Everyone else used to call him Tom or Wilky. We called him Sir.
While the other side of the city and a few other small pockets around the country knew him as the basketball international, to me and my classmates heading into the autumn of 1981 Tom Wilkinson was our fourth-class primary school teacher in St Columba’s NS, Douglas, Cork.
We had barely even heard of basketball, let alone seen or played it, just like almost everyone else our age or any age in Ireland then. Initially our parents would have seen and expected him to be the man who taught us the three Rs, or since we were Irish, a fourth in religion.
Sir wouldn’t disappoint on that count. He’d teach us long division, making the complex simple by coining the acronym Dad Made Small Boats to help remind us to Divide, Multiply, Subtract, Bring Over.
He’d teach us some religion too, or at least right from wrong and that you didn’t have to consult or recite the catechism to know the difference; at the time, having been born in the North and followed the hunger strikes of the previous summer, I’d have had certain republican sympathies.
But a talk he and my father each had with me one morning, after a security services officer was shot dead in front of his wife leaving the hospital where she’d just given birth, made me completely reassess what could be justified in the name of ‘The Cause’.
Perhaps his greatest gift though was how he elevated my two other Rs by inspiring to me read up on and even write about basketball.
I wasn’t among the first in our class to see him or anyone else on the hardwood. A few of my buddies, Shay Coleman and Barry Deasy, had ventured up to Gurranabraher to check out his team’s opening league game of the season.
Sir at the time didn’t particularly advertise his sporting prowess, wearing it as lightly as the neat moustache he had at the time, but my interest had been suitably piqued to ask him one lunchbreak for details and directions to his next game.
And so, with there being no google maps or even AA routeplanner in those days, he drew it out for me: cross North Gate Bridge, take a left onto Cathedral Road… So the Sunday of the October bank holiday weekend, my mother Rosaleen, who like the rest of us had moved to Cork only the year before, made her first expedition crosstown so her son could check out this basketball in some place called the Parochial Hall.
What followed was much like that opening scene in the old biopic Great Balls of Fire. Just like when a young Jerry Lee Lewis peeps in to an all-black roadhouse and is totally enthralled by the sights and sounds of when a whole lotta shakin’s goin’ on, a whole new scene, a whole other world, had opened up to me.
I thought there might be about a hundred people at the game. Instead there must have been 1,500. The place was wedged, strictly standing room only, or in our case, kneeling room, as we managed to squeeze in and take up a spot in front of the courtside seats.
I thought it was merely a bottom-of-the-table versus top-of-the-table clash: while Sir’s team, the newly-promoted Burgerland Neptune, had lost their opening three games, their opponents, had won their first three.
But with those opponents being his old team Team Britvic Blue Demons, it was a local derby and as we’d find out derbies in Irish basketball or indeed Irish sport that decade didn’t come any better or fiercer.
I had never seen a black person in the flesh before. Now suddenly there were four of them – Reggie Holmes, Richard Montague, Lennie McMillian, Webster Means – and they were these giants jumping out of the building, dunking, pulling down rebounds the height of the backboard. And mixing and holding their own with them was a cast of local players, including Sir.
At first, when he was substituted after about six minutes, I was concerned, even deflated; in every sport I followed, once you were taken off that was you done for the day, usually because you had under-performed. But then Sir re-entered the fray and ended up scoring 14 points, and best of all, his team ended up winning 92-91.
Irish basketball would never be the same, nor would my life.
I started to devour and cut out the basketball writings of Noel Spillane and Billy George and the late Brendan Mooney as much as I would the GAA coverage of Jim O’Sullivan and Michael Ellard.
I would bombard, plague, Sir with questions during lunchbreak and often classtime. Who’s the best player you ever played against? What’s the best game you ever played in? And in the tradition of themagazines I’d also eat up in those days, I’d enquire who were his favourite actors and actresses too.
Within a month I’d written a little book on him. No one else was meant to see it, just a couple of classmates, only one of them, Fergal Daly, grabbed it off me and alerted Sir of its existence. I was mortified. But he was chuffed, and when he asked me could I do a copy for him, I was chuffed too.
I kept writing. By the end of the academic year there were three volumes on Sir and his team and his sport. My first batch of stat attacks would have been contained in those pages, like that he averaged 17.25 points a game that 1981-82 season, thanks to me using his Dad Made Small Boats formula.
My first and last stabs at poetry too: ‘Well he plays for Burgerland/a team in trouble in this land/ But they’ll get going once again/with himself and his other men.’
All the autographs he secured for me of the national team that he played with on a tour of the USA. And the identity of his favourite actress: Olivia Newtown-John. For her sheer acting range, no doubt.
Sir and his merry men would indeed get going once again. By the end of that season they would just miss out on a Top Four spot and play in front of huge crowds in events such as the Neptune international tournament.
The following season, by which time I had another teacher, they won the league, thanks to 22 points from Sir in the title decider against Jameson St Vincent’s.
Before the decade was out they’d won a further four leagues, three cups, and built and repeatedly packed the Neptune Stadium, often in front of a national television audience. Basketball had become the new rock ‘n’ roll, thanks to Sir and his merry men.
Last Saturday Basketball Ireland acknowledged as much by inducting Tom Wilkinson into the recently-revived Hall of Fame.
It was a marvellous day in the Royal Marine Hotel in Dun Laoghaire; as well as Wilkinson – looking two decades younger than the 68 years his birth cert says he is – and his family being there, the sport also saluted so many of its 2021-2022 contributors from Schools D level right up to its Superleague players and coaches of the year.
After such a long wait the basketball community could once share and enjoy each other’s company in safety; Wilkinson and the three other inductees – Caroline Forde, Michelle Aspell, and Noel Keating – were originally meant to be honoured in 2020.
Every inductee was asked to nominate someone to speak on their behalf for a little video shown on the day. I had the honour of being Tom Wilkinson’s choice, so just weeks before Covid, I met with Mary McGuire, BI’s then communications officer, where I rattled off his achievements and legacy.
Eight Superleague medals, a tally only matched by his great teammate Tom O’Sullivan. The winner of over 100 caps with Ireland. A Superleague winning coach in 1997.
And someone who through coaching multiple teams in Douglas NS and Community School, helped popularise the sport on the southside of the city, by introducing it to the likes of me who still follows and coaches the sport, even now living in Clare.
That though wasn’t the only legacy he left me. In that interview McGuire produced something I hadn’t seen in almost 40 years: those three volumes of ‘My Teacher – Tom Wilkinson’. It’d be fair to say I was caught even more off guard than I was when Fergal Daly took Volume One off me all those years ago.
The first match reports, the first stat attacks to go with the awful, innocent poems and quizzes. Seeing them brought it all back and something more. The realisation that not only that he ignited a passion but that he recognised and cultivated another. Just as it’s doubtful if Neptune or basketball would have been as big as it would have become only for him, I probably wouldn’t have become the guy who writes about sport either.
I’d end that video piece with the line “Well Done, Sir.” I could have added “And Thank You.”