Ballina’s legends a glorious symbol of basketball’s lost years

At half-time in tonight’s National Cup final, Irish basketball will warm itself in the glow of a glorious past, when an iconic Ballina side is introduced to the crowd 25 years on from the classic final victory over Neptune in Cork.

Ballina’s legends a glorious symbol of basketball’s lost years

After years spent butting their heads on a glass ceiling, the side spearheaded by a trio of McHales — Liam, Sean, and Anthony — and orchestrated by Paul McStay finally claimed a national title.

Hundreds of their kinfolk had travelled down from Mayo for the occasion.

When the Ballina team and their exuberant support pointed their buses homeward, it was for a journey that would be interrupted by a welcome from Minister for Sport Frank Fahy in Gort and a spate of celebratory bonfires before a rapturous reception in their home town.

The GAA have long since reserved the same half-time honour for their All-Ireland winning greats of a quarter-century past but the crowds at Croke Park can look back to those days with a warmth that is unencumbered by the type of wistfulness reserved for those who love basketball.

The game’s glory days are long gone now and the very sight of that storied Ballina bunch tonight will serve as another painful reminder of all that has been lost to the courts given the club dipped in and out of the elite men’s game thereafter before disappearing for good seven years ago.

Theirs is no unique tale.

Scroll through the list of league and cup winners this millennium and the volume of clubs no longer with us — or operating at a reduced capacity, as Neptune currently are, having voluntarily stepped down to the second tier National League — takes the breath away.

Mark Keenan, who has masterminded successes with Killester and UL Eagles and who coaches Templeogue this evening, was a player on the Roadspeed Corinthian team that won the cup in 1989, finished second in the league a year later and was lost to the game just months later.

Denny Notre Dame won four cups in a row from 1997 to 2000 and were gone by 2006. In Cork, the famous North Monastery went from cup kings to oblivion in the space of 18 months in the mid-1990s and even the mighty Demons were lost to the league for six years in that same decade.

Tralee provided another sad story around the same time, the Tigers’ penchant for winning leagues and cups offset by two exits from the elite game — the second of them for good — and serving perhaps as the most symbolic example of how quickly and drastically fortunes can change.

And so to today’s cup decider in Tallaght where there is no C&S UCC Demons, or UCD Marian or UL Eagles on view but rather two clubs — Templeogue and Swords Thunder — that weren’t even members of the Super/Premier League until as recently as three years ago.

The emergence onto this elevated scene of a couple of new contenders willing to scale the summit of the game is only to be welcomed and yet what does it say for the game here, when both can progress so far up that ladder in such a short period of time?

Basketball has always been one of those sports where it is easier to fashion a competitive team in a shorter period of time than most, but that timeline is nonetheless a truncated one and both Keenan and Swords boss David Baker agree that your attitude to their rapid gains all depends on perspective.

“There are pros and cons and I can see both sides of the coin,” says Baker.

“Nearly every year in September, we all hear stories about clubs that are struggling to field teams and we have seen sides like Neptune go down.

"UL are struggling, although I hear they are restructuring. They’ll be back.

“It’s great for the sport that there are two young teams coming through though. There will be changes in any league.

"Templeogue have a good financial structure and with us it is the college system that is allowing us to compete, so there is more than one way of doing it.”

That’s true.

Templeogue, whose loss to Swords this month is their only reversal in the league, have built inexorably yet carefully to this juncture with their men’s senior team the belated apex to a pyramid built on an underage structure that has long since been churning out teams of talent.

Names like Michael Bonaparte, Conor Grace and Paul Cummins — all of them carrying worrying injuries this week — may grab the headlines along with fellow vet Jason Killeen but this is still a side built on the foundations of locals shaped by the club’s system.

Players like Stephen James, Ronan McLoughlin, Shane Homan, and Baolach Morrisson are all Templeogue to the core and, as a result, the core of the team and they have provided continuity, even with the loss to Eanna of the highly-rated Luke Thompson.

Swords are a slightly different story. David Baker was coaching a Dublin Business School side in the college leagues when Griffith College approached him about double jobbing.

His acceptance and the scholarship system in operation at the latter posting allowed them to shoot up through the college grades.

Baker wanted more for his players though, a higher level of hoops.

A former underage player with Swords, he broached the idea of establishing a senior elite side with the club and it is now a Premier League outfit that takes on five scholarship players from Griffith on a yearly basis.

One obvious question hangs over both outfits given the game’s history: will they still be here in two, three, or 10 years?

This, after all, is a sport with a withering drop-off rate in participation after school. Clubs popping up and disappearing from the top table like mushrooms can’t help.

Another concern is the gravitation of power towards the capital. Three of the four sides in this weekend’s senior men’s and women’s finals are from Dublin.

Six of the 10 clubs in the men’s Premier League hail from the same city even if the spread of centres where basketball has a firm hold remains strong below the adult grade.

Fourteen counties and all four provinces were represented in the dozen U16 and U19 schools finals played in Tallaght this past week, although Dublin and Cork had more than anyone else and Dublin’s quartet of sides were all appearing in the ‘A’ grades.

Still, Basketball Ireland will point to that geographic spread, to the fact Donegal, where a development officer is now busy on the ground, had two of those underage sides, and to exciting work going on in places like Tralee and other outposts in Kerry.

Keenan, for one, believes the Dublin dominance in the men’s game is merely a cyclical anomaly while Baker saw the work underfoot at regional levels for himself over Christmas when Swords Thunder played to a packed gym in Killorglin.

That said, Baker does worry about the prevalence of top clubs in his own backyard while, at the same time, he has to express the hope that his side’s appearance tonight will generate the publicity needed to spread their gospel beyond their small pocket of Swords and to the wider Fingal area.

That fight will always go on regardless of today’s outcome.

Fourteen counties were represented in the U16 and U19 schools finals played this week

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