Irish basketball mourns the loss of Annette Forde

As events, and my 12-year-old girl would have it, I’ve just spent back-to-back Saturdays in the Parochial Hall on Cork city’s northside.

Irish basketball mourns the loss of Annette Forde

Same as I used 20 years and some ago when Blarney and Tralee were in their pomp, ruling the boards of women’s basketball like James Weldon’s UL Huskies are now.

Only better. Well better. That’s not my opinion, that’s Weldon’s, who frequently fell into training with the girls as an early arriver for men’s training in Killarney.

“They could take care of themselves. I found that quickly to my cost. They were serious players and serious athletes and any thoughts I had about taking it easy on them were quickly and unceremoniously put to bed,” he says.

Dommie Mullins agrees. He was in on the ground floor of Blarney’s 80s’ dynasty, racking up 11 national trophies in eight years.

“The standard of women’s basketball is not a patch today on what it was when Tralee and Blarney were in their pomp,” he says. “And the facilities were a lot poorer then. But they did it because they loved it.”

Eventually five of Blarney’s finest decamped to Tralee on foot of an internal dispute that has since been consigned to irrelevance. It turned Lee Strand, Tralee under Jimmy Diggins into a fearsome fusion of Irish internationals. Much more than that though, they possessed that bottomless pit of wanting more every season. Those teams gave me an appreciation of women’s sport and the obstacles and ignorance it must overcome.

Máire Ní Laighin, Sandy Fitzgibbon, Rose Breen, Mary Joe Curran, Deirdre Twomey, Bernice Dowling, Bernie Lillis. And the Forde sisters, Caroline, Annette and Miriam.

Annette Forde (now Lenihan) passed away yesterday at 47. Miriam passed away eight years ago, barely past 40. Too much for any family to bear and too incomprehensible for anyone to get their head around at this juncture, least of all Annette’s husband Paul and their three children, Dylan (17), Hayley (15) and Eli (11).

Whatever outfit matched up against the Forde sisters recognised a tough day in the trenches ahead, whether that was in the red of Blarney or the white of Lee Strand, Tralee.

“She was a ferocious rebounder,” Aidan O’Shea, her ex-coach and husband to Caroline, said of Annette yesterday. “Very strong-willed and whole-hearted on the court. She’s passed that basketball passion onto the kids.”

Mullins agrees: “In many ways, Annette was the unsung hero of the team. She was in Caroline’s shadow because the top scorers always get the headlines, but she did all the pick-and-shovel work and weighed in with her 10-12 points a game.”

Basketball in Ireland is a tight community and over the past two weekends in the Parochial Hall, many of its Cork stalwarts came up to chat. They’ll be out in force from the four corners this evening and tomorrow to offer respect to the Lenihans and the Fordes because that’s what keeps the flame lit.

Her husband Paul played some High School ball in the US so it’s no surprise that their eldest, Dylan, is already making waves with Neptune.

Diggins and Mullins still tutor the next generation but they’d be hard pressed to put a talent through their hands like when Annette, Miriam and Caroline Forde were in their pomp.

Mullins must have smiled last year when he pitched up again in Glanmire coaching underage and was handed a 14-year-old uncut diamond in Hayley Lenihan. Annette’s daughter.

The torch passed on again.

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