Courting converts

Sixty-nine minutes had passed in the All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Kerry when Michael Darragh Maculey launched himself at a breaking ball in midfield with a move more akin to one seen in basketball.

Courting converts

Within seconds, Kevin McManamon had the ball in Brendan Kealy’s net: a game for the ages decided by a somewhat fluky finish and a technique Macauley picked up on hardwood floors with Coláiste Éanna, Notre Dame and Irish underage hoops sides.

“I don’t think I’d be here preparing for an another All-Ireland final if I didn’t play basketball as a child,” he told ‘Off the Ball’ subsequently. “It probably has given me a little something extra I mightn’t have developed just playing Gaelic football.”

Macauley is far from the first.

Everyone knows about Liam McHale, Kieran Donaghy and Jason Sherlock’s days on court but there are many more: Limerick’s John Galvin, Mayo’s Ronan McGarrity, Galway’s Kevin Walsh, Westmeath’s Denis Glennon.

The list goes on and incorporates some ladies football stars too.

Dublin’s Lindsey Peat and the Cork pair of Juliette Murphy and Nollaig Cleary have pedigrees in a game whose skills are easily transferable to the native codes.

And it isn’t just the skills.

Jim McGuinness, himself a former basketball player, took his zonal defence concepts from the game while the speed with which modern football sides break from massed defence to attack is a direct descendent of the ‘transitional’ nature of basketball. Yet, until very recently, no-one had cottoned on to the idea of nurturing a more formal link between the sports. Not until the Cork Sports Partnership (CSS) stitched it into their to-do list two years ago, anyway.

The man tasked with making it happen was Ian McLoughlin, a player with what is now Bord Gais Neptune and a basketball development officer for the CSS.

He brought the idea to Kevin O’Callaghan, county games manager with the Cork County Board.

“I tried giving it the hard sell to Kevin but he bought into it straight away,” says McLoughlin. “He was very open to the idea of the two of us collaborating.”

CSS had a an ambitious template already drawn up but McLoughlin and O’Callaghan decided to go slow and walk before they could run.

An initial pilot programme was set up linking U12s from the Thomas Russells GAA club with Mallow Basketball Club and the programme introducing the kids to a new sport ran for one hour per week for six weeks.

“We coached them basketball skills and then transferred them to the GAA,” says McLoughlin, whose Premier League season begins tomorrow when Bord Gais Neptune face Belfast Star in the newly-formatted domestic competition.

The focus was firmly on fundamentals with an emphasis on F-U-N.

With many of the skills, it is merely the words describing them that differ rather than the actions themselves so when GAA people talk about fielding McLoughlin thinks ‘rebounding’ and emphasises the need to keep the elbows above the shoulders.

Even something as basic as the manner in which Gaelic players bounce the ball could be improved. In GAA, players tend to bounce in close their feet. Basketballers, like Macauley, tend to hop it further forward and run into it as it pops up.

The general idea caught on.

Year two saw the project expanded to three clubs, one in Ballinhassig and two more in Bantry, and McLoughlin has already been inundated with queries for the next programme, even though it hasn’t yet been advertised.

Pat O’Shea is impressed.

A former Kerry manager and currently a coaching and games manager with the Munster Council, O’Shea is another basketball disciple who played with Tralee Tigers as well as in Killarney and Waterford.

Contrary to popular belief, he never took the Kerry lads into the gyms in Killarney to shoot hoops on dirty nights but he is taken by the idea of exposing young GAA players to a sport that complements GAA not just in terms of skills but in seasons that run at entirely different times of the year.

“It’s a great idea and, like all ideas, it needs time to see how successful it can be,” he says. “It won’t happen overnight. Most coaches would want their players to stay fit in the off-season so they might as well have a role and have them play a sport with transferable skills like basketball. There are numerous skills in basketball that transfer to Gaelic football and that goers beyond the obvious ones. Even things like spatial awareness, how to develop a screen, they make it a perfect fit. I’d be intrigued to see how the project goes.”

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