Neptune look to history and an absent friend

Ger Noonan can’t believe it’s been that long.

He’s not referring to the 21 years it’s been since Neptune last won the National Cup, even though he accepts that’s been way too long for a club of its stature.

It’s not even that it’s been 10 years since the club last won a national title, the last of their 11 Superleague pennants having being unfurled back in 2003.

What he still has trouble computing is that Emmett Neville is gone, 10 years ago this very week.

They were best friends, though Emmett was friendly with everyone. They grew up together, played hoops on the same Neptune underage teams together, hung out afterwards. Sometimes it would be just kicking a ball around in St John’s Square where Emmett lived. More often it would be hopping and shooting outside and inside the Neptune Stadium just across the road.

“The Stadium was our second home,” says Noonan. “It kept us out of trouble. If it wasn’t for it and the club, God knows what would have become of us, or at least me.”

Though they were the same age, they didn’t always play the same age group. Noonan was a January baby, squeezing out an extra year underage, and in his final year at U19 finally won the National Cup medal he and Neville had spent the previous three years valiantly trying to win together. Each time they had been foiled by crack Killester and Blue Demons teams, a couple of times by buzzer-beaters, but in Emmett’s first year overage, Noonan finally secured the medal they had craved.

Noonan’s medal now hangs from Emmett’s bedroom wall.

He gifted it to Emmett’s family the day of his funeral.

Emmett was 21 when he died suddenly in his sleep in his bedroom, just as Cormac McAnallen would only a year later in Tyrone.

It sent Neptune into a state of shock and mourning. He was going to be the club’s franchise player for the next decade with his smooth all-round game and fiery passion. And he was one of the club’s great personalities. The night before he died he was in typical upbeat form, joining in for a shooting game with some of the club’s juveniles, and in the dressing room mimicking everyone from team coach Martin Aherne to Rocky Balboa.

“He was never in a bad mood,” says Noonan. “He was always laughing and having everyone else laughing.”

In the days after his death the Neptune team considered withdrawing from that season’s Superleague before deciding that the last thing a fighter like Emmett would have wanted them to do was quit. Emmett had craved a national league medal. They could still win one for him. They could undoubtedly honour him. The next game they wore a black strip on their singlets and every player had Emmett’s number 15 printed on their boots.

Neptune would go unbeaten for the rest of that season. The day after they were presented with their Superleague medals, Aherne visited the Neville household to hand them over Emmett’s.

Noonan wasn’t part of that Neptune team. A sometimes volatile player, he had a sometimes volatile relationship with his home club and one sabbatical from the team coincided with Emmett’s last season. “That’s my biggest regret in basketball to date,” he says. “Not that I moved to play with Killarney but that I wasn’t there to dedicate that league to Emmett.”

Instead he has honoured Emmett in his own way. Last weekend his own son was baptised. He was christened Emmett.

And for years now Emmett Noonan’s father has sported a tattoo on his right arm, featuring a basket, the number 15 and the letters Nev. Whenever anyone asks him about it, or whenever he wonders just why he’s still playing all these years on, he reminds them and himself that there’s something he still has to win for an old friend.

The tragic and premature passing of Emmett Neville was to Neptune what the passing of Len Bias was to the Boston Celtics. Instead of sustained dominance, the flagship franchise of the league would be reduced to a mere also-ran.

Noonan has probably been the outstanding Neptune player of the past decade and along with Michael McGinn has become the face and heartbeat of the team. At times his passion has got the better of him but in recent seasons he’s learned to make his emotions work for him to maximise his dynamism and skill.

A couple of days before this season’s momentous National Cup semi-final against Blue Demons, the team spoke about how this time they weren’t going to get too hyped up for a local derby. They were going to play their own game instead of the occasion. The result was Noonan qualifying for his first cup final, and the club’s first in nine years.

It was the start of a wonderful weekend for Noonan. On the Sunday he played on an Irish Superleague select that defeated their English counterparts in front of 6,000 people in Birmingham. It was his first time as a Superleague player playing against international opposition when his predecessors in the ’80s routinely played against sides from across the water.

For Noonan though, it was better late than never. It was the next best thing to playing for Ireland, capping what he says, “was the best weekend of my basketball life”.

A win tonight though, would trump it, easily. At 8.45pm in the National Basketball Arena in a game televised live on Setanta Sports, Neptune take on UL Eagles. Mark Keenan’s side are both reigning league and cup champions but Neptune will hardly be daunted by them. Two years ago when the sides met in the Superleague semi-final down in Limerick, Neptune squeezed it, not least because of some inspired baseline play by Noonan in the third quarter.

He promises they won’t be weighted down by history either. This team has been through a lot together.

Michael McGinn played on the same underage teams as Emmett and Noonan and is the one remaining link to the Superleague-winning team of 2003. He has a young family but he plays on. Gary Walsh now has a little girl but he plays on. Ian McLoughlin suffered a cruciate ligament injury but still plays on, better now than ever, to the point he can even now dunk it.

“I know it’s a strange sight,” smiles Noonan, “seeing a pale foxy fella swinging off the rim but that’s how much Ian has worked on his game.

“To be honest, we’re trying not to think of history. At the end of the day we’re the fellas who have travelled up and down the country every weekend, who are away from our family and kids, to get a chance like this to play in a cup final.”

They’re out to win this for themselves, first and foremost.

But as Emmett Noonan’s father will confide, for a special old friend as well.

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