Tralee is buzzing for hoops. The Complex is gripped by Saturday night fever. Even football people are backing the basketball team in their droves and they’re not just following the Star. First cousins Darren and Fergal O’Sullivan are important figures in the Tralee success story. Ahead of tonight’s National Cup semi-final with Pyrobel Killester at the Mardyke Arena, they explain how a town became united behind the Warriors
Lunchtime on Rock Street and while the Castle Bar has a framed illustration celebrating how no other club or thoroughfare in the country boasts as many Celtic Crosses, the clientele and staff at the bar counter are as immersed in basketball talk, past, present and future, as they would be about football here or in any other GAA hostelry in the county.
Did you see Donaghy, still clawing for it, last Saturday night in Killorglin? Tell me, who’d be your five best Americans to ever play here? Are you going up to the schools all-Tralee All Ireland semi-final in the Complex? And, of course, there’s the Warriors’ Cup semi-final in Cork today, 30 years on from when Pat O’Shea, Gerald Kennedy and the rest of the Tigers first represented the town on that stage.
This is a real sportsperson’s bar, in one of Ireland’s great sports towns. Mikey Sheehy would be a regular here, though he’s not in today. Same with Ogie Moran and Marc Ó Sé.
The basketball is down a few of its heads as well. Mervyn Griffin, or Merv the Swerve as he’s known in these parts, isn’t here to talk about his role in that Tigers team of ’89, while John Cooney, who coached Blue Demons to a league title that same year, pops in whenever work takes him down from Cork but it obviously didn’t today.
Who has called in though, as well as the man from the Examiner, is Gat Carey, one of the town’s hoops diehards, coach to those Tigers in ’89 that won promotion, and an assistant to Timmy McCarthy when the Tigers won the Superleague in ’96 (Jasper, as in Jasper McElroy, by the way, he contends, was the best American to play here).
A little later we’re joined by Kieran Donaghy, the star from last Saturday night and so many others besides.
And here throughout, as they always are whenever they’re not up in the Complex or on the golf course or at home, is Adrian and Gerard O’Sullivan, and Fergal and Darren O’Sullivan.
Adrian and Gerard are brothers who ran and owned this place like their father before them. Now their sons Fergal and Darren run it, like their fathers before them — and more so, they’re lighting it up for the Warriors, feeding the Saturday night fever that has gripped the town and county.
Even football folk can’t get enough of the basketball these days.
Marc Ó Sé took in the Warriors’ Cup quarter-final against Blue Demons last month and while he’d slag his two favourite barmen that he found the amount of fives the pair of them slapped somewhat disconcerting, he’d tweet that he was “blown away by the show the club put on, the amount of kids, and how good the game was as a spectacle”.
On Thursday just past he “couldn’t wait” to get down to the Complex again to take in that Mounthawk-Green (Tralee CBS) All Ireland colleges semi-final derby which resembled a scene from one of those movies about US high school basketball; the barn crammed, the band playing, the joint hopping, students somersaulting between timeouts, only this was better. Going into overtime and Donaghy commentating live on Facebook to the country, LeBron James morphing into Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh, eulogising and referencing the strengths and quirks of every player, as if they were all household names, because they were in his.
David Clifford wasn’t just at the all-Kerry Superleague game in Killorglin last Saturday when they were hanging from the rafters, or at the Castleisland Christmas blitz where the same two sides met in the final, but was even spotted above in the Neptune Stadium in Tralee’s 95-92 win over the Cork side the Saturday after Christmas.
Last March when the Warriors beat Swords Thunder on the buzzer to keep their league challenge alive and an exuberant Donaghy endearingly swung over his shoulder the first kid to rush onto the floor towards him? That kid was Timmy Kennelly, son of Noel, nephew of Tadhg, grandson of Tim. Football royalty but now basketball mad.
“It’s funny,” says Darren, “but you could be walking around town and be stopped two or three times by football people who three years ago wouldn’t have known a basketball if it belted them in the head. And they’ll want to talk about what ye did well last Saturday night. Or even better, what you did wrong!
Donaghy finds it hilarious as well. “You’d maybe take it from a fella about football, because he might have some clue about it. But now they’re breaking you up about the basketball?! You’re like, ‘Hold on a minute, a few years ago…!”
There’s a reason though the clueless have quickly become experts. Because they’re engaged. They can relate. When they see the Warriors, they see a GAA team out there on the hardwood. There may be a couple of Americans and eastern Europeans on the roster, and in Paul Dick, a son of Belfast, but because the rest are all homegrown, they all play as if they’re homegrown, a team from the community, for the community, run by the community.
Donaghy is from Caherslee Road, just around the corner. Daragh O’Hanlon, though on a UCC Demons team that won all round them, is originally a Tralee — an Imperials — boy. Eoin Quigley, similarly, while winning a Cup and a couple of Superleagues with Limerick, started out as a kid with St Brendan’s. But perhaps the two players the crowd can most relate to most are the two O’Sullivans, the most unlikely hometown heroes of the lot.
A little over three years ago while O’Hanlon and Quigley were playing Superleague with the big guns in Cork and Limerick, the two O’Sullivans were just trying to keep St Brendan’s afloat in the Kerry county league. Fergal was 29 at the time, Darren coming up on 26. They had played some Division One national league in the past, coached by Fergal’s childhood hero Vinnie Murphy, but that finished up in 2013. It was a pity for the town and the club, but for the two boys themselves it was fine. They could still rock up and ball in the county league over the winter, then hit the golf course, playing off scratch for Tralee Golf Club, for the summer.
“You couldn’t have envisaged having a Superleague team only a year later,” says Fergal. “We didn’t even have the commitment for a [national league] Division One team.” Then a little pebble started spluttering downhill that would grow into something much bigger and faster.
In the autumn of 2015, Basketball Ireland initiated a national cup for intermediate, non-national league clubs. Brendan’s threw their name into it, and while they were at it, registered Donaghy’s as well. Donaghy hadn’t played competitive basketball in six years but after having his arm twisted by the O’Sullivan cousins and club chairman, Pa Carey, he played a county league game in the Moyderwell gym one Monday night. Right away he found it the perfect antidote to the hangover of losing an All Ireland final as a non-starting captain, back playing the first sporting love of his life, alongside his buddies and his brother Conor.
By the time they had made it to the semi-final of that Intermediate Cup, there were over 300 people seeing them go head-to-head with local rivals Tralee Imperials, led by the hugely-promising Ryan Leonard, son of the legendary Ricardo, in a midweek county league game.
By the time they had made it through to the final where they’d bring football icon Ger Power and almost half of the town up with them to the National Basketball Arena in Tallaght (it helped that by serendipity Kerry were playing Dublin in Croker in the opening round of the national football league the same day), Donaghy was convinced. The appetite and talent was there to bring national league basketball back to Tralee. And not just national league basketball but Superleague.
“When he first mentioned it, we were saying, ‘You’re bonkers!’” recalls Fergal. “But the more he talked about it, the clearer it became it was possible.”
Gerard — Fergal’s uncle, Darren’s dad, and now a Warriors committee member — nods. “It came from Kieran. He knew the football was coming to an end, he knew basketball had a following in Tralee and he wanted to bring it back. He knew something was missing in the town. The buzz of having some place to go and the buzz of a big game on a Saturday night in the Complex.
“And so he started selling the magic of it, the dream of it. And I began to think, ‘If I don’t do my utmost to try to get this off the ground, the boys are going to miss out and go through their whole careers — lives — without experiencing it.’”
Fergal had passed on Superleague basketball before; in his late teens, just as Tralee Tigers were winding up winning leagues and Cups and as it would turn out, playing Superleague basketball itself, O’Sullivan was invited onto the squad but declined. “I’d seen enough guys from Tralee over the years sitting on the bench for 40 minutes.”
Ten years on with fewer imports on the floor there’d be more openings for a shooter like him. His cousin Darren — though he’s more like a twin, he admits, they spend so much time together — also felt from scrimmaging so much with Superleague players in his time with CIT that a tenacious defensive player like him could hang at that level, at least coming off the bench. The two of them were on for it alright.
But that wouldn’t be enough. One club on its own wouldn’t be good or strong enough to go back Superleague. A Fergal and Darren O’Sullivan would need a Ryan Leonard, just as a Leonard would need them. Which would mean Imperials and Brendan’s having to team up together, at least at that level. Which would mean officials — previously warring parties — would have to come together.
As Warriors current chairman Terry O’Brien put it during the week, “We were like UN diplomat Boutros Boutros-Ghali”, initiating and negotiating peace talks. There were multiple meetings, between clubs, within clubs — Gerard remembers in Brendan’s the executive being all around Pa Carey’s bed as their chairman at the time was recovering from a back fusion operation — but with Donaghy providing some Clinton-style charisma and O’Brien, as neither a member of Brendan’s nor Imperials but a former Tigers chairman, offering some Mitchell-style impartiality and wise experience, they pulled it off.
Next, they needed a name. Donaghy wanted something ‘S’ at the end, like Tigers back in the day. One day he floated something past the two boys in the Castle Bar. Warriors. It had an ‘S’ at the end. And a team by that name from the Golden State were going pretty well in the NBA. It seemed to chime with the times and what they were about. Well, what you think?
Fergal wasn’t impressed. “I did a full page of laughy faces. ‘We can’t call ourselves the Warriors! People are already going to hate us because you’re on the team!”
Over time though it grew on him. Now above in the bar that he helps manage, there’s a laminated placard that on game-day he brings up to the Complex listing the nine traditional virtues of a warrior.
That placard also includes the club — and town’s — crest and motto. When they sought permission from the town council to use the Tralee emblem on their jersey, they were alerted to the maxim just below it. ‘Vis Unita Fortior’. ‘Strength united is stronger.’ Like with so much of this Warriors project, just perfect.
Although this is only their third year in the Superleague, the Warriors have already won the end-of-season Champions Trophy twice, with Darragh, the more energetic and effusive of the pair, collecting the bowl as team captain. There’s barely a home game that isn’t packed or that doesn’t go down to the closing minutes, such as the nailbiter against Moycullen early last season when Darragh hit a three-pointer on the buzzer for the win.
Their last game then in the Cup, Fergal was the hero. With three minutes to go in the third quarter, they were trailing Blue Demons at home by 16 points, and the prospect of a third consecutive year missing out on the Cup semi-final weekend in Cork seemed inevitable. But then Fergal bounced off the bench and hit a three. Then he hit another one. Then he stole the ball at midcourt, drove to the basket for Paul Dick to tip in. Almost single-handedly he had wrestled Big Mo off Demons and plonked it on the Warriors bench which only minutes earlier he’d vacated in a temper.
“He’s probably the ballsiest player I’ve ever played with in any sport,” says Donaghy. “The bigger the game, the more he wants it, the bigger the shot, the more he wants to take it. He lost the rag at us at half-time that day and then when we were still playing no better when he came on [midway] during the third [quarter], it was as if he said, ‘Pheck this, I’ll do it myself so.’” And he just let fly with three three-pointers that hauled us back into the game.
“He has zero fear of missing a shot. He has zero conscience. He once scored 57 points in a county league game against Castleisland. Fifty-seven points! Like, I could never score 57 points against anyone, at any level — I’d have too much of a conscience to do it. But Fergal brings that knockout punch. Even in the first round away to Templeogue. He only played about 15 minutes but scored 17 points. Five three-pointers. He’s like the [Detroit] Pistons’ Vinny Johnson, the Microwave — he just heats up in no time. He’s the kind of guy you could put sitting in the crowd for three quarters, then come down with five minutes to go and hit two threes. If the game is on the line, I want him taking that shot.”
And yet that evening against Demons, Donaghy was just as impressed by Fergal’s cousin. It was he who Fergal had replaced. In his few minutes on the floor, it hadn’t gone well for him, turning over the ball a couple of times. And yet when Demons called a timeout after the first couple of Fergal’s downtown bombs, Donaghy noticed who was the first to leap off the bench.
“I remember looking at him later that game, thinking, ‘You’re unbelievable.’ Another fella would have been either pissed off with the coach or pissed off with himself, being taken off, but there he was, the first guy off the bench, the first guy slapping fives, the first guy giving the gee-up leaving the huddle. The biggest compliment I got when I retired from Kerry was the amount of lads who said I was their best teammate ever but I’d say Darren is the ultimate teammate I’ve had. If Fergal’s the ballsiest, he’s the most selfless.”
Last year Darren started 20 of Tralee’s 22 league games, averaging 22 minutes a game. This year, with the arrival of Dick, he’s averaging just nine minutes, but he hasn’t sulked. It’s strange, he says, he could shoot three-under in golf and still feel pissed off for the few putts he still left out there, and then maybe knock down just the one shot and make a couple of steals in the basketball and feel better about it, because it was for a team.
“I’d be almost happier to see Fergal playing well than myself. That’s just the way I am. Pat [Price] has a mantra ‘Fast forward’ — that if you mess up, just press the fast-forward button and get onto the next play, so when Fergal came on that time, I couldn’t but be happy for a teammate. There’s 12 of us there. Every guy has a role. Some nights your number is called, some nights it’s not. But at the end of the day it’s a team game. I always remember LeBron James telling his son’s team that if you’re on a team, you’re helping your teammate get better at training. It’s not always about playing. If you’re not able to play a role, go play golf. That always struck me since.”
As it works with the O’Sullivans, they will go and play golf when the season ends. Just as Fergal left his golf clubs in Spain last September when he got married there, he’ll put the basketball boots away once the Champions Trophy is over in April.
Until then, him and the cousin are ready to answer the call when their number comes up, like Fergal against Demons, like Darren last weekend playing lockdown defence on Killorglin’s prime scorer.
A latecomer hometown hero is something to be.