A few days after his 13th birthday, Kieran Donaghy bounded into the Tralee Sports Complex on a Saturday night, spread the elbows to assume his usual courtside spot and then spent the rest of the night gaping up at his heroes and everything else the night would reveal.
From the first time he had set eyes on the Tigers two seasons earlier and seen their giant American Ricardo Leonard throw down an alley-oop dunk with such force, a nut came off the back of the hoop, Donaghy had hardly missed a home game. Most night the Tigers trained, he was there too, the resident gym rat, shooting into the side baskets and then scurrying in to catch any rebound before it hit the floor and he could incur the wrath of the team’s coach, Timmy McCarthy.
This night was particularly special. The previous week Timmy and the Tigers had secured the club’s first-ever Superleague title. It wasn’t just local rivals Killarney that were in town for the final home game of the season; so was the Superleague trophy itself, to be presented to team captain Maurice Casey after the game.
In the following Monday morning’s, there was a photograph of McCarthy, Casey, and jubilant teammates and supporters celebrating after the win and trophy presentation. Popping up on the outside of McCarthy’s right shoulder was a beaming, red-lipped young Donaghy, while over at the opposite side of the team photo was Donaghy’s future wife, Hilary Stephenson. Donaghy reckons that night must have been the first time he first cast eyes on her, but if he’s honest, Hilary or squeezing into the Tigers celebration pics wasn’t his most abiding memory.
Minutes before tip-off, the gym lights were switched off. A spotlight beamed to the middle of the court. The MC urged everyone wedged into a packed hall to make some noise for “YOUR...TRALEE TIGERS” before blasting the intro to Eye of the Tiger as the team ran out in their cool new shooting tops. It was like something straight out of Michael Jordan’s Chicago and it still resonated with him.
“To this day,” Donaghy would write in his autobiography last winter, “that memory is as clear in my head as any All Ireland final I’ve won.” Donaghy would grow up to become a Tiger and win a couple of Superleagues himself, the last of them arriving in 2008. A year later though the Tigers were of the Superleague, just like their neighbours Killarney. There was only so long Donaghy and Micheál Quirke could juggle two balls at the one time, only so long a warriorveteran like John Teahan could rage on and very little Tralee felt they could do without their three best home-grown players.
For seven years there, there was no Superleague basketball in the town or the county, and little prospect of any ever returning. The local talent seemed too limited, or at least too diluted, spread across too many clubs seemingly too political and divided to ever come together for a common cause. But then Donaghy, as part of his therapy from the 2015 All Ireland defeat as Kerry captain, picked up a basketball again, to play intermediate for local side, St Brendan’s. Soon he’d got the bug again. He had a dream again. If Brendan’s could win the intermediate Cup, Tralee could field a Superleague team again. The town was ready for it. Love of the game and the place could trump any petty local squabbles. Instead of fighting with one another – Brendan’s, Tigers, Imperials – they could fight alongside one another as Warriors.
Donaghy’s vision has been realised. Last Saturday night, the Warriors and the Complex hosted Cup winners Swords Griffith Thunder. Like has been the case all season, the car park was full 45 minutes before tip-off. Inside the gym, the only seating not yet occupied were for late- arriving VIPs. The music, spanning the taste of at least three generations, boomed over the PA. Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh was in the house. Sheets with ‘3!’ were handed out for the local kids to wave in the air any time the local team’s American Trae Pemberton hit another bomb. And of course, there was the pre-match introduction and the lowered lights and accompanying music, similar to what Donaghy so vividly remembered as a kid.
It was actually 21 years ago this very month Donaghy’s spine tingled at the sound of Survivor, and to salute the anniversary, the league- winning team of ’96 were guests of honour last Saturday night. They were nearly all there to a man, including McCarthy, Casey, Teahan, Kieran O’Sullivan, Ger Galgey, Vinnie Murphy, and of course, Ricardo Leonard, now an assistant coach with the Warriors.
Watching it all, you couldn’t help but tip your hat to Donaghy, the 13-year-old of 21 years ago now with his grey, shaved head igniting the 13-year-olds of today.
He gets it. That acknowledging the past enhances the present and inspires the future. That the same way Ricardo inspired him, he inspired Ricardo’s son – his current Warriors teammate – Ryan, and that Ryan now inspires the Tralee youth of today. That, as the great Neptune sponsor and promoter Jackie Solan put it in Hanging from the Rafters, a basketball game can’t game just be a fixture; you must make it an event.
That when you do, the crowds will come. And that when the crowds come and you have that proximity to the action, inside, out of the cold and the rain, it’s an experience that no other ball game or place can provide in this country at this time of year.
In recognising all that, Donaghy is following in the footsteps of Solan, or in another way, those of Jackie Moon, or more likely the glorious tradition of Paudie O’Connor and Liam McHale, two other charismatic provincial ballplayers that also lit up their native towns and created a golden treasure of memories for generations.
Last Saturday night’s game was sometimes sloppy, but always gripping, with Tralee edging it, 68-61, to extend their winning streak to 10 games. They’re third in the league, comfortably assured of a spot in the Champions Trophy playoffs at the start of the next month. It’s a remarkable achievement, to be only back in the league a year and finish at least five games ahead of an established power like UCC Blue Demons.
Another measure of the Tralee phenomenon has been the call-up of 34-year-old Donaghy and 19-year-old Leonard to Pete Strickland’s first 20-man Irish squad.
With his commitments to Kerry, Donaghy will hardly play for them this summer.
But it’s a two-year programme, climaxing with the Small Countries competition in San Marino in the summer of 2018. Donaghy’s football commitments will have been finished by at least nine months at that stage. Strickland knows the leadership and smarts and positivity and intangibles he can bring to the group, on and off the floor.
The Irish Superleague has benefited hugely from those qualities this season. The Irish national team could be a lot better for them too.
Donaghy receives Ireland call
Kieran Donaghy may have some juggling to do. Kerry’s three-time All-Star has been a key player for Garvey’s Tralee Warriors in basketball’s Super League this season and that form has been recognised with a call-up to the Irish men’s team by coach Pete Strickland who yesterday announced a squad of 20.
The coach is building towards the 2018 Small Nations Tournament and the plan is the squad will convene next month for their first training session and participate in a tournament during the summer on a date and at a venue as of yet unknown.
The obvious question is whether Donaghy can commit to all that and the Kerry footballers whose league season will end in early April at the latest before a pause ahead of the championship.
Donaghy has yet to feature for Kerry this season. As of now, he is one of two Tralee players to have made Strickland’s squad. Templeogue provide four, including Ireland goalkeeper Darren Randolph’s brother Neil. Another quartet comes from UCC Demons. In all, eight of the 12 Super League teams will be represented.
“Selecting just 20 from a far more expansive grouping of quality players in the country was difficult,” said Strickland. “Nonetheless, preparing for the 2018 Small Nations Tournament demands we now begin the process of building a team to be proud of.”