Kieran Shannon: One basketball journey ends, another begins for proud Price

It's not just that when a door closes, another one tends to open; sometimes it means you’ve to close another too.
Kieran Shannon: One basketball journey ends, another begins for proud Price
STEPPING DOWN: Pat Price relaxes at Summercove, Kinsale, Co Cork. Price exited his role as Garvey’s Tralee Warriors coach at the weekend after a ‘wonderful and exhilarating’ two seasons at the helm. Picture Dan Linehan

It's not just that when a door closes, another one tends to open; sometimes it means you’ve to close another too.

While confined to a 2k radius around his home in Belgooly, just a couple of miles from Kinsale, Pat Price decided that if ever he was going to get round to doing that podcast series he’d been talking about for a few years, it was now or never, all the more with how his own business had been impacted by Covid-19.

Up to now Pat Price Sports had depended heavily on bringing golf, rugby, and basketball tours into Ireland, but now as nobody can travel, he’s seen it as an opportunity where his business can, to borrow another basketball term, pivot. Like a podcast. Diversify. And have a lot of fun in the process.

Already he has four interviews in the can for Basketball Journeys, the first of which will be with you next week, all with old friends he met somewhere along the way before they’d go on to work at the highest level in the second-biggest sport in the world.

Long before Mike Procopio was the personal video coach to Kobe Bryant and became a player development coach with the Dallas Mavericks, he used to coach against Price in a summer camp league in the Poconos. Chuck Martin, one of the leading assistant coaches in all of college basketball, was a roommate at some of those camps they’d run for the Hoop Group. Before Jay Larranaga became an assistant coach with the Boston Celtics, he was player-coach of the Irish national team with Price as one of his assistants.

Kevin Young, now an assistant coach with the Philadelphia 76ers, used to coach Notre Dame-Shamrock Hoops against Price’s UCC Blue Demons in the Irish Superleague in the mid-noughties.

Basketball Journeys is bound to make riveting listening, learning all about how Kobe got ready to go against the Celtics in the finals, or what it’s like working with the Celtics, or John Calipari and Derrick Rose in Memphis, or tracing your path from coaching Anthony Jenkins to Joel Embiid. You won’t even have to be a basketball aficionado to enjoy them. With someone like Price as the anchor, steering the conversation, little nuggets about coaching and life itself will tend to emerge.

What would make an interesting episode too is Price’s latest stop-off on his own basketball journey — the past two seasons with the Garvey’s Tralee Warriors, coaching Kieran Donaghy and a cast of other colourful personalities.

Over the weekend he made the decision that there would be no third season, with Covid-19 largely making it for him. But he leaves with golden memories of a group that both seasons ended up with the best on-court record in the Irish Superleague.

“It was wonderful. Exhilarating. It was challenging too with such big characters but that’s what made it so exhilarating. In each man there is a voice and if you allow them that voice, then you’re going to hear everything. Same when you talk to them like men and allow them to express themselves. The warts and all that comes with that allowed us to thrive and be a special team.”

Exhibit A: Eoin Quigley. Although someone like Kieran Donaghy is known as the face as well as the heart of the franchise and Paul Dick became recognised as probably the best player, and certainly the best guard, in the country over the past two seasons, Quigley was the X Factor: A scrawny, unorthodox player seemingly made out of elastic.

By Price’s own admission, he inherited “an enigma within a riddle” but when they found the answer they discovered the nearest thing the league has had to Manu Ginobili.

“I remember saying to (assistant coach John) Dowling during our first pre-season: ‘If you live and die by Quigley, you’re going to die a lot.’ But what we learned with Eoin was giving him the freedom to play through mistakes and getting to know him.

“So much of it was relationship-based. A few weeks after I said that to John, we were up in a pre-season tournament in Templeogue and I roared at Eoin while he was running up the floor. And he turned to me, raging: ‘Stop talking to me!’ And what did I learn? Eoin didn’t want to be joystick-coached. And the more you let him play through his mistakes, you started wiping the dirt off the stone and learned, ‘Wait, that’s not a stone, that’s a diamond.’ Just allow Quigs to be Quigs.”

The odd time he could still break your heart but it was worth it. What might cost you the cup would win you the league.

“With the style of play that we ran, it was important that Quigs be an important cog in it. I didn’t want us to become point-guard-centric. I didn’t want it to be all about the Americans. I didn’t want us to become predictable. And so for us to achieve that, the most unpredictable guy had to be to the forefront.”

Price was aware that he had inherited a good situation. The previous two seasons the club had won the end-of-season Champions Trophy under Mark Bernsen, having finished third in the league standings each time. But to truly flourish and win the league outright meant everyone feeling involved.

Price regularly ran all 12 players in a game, all the more so after this year’s Cup semi-final defeat. Darragh O’Hanlon didn’t see the floor in that game but the next week after a frank team meeting went right back into the rotation and hit 16 points.

“By the time of the cup semi-final Darragh had stopped enjoying his basketball. He was really battling but had played his way out of the rotation. So after the Cup we had a long chat and I said: ‘Okay, guys, I’m going to push the chip towards you. But you can’t then say we’d have won if we had shortened our rotation. If everyone is going to play then we’re going to sometimes have to live with guys not playing well.’

“And so at times it meant we were sloppier and less aesthetically pleasing than we were last year, because with more people getting in and subbing out, it was harder for guys to establish rhythm. But what we lost in terms of aesthetics we gained in terms of culture as well as wearing opponents down. When Darragh came back in, everyone was: ‘Please hit this shot so we as a group can celebrate with you.’ And Darragh did make huge shots for us over the last 10 weeks of the season.

“The same with Daniel Jokubaitis. Jaokubaitis got off to a slow start with us but in February and March I don’t know if there was a better player in the league and that’s a big reason why we finished so strong again.”

Under Price there was a distinct trend to Tralee’s seasons. Lose their opening game, and maybe three of their first seven games. Then rally, get to the cup semi-final but lose, then pretty much go unbeaten for the rest of the year to top the league. Only this year it wasn’t enough to walk away with the actual silverware. In a now well-documented case that went all the way to an arbitration hearing, they were docked two wins for being adjudged to have fielded an unregistered player, American Andre Berry. Did it sully Price’s experience with Tralee? No. Only his views of the sport’s national governing body.

“I’ve such admiration for our guys for how they carried that burden of uncertainty from the day they learned about it, curiously just before the cup semi-final, all the way to the end of the season and carried on regardless. My respect for them was obviously already high but it just went to another level again, how with all that hanging over them and how it could be taken out of their hands not by a basketball team but some committee, and they could go the rest of the season unbeaten. There’s just something special about that group.

“So the way we look at that whole episode is: ‘We know.’ We know what the story is. We know we were the best team in the league.

“I think (Basketball Ireland CEO) Bernard O’Byrne made a mess of it. I’ve sang his praises before for how he steered the ship out of troubled waters and financial difficulty, but I’d be bluffing if I said: ‘Ah sure, we’re all grand.’

“He should have been nowhere near it. You can’t be the secretary general of the association and chairman of the MNCC (Men’s National Competitions Committee) which pursued that case for something that happened internally in his office. For the association not to take ownership of what a full-time staff administrator did or failed to do, and to blow it up into something that it should never have been, it’s hard to forget. But I prefer to lend my real focus onto my admiration for the guys and the way they handled it.”

He’s thinking especially of Darren O’Sullivan, the team captain, and Kieran Donaghy. For years he’d admired Donaghy from his Demons teams going up against Tralee Tigers over a decade ago, but working with him up close was one of the privileges of his career.

“He’s more than generational. He just gets it. What sport is about. What winning is about. What life is about. Connection. There’d be conversations we’d be having on the phone about an internal team matter and he’d say: ‘Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.’ And by the time I’d arrive up from Cork for training, he had taken care of it. I just feel terrible for him the way it ended in March. Because he has lived this Warriors experience. He helped create it.”

And it is quite something that has been created down there. Virtually a full house for every home game. Music pumping, kids jumping, and friendly faces and volunteers everywhere. Kevin O’Donoghue at the door. Alan Cantwell on the mike. Jimmy Diggins. Gerard O’Sullivan. Geraldine Collins. Terry O’Brien, wheelchair-bound, only with a chairman like that, there are no bounds. Just life-affirming. Magical.

“One of the fears you always have for Irish basketball is there not being enough bodies on the ground. You walk into a gym and the club chairman is collecting money at the door or also has to be the scorekeeper. It was great to walk into the Complex in Tralee with the place packed and knowing 60 people had contributed to that. That they were all there with a role, having played a role.”

Now his own role is done. In truth, even this season, trying to help the team retain the league title, was a stretch.

“The journey (from Belgooly to Tralee) itself never bothered me but that sheer aggregate of time was drawing me away from the responsibility of my own business. And the shutdown allowed me more time to reflect: Is that something you realistically think you can pull off again? And with so much economic uncertainty in the country at the moment, and a large part of my income coming from a sector that has been decimated, my first priority is obviously my family.

“And to be fair to the club, they will have their own challenges in terms of sponsorship. So the last thing I wanted was to drag out the process out into the summer and add to the uncertainty.”

And so these days he’s in what you might term the editing booth, using the software package Audacity to cut down on those ‘ems’ and ‘ums’ and ‘you knows’ that his late father used to pull him up on. Basketball Journeys will be with you soon. Just no doubt as his own hoops journey will resume someday, all the while grateful that it stopped off in Tralee.

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