Club built on Eastern promise continues to grow

It’s almost 13 years since a basketball club was founded in the Carlow village of Ballon to cater for recreational female players aged 30 or over.

Tonight, an arm of that club called Dublin Inter will face defending men’s National Cup champions Bord Gáis Neptune for a place in the final of this year’s blue riband event with a roster dominated by players from Eastern European.

Quite the journey, then, so let’s start from the off.

Toomas Ilves was there at the beginning. An Estonian who served in the Russian army, he brought his love for the court to Ballon and, by all accounts, Ilves and the basketball club soon became one and the same entity. Though he lived in Carlow he worked in Dublin and it seems Ballon BC simply gravitated to the capital with Toomas, such was his influence.

A multicultural club from the off, Estonians and Slovakians provided the majority of the manpower in the early days, but 16 different nationalities — including Irish — have since worn the club colours.

Ballon still play in the lower leagues but the Dublin Inter side it spawned now resides in the top tier of the Irish game and carries a roster containing nine Lithuanians, a Pole, an American and two Irishmen.

The Lithuanian influence is no mystery.

Aurimas Statkus drifted onto the scene back in 2006 when the club’s first Lithuanian joined up and he has since been the funnel through which the rest of his compatriots have been added. Popular throughout Eastern Europe it may be but, as Statkus says, basketball is like “a second religion” in the Baltics and that love for life on the court is apparent on and off it through Dublin Inter.

Stories of financial hardship are endemic to sports in this country despite government grants and improved facilities — and heaven knows basketball has found it harder to keep its head above water than most — but even by those standards Dublin Inter’s ability to reach the heights they have tonight are astonishing.

“We have no sponsors,” Statkus said. “All our expenses come from our own pockets. It costs us €30-40 each for every game to pay for the facilities and referees and that does not include what it costs for other things like training.

“That is why we can’t pick all the best players. Other [Lithuanian] guys would like to play but they can’t [cope] with the costs. If we could pick all of the guys we would be a top four team but that’s life. You have to survive and go with what you have.”

Still, it must be frustrating to know there is talent out there, eager to play, but unable to do so. Statkus and his team-mates see it every week when a ‘Euro’ league played in Dublin and comprising 95% Lithuanians, is held before their own fixtures, but money is a continual bone of contention.

Adding to the squeeze is a FIBA (the game’s ruling body) decree that any player from one country and playing in another must pay €130 for the privilege. That’s nothing to the pros it is really designed for but it is one more straw that came close to breaking this camel’s back and the latest season was less than a week from the off last October before Dublin Inter could finally commit to the schedule.

The struggle to stay afloat has been significantly greater this past year since Ilves passed away and Sarunas Cesnakauskas, another Lithuanian who is in his first year as coach, spoke of some of the cultural barriers they have had to surmount, including what they perceive as the puzzling interpretations of Irish referees to some of the rules.

Cesnakauskas laments too what he claims to be an unwillingness among the game’s power brokers to listen to their voices. Basketball Ireland would no doubt dispute that but, whatever the truth, there is little doubt the game here can profit hugely from the knowledge and skill bases of those from abroad.

Ten different nationalities are represented in the men’s top tier alone. Statkus played in the top tier at home for, among other clubs, Sialiaui, who regularly finished third in the LKL table behind two-time Eurocup champions Lietuvos Rytas and the country’s other giant Zalgiris.

Cesnakauskas specialised in basketball when studying management and coaching at university. All that is important, but not tonight.

Tonight they bring their skills, their know-how and their passion to the Neptune Stadium in Cork.

“Since the last game we play to now it is all we are talking about and thinking about every hour — to play this game,” says Cesnakauskas. “Neptune are a good team. Please God we win this game because if you look into the eyes of all the players you will see a burning desire to do it.”

And on this unlikely story goes.

Email: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie

Twitter: @Rackob

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