The Big Interview: Killeen, the poster boy who has seen it all

Tonight Tralee hosts a top-of-the-table sellout as Garvey’s Warriors take on Superleague rivals Templeogue. But as someone who went up against Carmelo Anthony in his first game Stateside, played in the famed March Madness in college and the cut-throat Asian continental league where loony owners could fire a teammate at half-time, Jason Killeen will hardly be daunted.

The Big Interview: Killeen, the poster boy who has seen it all

Tonight Tralee hosts a top-of-the-table sellout as Garvey’s Warriors take on Superleague rivals Templeogue. But as someone who went up against Carmelo Anthony in his first game Stateside, played in the famed March Madness in college and the cut-throat Asian continental league where loony owners could fire a teammate at half-time, Jason Killeen will hardly be daunted.

Step foot in the lobby of the National Basketball Arena in Tallaght and right away the towering figure of Jason Killeen is there to greet you. Even if he’ll be down to you in a minute, he’s just finishing something upstairs in the office, he’s already there. Over by the entrance into the arena where he’s won three Super League National Cups, the sponsors of that same competition invite you to stand next to a glass-framed measuring tape and the gigantic, glaring, goateed player alongside it. ‘Think you’re tall?’ it reads. ‘Jason Killeen is 6’10. See how tall you are against him.’

But just as you shuffle up and are about to put your back and head up against the tape, the real Jason Killeen stands up, leaving you with no doubt just how small you are against him. He’s a good deal more pleasant in person than he suggests in that framed pose. Although a smile is not his default setting and he speaks in a low, monotone voice, he regularly prompts a laugh with his openness and wit when recounting a remarkably varied career and relaying his thoughts on the improving state of the sport he’s devoted his life to.

He nearly lives in this place. As well as winning cups here both as a player and as an underage coach, he works around the clock here as the head of development for Basketball Ireland. And yet, while he’s been literally a poster boy for the league for the guts of a decade, the same wall space could easily have a map of the world instead of a measuring tape beside the life-size image of him.

Think you’re a bit of a Globetrotter? This is Jason Killeen and these are all the spots he’s played in. See how much you’ve travelled and seen against him. Where to start? Well, how about with his first overseas stop, America. So vast, a relative bought a map of it in Eason and brought it over to his grandmother’s house in Limerick two days before he left for there at 16 years old so they could all figure out where exactly Middleburg,

Virginia, was in the scheme of things.

The place might have only been in the minutest of fonts but it was home to one of the biggest high school powerhouses in all of the nation, Notre Dame Academy, with six of his rookie year teammates winning scholarships to NCAA Division One colleges.

“It was just a factory of talent. You had kids coming from [basketball hotbeds] New York, [Washington] DC and Baltimore, just to go to school and play there. It took me a while to adjust. Since I was 12 I’d always had a basketball in my hand but the other kids would train or play maybe two or three times a week. In America we were doing two-a-days: a morning session and another in the afternoon. In Ireland it was a huge deal if someone could dunk. In Notre Dame they were doing windmills and 360s. It was just eye-opening.”

The eyes popped out altogether after their first competitive game. It was against Oak Hill Academy and playing at the four spot, brushing shoulders with Killeen, was this kid called Carmelo.

I didn’t know anything about him. Facebook hadn’t even been invented. I just knew they were supposed to be really good and got on the bus.

"Then I saw this guy play and went ‘Oh my God.’ I rang my dad right after the game. ‘I don’t think America is for me!’ I thought there was one or two like him on every team.”

As it turned out, there was only one or two like him in the entire world outside of the NBA — 18 months and a NCAA championship later, Carmelo Anthony would go second in the NBA draft, behind only someone by the name of LeBron James. Killeen would settle into his new surroundings, living with his coach in his Maryland home and garnering nuggets from their two-hour-round-trip commutes, and by his own senior year a dozen D1 colleges were offering Killeen a scholarship. Years before the game would trend that way, he was a big guy who was comfortable stepping out and hitting the outside shot.

His stock would drop a bit after he fractured his knee cap playing against Rudy Gay’s team, Archbishop Spalding. But even after that ruled him out for the rest of that season and required surgery, Winthrop College in South Carolina retained their interest. For three straight years he was a member of a squad that would win the Big South conference and qualify for the world-renowned March Madness NCAA tournament.

Going up against the famous Tar Heels of North Carolina and regularly playing in front of 17,000 people packed into an arena, cutting down the nets at the end of every conference championship, it kind of passed him by. After averaging eight minutes a game of playing time in his third year there, he transferred to a Division Two school, Augusta State, where he’d graduate in marketing management and help them to two Final Four appearances at that level, meaning he’d finish his collegiate career with a conference championship ring for every finger on his hand.

As much as he enjoyed his time in Georgia, probably his most enjoyable basketball in those years was with the national team. He was part of a wave of new young Irish talent playing high school and college basketball in the States. Getting to play alongside them remains a career high point.

“Basketball in Ireland is a small world. Everyone knows each other and what we’re all up to. I remember bumping into Paul Cummins at AAU tournaments in Duke and New York and going, ‘Oh, that’s one of the lads!’ and us chatting away. To come back and wear the Irish jersey together with him and the likes of Conor [Grace] was definitely special. We were soaking up all the information. In school or college, the most anyone is older than you is a year or two. Suddenly at international level you’re on the court with 34-year-olds and you have to figure out a way to beat them when they have 15 years experience on you.”

He also learned from his own team’s vets, especially team captain and then coach Jay Larranaga; it doesn’t surprise Killeen one bit that he’s gone on to become the current lead assistant coach of the Boston Celtics.

Jason Killeen was part of a wave of new young Irish talent playing high school and college basketball in the States. Getting to play alongside them remains a career high point. Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins
Jason Killeen was part of a wave of new young Irish talent playing high school and college basketball in the States. Getting to play alongside them remains a career high point. Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins

“I was going along on my journey and probably taking some stuff for granted, just moving onto the next step every time, not realising how lucky I was to be living the life I was and where else it could go. Jay taught and talked a lot about being a professional. To get your sleep.

“To take care of your body, invest in it. See a physio. Do yoga. That’s the only reason I’m still playing now at 34. He made me realise, ‘God, you can actually make a living out of this.’”

Sadly, at the end of the same year Killeen would graduate from Augusta, the Irish senior team was pulled from all competition — for seven years, it turned out — because of the governing body’s financial and administrative woes. Some of the coaching and playing staff were confident they could have raised sufficient funds, especially Stateside, if they were given enough notice or say but neither was forthcoming.

For a player about to enter his prime, Killeen found it devastating. “I felt really hard done. The carpet was just pulled right from underneath us.”

At least though he’d had those precious campaigns and lessons being around a Larranaga, and that same winter of 2009-10, he’d play his first season as a pro, in the second division of the French league, with a club just outside Nantes. Almost universally, English is the language of basketball but Killeen would learn that France would be the obvious exception.

“One of the lads on the team acted as a translator but you definitely got the feeling he wasn’t telling you everything. One time the coach was screaming at me what seemed like forever and I turned to my teammate.

What the hell is he just after saying to us?’ My teammate paused. ‘Mmm…. just pass me the ball more!’ I was like, ‘Are you sure?!’

That was still no preparation for the volatility and turbulence of Asian basketball. The following summer he’d star in the Malaysian League with all its big ringers flown in. He was recruited by the Kuala Lumpur franchise in the continental ASEAN basketball league to be one of their imported players, alongside Conor Grace, for the following season. Think something along the lines of a Champions League. A team in Indonesia, another in Taiwan, then Singapore, Vietnam, Brunei, Thailand. The games on all the TVs in all the bars. Your face on billboards around town — that is, if you lasted the week.

“I was there for three months and in that time I had seven different international teammates move in and out of the apartment. They fired one guy at half-time. His first game! He flew in on a Friday morning, practised that night, we drove to Singapore the next day, and then after playing a few minutes, he got the sack at half-time! They didn’t even wait until the end of the game or until we got back home.

“The owners were like a conglomerate of business men who’d all have had a team in the [Malaysian] summer league I’d played in. And they wanted to be seen as the bosses, so sometimes they’d come in to practice and basically tell the coach, ‘Yeah, we have it from here!’

“One time one of the younger owners walked in with his entourage and for the next hour and a half had us working on our celebrations. We weren’t interacting with the crowd enough, apparently. So we stood at the halfway line and me or Conor [Grace] would go in and dunk the ball and then we’d all start doing a Klinsmann, putting the shirt over our head and doing the airplane around the midcourt, taking the piss.”

The owners, it’s fair to say, weren’t particularly sensitive to the principles of sports science either. The gym they trained in had no air conditioning — a bit of an issue, given the 40 degree heat and the city’s smoke and its smog. And in their eyes if you were good after two hours training, you’d be unbeatable after eight. On the eve of a game, Grace eased up to conserve his energy and was duly given punishment sprints. The next day he could barely move so the day after that he was cut. About a month later Killeen went over on his ankle six hours into a training session. That was him gone too.

“I twisted my ankle at half-nine at night and I was sitting on a plane heading back to Ireland at half-seven the next morning. Just like that [clicks fingers]. I had to leave some clothes in the washing machine. I hadn’t time to dry them!”

After playing the rest of that season in England, he’d return home to Limerick and play with the local Super League club, the UL Eagles. It was something of a bittersweet season, being around his nieces and nephews who for a decade had been accustomed to Uncle J being around for only a fortnight a year and playing for a team that all got on, but without the buzz that comes with playing in a new league or country.

He’d dominate that first season (2011-2012) back home, guiding Limerick to their first-ever Super League title, as well as winning the Cup and the Player of the Year. But just when he was eyeing a move abroad, he met his future wife Marta, an art student from Poland. As she saw out her final year in college in Limerick, Killeen stayed on too to help the Eagles land another league title before he and Marta headed to Bordeaux the following autumn.

That season he views as one of the most satisfying of his career. The weather was good, so was the ball and compared to all the lonely nights and bus trips back in his first stint in France, this time there was a light on whenever he’d arrive home. But then Mark Keenan, his old coach at Limerick, flew over. He was going to coach Templeogue in the Super League and hoping to coax Killeen to team up with him again and be his rock. And so, after he secured a job as a coaching development officer with Basketball Ireland, Killeen and Marta moved back to Ireland. It’s been a remarkable turnaround in Templeogue. Although they’ve long had a tradition as a fine underage programme, the season prior to Killeen and Keenan joining them was their first in the Super League. They won only one of their 18 games. Their first year with the K&K combo, they leapt from last to third.

Then in 2016 they won the Cup. In 2017 they won the league. In 2018 they won the Cup. Beat Tralee tonight and that pattern should repeat itself. Cup, league. Cup, league.

Killeen credits much of their previous achievements to Keenan, who between Templeogue, Limerick and Killester has now won six leagues and five Cups over the last 12 seasons. It’s not any coach he’d have come back for and no other coach would have gone over to France to him.

“Some people say he always has the best players and that’s why he wins but my argument would be that the best players want to play for Mark. He isn’t over-controlling or rigid as other coaches are. If a big guy steps out and hits a three or a long two and doesn’t make it, they could sub you off straight away. Mark allows you to do that and not get on your case. He allows you to be yourself and allows you to play.”

The culture is right too, in the link between underage and senior team — with the likes of Killeen coaching those younger players — and how connected the Super League team itself is. For as worldly as they are, for as long as they’ve played, training and the game is still a joy.

He looks at someone like Lorcan Murphy. The guy has had more moves go viral than James Harden. The Irish legends of the ‘80s couldn’t finish at the basket the way a Murphy or Paul Dick or Kyle Hosford can. As someone overseeing the sport’s Green Shoots programme, Killeen can see how the sport and word is spreading.

“The big thing we’re getting out there is that basketball is fun to play. That’s why as a kid I gravitated to it compared to other sports; every 24 seconds there’s a potential highlight. Every morning the kids can see NBA on their phone or something Aidan Harris is doing in the States or something a Lorcan is doing here.

More people are playing here now than ever before and they’re playing and training more than we’ve ever played.

"The skill level now in Ireland is miles beyond what it was when I was growing up, in how they can jump, in how they can handle the ball.

“Since I’ve come back, I’ve found the league is getting stronger every year. Its height may have back in the ‘80s and ‘90s but a lot of that was because of the standard of imports they used to bring in.

“But nowadays if you pick the top point guard in the country you’re thinking Paul Dick. Every position, it’s the same, you could pick an Irish player.

“If you were to have an All Star team of imports versus Irish, it would be very competitive. I don’t think that was the case before.

“The biggest place where we need improvement now is in involvement. You can see how Tralee have done a great job of getting sponsors and people on board. The crowd is full every time and it’s getting companies in the local community to support the team. We need more of that around the league and the country.”

It’s been a sell-out since Wednesday, their game in Tralee tonight. With both teams tied on four losses apiece and only three weekends left, whoever wins tonight is in poll position to win the league outright. And although it’s only Tralee’s third season back in the big league, the anticipation is further fuelled by the two teams having already formed a considerable rivalry. Two years ago Templeogue shaded an epic encounter in the Oblate Hall, 96-93, to secure their first league.

Last year at the same venue they foiled Tralee’s title hopes with a late comeback and overtime win. Yet Tralee’s two end-of-season Champions Trophy successes both came courtesy of final wins over Killeen and his crew, the first clinched by a Donaghy free-throw with six seconds to go in overtime. Something always happens and something has to give. And so, the hall will be packed an hour before tip-off. The music will boom, the lights will go down, then shine again, and the most animated home crowd will feed off Donaghy, just as Donaghy will feed off them.

But look again at that guy by the measuring tape in the Arena. Does he look daunted by that prospect? After all the crowds he’s played in America? After the expletives from coaches he’s come across in France, the loony owners he’s encountered in Asia? The three leagues and three cups he’s already won in Ireland?

Been there. Seen that. Done it.

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