and coach, Mark Keenan has been at the heart of Irish basketball over the past quarter of a century. Tomorrow he coaches a SuperLeague selection to face a British All-Star side — just recognition for one of Ireland’s foremost coaches in any sport.

Making the big calls

Mark Keenan may be one of the most underrated coaches both inside and outside his sport but his record of contesting national finals stands comparison with Brian Cody’s and while it amazingly wasn’t enough to hold on to one coaching job a little while back, it rightly landed him with another.

Tomorrow when an Irish SuperLeague selection team take to the floor to play a British All-Star selection in front of 6,000 people at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham as part of the British national cup final day bill, Keenan will be the man with the coach’s clipboard. Ireland haven’t had a national senior team in over three years now and though this selection doesn’t quite qualify as one either, it is a step closer towards having the real thing.

He and most of his players already had a demanding weekend on their hands. Last night he coached defending league and cup champions UL Eagles against UCD Marian in the first of the SuperLeague Cup semi-finals at Neptune Stadium, bidding to make his 12th consecutive cup and league final appearance; you have to go back six years for the last time Keenan didn’t have a team playing in domestic basketball’s two biggest games, an astonishing sequence unparalleled in the Irish men’s game.

Yet Keenan couldn’t resist double jobbing. Down through the years, too many prominent Irish basketball figures and players have had a fractured relationship with the international programme but the little man with the big heart never lost that loving feeling for the green singlet.

He was the starting guard on the 1984 junior (U19) national team that won Ireland’s second-ever game in European competition and to this day rates their coach, Danny Fulton, as his biggest coaching influence. He made the senior national team while still a teenager, touring around America. He was on the first Irish team to reach the Promotions Cup final in 1989 and the first to win it outright in 1994. He was even an assistant coach during the Celtic Tiger years when huge money was spent — and wasted — on flying in a team full of Americans before Irish basketball, just like the country, went broke.

He was there for the bust and he was there for the boom. You have to go back 28 years to when Keenan wasn’t either a player or coach in the league; he has seen it all.

Even before he played with LaVerne Evans against Jasper McElroy, the game consumed him. Growing up in Dolphin’s Barn, Corinthians was his club. Back then they used host the legendary Roy Curtis international tournament in the Oblate Hall and while people were hanging from the rafters and Americans were hanging from the rim, a club volunteer like Keenan would be cleaning the floor in between marvelling at and studying the ball-handling wizardry of the likes of Alton Byrd, Glasgow’s Murray Metals playmaker.

Keenan was a very useful Gaelic footballer, captaining a Dublin U14 team to a Leinster title and would probably have played with Jim Stynes on the All-Ireland winning minor team of 1984 only that was the year he opted to go to the States on a high school basketball scholarship. Shortly upon his return, he broke into the club’s senior starting lineup and would essentially never leave it.

He would become one of the constants and wonders of the league with his Muggsy-Bogues style: while he left the air for others, the floor belonged to him. Time and time again he’d rip the ball off someone before ripping down the court, all 5’5” of him, and getting it to where it needed to go, either in the basket or to someone who’d put it in there.

He had a particularly special understanding with LaVerne Evans, the scoring machine from New York that was an NBA draft pick the same year Michael Jordan was. Together they would inspire Corinthians — or Roadspeed, as they were known back then — to the 1989 National Cup, shocking Blue Demons in the final, and to second spot in the 1990 league standings.

And then they were gone. Just like that. That was how fantastical and fleeting the whole thing was.

The common perception is that the sponsor and team went before Keenan left, for St Vincent’s, Dublin’s premier club at the time. Keenan though is too honest not to correct that account.

“It was the other way around. We had only five or six guys at pre-season training while that same summer John O’Connor had taken over as coach at Vincent’s. I knew John well from him having played and coached us before and he was on the lookout for a guard because Owen McKeon was retiring. Back then we’d have hated Vincent’s because they were so good but I decided I’d sample it for a night or two because I was buddies with a few of them from the national team.

“So I went and I liked it and when I came back to Corinthians the next night we still only had five bodies at training. I was saying, ‘Lads, what’s the story? Where’s the team?’ And you’d be told ‘Ah, the lads will be back next week’ but I had been hearing that for weeks. So for the first time ever I decided I had to do what was best for me. Before that I had always put the club first. I remember as a kid I had a Gaelic football match the same weekend we were hosting the Roy Curtis. My parents couldn’t give me a lift so I got a taxi, paid the fella and then scrambled into the Oblate so I could help out only to be given out for being three minutes late.

“So this one time I decided I was putting myself ahead of the club. There was pressure put on me, with leading club officers telling me, ‘Look, if you go, the sponsors will go, we’re going to pull the team’ but I told them that was unfair, to put it all on one guy. I said ‘Sorry, but I’ve made up my mind.’”

He’d stay with Vincent’s for the rest of his playing career, right up to when he was 34. The crowds and the buzz in the 90s weren’t what they were in the 80s but the Glasnevin club would remain one of the standard bearers of the sport, winning a couple of cups and never finishing outside the top three in the league during that decade. Keenan became so embedded in the Glasnevin club that he doubled up as an assistant coach to Joey Boylan in his last couple of years as a player. Then, in 2001 when he stepped down as a player, Boylan stepped down as coach, at which point Keenan stepped in.

It would be a testing, turbulent season, the first of several Keenan would endure as a coach before he’d find his stride and crack the code (for one of the league’s great gentlemen as well as winners, he’s gone through a serious amount of clubs). One of their two Americans that year was a bit too small and individualistic for what they needed and after the club finished outside the top six for the first time in 14 years, Boylan stepped back in again. Keenan was promptly snapped up by Tolka Rovers whose coach Martin McGettrick was looking for an assistant but six games into their second season together the club pulled out of the league due to finances.

UCD Marian were next to snap up his services but again that relationship didn’t last 18 months. In Keenan’s first year as head coach there the club had its second-best season in 24 years but then in his second they lost five of their first six games and he was duly fired.

He didn’t leave embittered, just wiser, for the experience. He’d re-signed an American player that had developed notions of himself and began contaminating the dressing room. Keenan had stayed too loyal and patient with him and learned that it’s better to fire a hired hand like that before you get fired yourself. The Marian mentality was also quite different to what he had become accustomed to on the northside.

“I always remember Fran Ryan saying to me when I was taking up the job that I had to be mindful that these players were very intelligent. But as it unfolded over there I realised that there’s a difference between academic intelligence and basketball intelligence. I don’t know if the work ethic was really there to compete consistently at the highest level. The culture there was just different. There’s participation basketball and then there’s competitive basketball.”

Killester would prove to be just the right fit for him, just as he was for them. Ed Randolph, the ever-enthusiastic and popular American, had been his assistant in Marian and recommended him to Killester, as did Jerome Westbrooks, impressed by Keenan’s diligence and geniality as an assistant coach with the national team. In his first season, Killester won only the second league title the club had ever won and over the following four seasons they would contest every league and cup final on offer, winning two of each.

Even that ride though had its bumps, especially the end. Keenan’s reward for winning the 2011 league was to be sacked a month later. The respectful thing would have been to issue a joint press statement, saying their parting had been mutual. Keenan wasn’t even afforded that dignity. The club issued a press statement declaring his services hadn’t been retained. Again though Keenan remains philosophical. A sour note can’t sour what they shared.

“It did hurt at the time, because as Jerome would put it, it wasn’t good treatment for what I had put into it and what we’d achieved. But I know it was something orchestrated by just a couple of people. There were other influential people on the committee that would have voted for me but couldn’t make it that night but the vote went ahead anyway. But the big thing is I still have a great rapport with all the players, the likes of Paddy Kelly, Pete Masden, Robbie Clarke. I have no issues with any of the players. We had five fantastic years together. They had a tremendous work and team ethic.”

Killester’s folly was Limerick’s opportunity. For years they were the great nearly-men, whatever about underachievers of the league. Killester in particular had been a hurdle they just couldn’t get over. Once they heard Keenan was available and interested, they snapped him up. After a dodgy first few months, they went down to Cork for the National Cup semi-final, their opponents — who else? — Killester.

With four minutes to go they trailed by seven. They’d win in overtime. Before the game he never viewed it as a revenge mission but afterwards, he’ll admit, it felt particularly sweet. The final was even sweeter. Limerick won it. Two months later they won the Superleague too. It was the first in the club’s history — and Keenan’s fourth in six seasons.

He puts it mostly down to players. In his first few months at Limerick they didn’t have the right American and an energy-sapper or two. By Christmas they were gone while Robert Taylor, a point guard, was brought in. It’s ‘BT’ who runs the team, says Keenan, not him. That’s his philosophy.

“To me it’s all about the players. I don’t dictate to them. I give them the reins. I just put in the structures and let them play.

“When you have someone with the talent and mindset of Paddy Kelly as I had in Killester, you should be happy to let him make his own decisions on the court. Same when you have someone like BT.”

It’s little wonder then that he has chosen Taylor as one of his two Americans for this game against the British Superleague team tomorrow, and as his one American for Limerick again this season. It’s varied through the years, the number of foreign players you can have on the floor, from two to one, back up to two and even five at one point during the height of the Bosman era. Now it’s been whittled down again. Keenan is too busy in the pursuit of the next victory to be caught up on the argument of standards, but has seen and been around enough to know that a lot of the changes haven’t been for the better.

“I thought when there were more [foreign players] the more competitive it was. I think with the changing of the rules the likes of Ballina were killed off, Killarney were killed off, Tralee were killed off. Now, you can say that they didn’t develop enough of their own players but those clubs relied a lot on Americans and a European player or two to fill the roster. We lost something special when we lost [provincial] clubs like that because those places were hotbeds of basketball in terms of support and atmosphere. ”

It’s not just crowds that aren’t what they were. He’s noticed the general Superleague player isn’t as hardnosed as his peers in the 80s heyday. Back then, they weren’t maybe as technically sophisticated, certainly not in their ballhandling, but they more than compensated in terms of grit.

“When I came into the league, I would have been going up against Owen McKeon, Eamonn Molloy, Jim Nugent, John Cooney, Mono McCarthy, Brendan Flaherty, Paul McStay. That competition, that era was really tough; they were all great guards. I know you can say that guards now are technically better and they have no problem putting it through the legs and behind the back and have all that flash, but they don’t need to do it as much as they do and we certainly didn’t need to do it back then. There isn’t the same commitment and toughness that guys had back then. You’ll have it with certain teams, like what we had in Vincent’s in the 90s and Killester there a few years back but there’s definitely been a change in the mentality of the players coming through.”

Maybe this game tomorrow will help change that.

“It forces guys to make that extra effort,” he says, “when without a national team to aim for, they haven’t had to do that to get by week in and week out in the league.”

What does remain a constant is Keenan. He still plays a bit himself, winning a masters tournament in Galway this year just past, playing alongside Jerome and Damien Sealy and Pat Grennell. He and his wife Pat have no kids but they do have nephews, a couple of whom study in Clongowes. It’s traditionally a rugby powerhouse but now Keenan coaches there a few times a week, just as he does in Limerick, involving a four-hour commute each time.

The little kid who used scuttle in to wipe the floor at Roy Curtis time lives on. He’s still a gym rat at heart.

Picture: EAGLE-EYED: Mark Keenan at the University Arena in Limerick. Keenan brought UL their first SuperLeague title, in 2012, along with a National Cup victory. Picture: Don Moloney/Press 22

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