‘The neighbourhood I was living in — the ghetto, the projects — was just trouble’

While Shrita Parker was posing for photos at the launch of Basketball Ireland’s new season in Tallaght on Wednesday there was a mass shooting in her home town of Virginia Beach.

‘The neighbourhood I was living in — the ghetto, the projects — was just trouble’

While Shrita Parker was posing for photos at the launch of Basketball Ireland’s new season in Tallaght on Wednesday there was a mass shooting in her home town of Virginia Beach.

A disgruntled engineer killed 12 people at a municipal building in the coastal city of half a million people before he was shot dead in a gun battle with police.

That’s the reality of Parker’s old world as she steps into a completely new one with Super League side Ambassador UCC Glanmire; the perfect embodiment of America’s hoop dreams.

When she played for Division 1 Rutgers College in New Jersey, Parker wasn’t just their top scorer but the team’s resident funny-woman, a kid with a dazzling smile who likes to rap and still harbours aspirations to get into acting.

She’s only 5’7” in a game increasingly dominated by giants but has always battled and defied expectations.

Back in her neighbourhood she was the little girl fighting with men to try to join their pick-up games.

“They would never let me get on the court so I used to shake the pole, shake the rim, so they wouldn’t make a shot. I wanted to play that bad!” she grins.

Watch her showreels and you can see the legacy: a sweet jump shot, lovely rolls and feints, a good shooter from outside the arc but also a proper terrier on defence, happy to trade elbows with people double and triple her size.

Thanks to basketball she’s the first person in her family to go to college.

“Actually I’m the first person in my neighbourhood to go to college,” she clarifies. “I just love making my teammates happy. Basketball is fun for me and it keeps me out of trouble.”

The game’s given her an escape, an education and now, at 23, a burgeoning career.

Without it her life could have veered dramatically.

“The neighbourhood I was living in – the ghetto, the projects - was just trouble. I have a couple of friends in jail, I’m not going to see them in a long time, maybe never again,” she says wistfully in her South Virginian drawl.

“I guess they look at me as hope and I hope to give them motivation. I have a lot of little cousins so I’m their role model. I want them to go to college and get their education and to be better than me. I tell them that all the time.”

In her first year at Rutger’s they made the NCAA’s Sweet 16s, losing to big guns UConn in the second round.

“I got 30 minutes in that game because we had a lot of players that were hurt and the exposure was unreal,” she explains.

She is being modest.

She genuinely starred for Rutgers for three seasons but, for her final year, transferred to the University of Wilmington in North Carolina (UNCW) where, last January, she was named the college game’s ‘Player of the Week’ by America’s Basketball Writers’ Association’s (USBWA).

“I just wanted to be closer to home,” she says of the switch. “Rutgers was six hours away from me, UNCW was four and my grandmother had passed away.” Now she’s made an even bigger move, taking her first professional job in an alien country and culture, symbolic of so many of the rookies, from America or Europe, in this seasons men’s and women’s Super League.

Parker could be talking for them all when she stresses: “This is my dream. I’ve been dreaming of this since I was young. This is what I want to do.” Yet she still found herself crying “like a baby” before she got on the plane for the seven hour flight from Washington DC.

“I don’t know if I was crying because I was proud of myself for actually making it, or sad that I was leaving my family, but I feel better now and I’ll talk to them every day.”

Parker may be emblematic of so many hoop dreamers but unusual too in her lack of adornment, without a touch of bling or ink in sight.

“Nah, no tattoos!” she insists proudly. “I feel like everyone has them and I don’t want to be like everybody. I don’t need tattoos to stand out. I let my game speak for itself.”

As she embarks on her new life journey an Irish woman who has lots of tattoos has travelled the opposite direction.

Laura Mullally is the new head coach of last year’s women’s Super League and Cup champions Liffey Celtics (Leixlip).

When she left Ireland 17 years ago to take up a scholarship with Division Two Dowling College on Long Island, she immediately experienced the worst kind of culture shock.

“My third day in the US was 9/11! We could see the smoke from our campus,” Mullally recalls.

She was a three-point specialist and a first-team All-Conference pick and, while doing her Masters, moved into coaching, following the footsteps of her own parents Paddy and Eileen in Athlone.

After nine years in Dowling she got a head coach job at Chestnut Hill College, Philadelphia and later took up the same role at Mount Saint Vincent in the Bronx.

She returned home to Ballinahown last December and was working as an acupuncturist when Liffey Celtics got in touch.

They’re one of two women’s Super League teams, along with Maxol WIT Wildcats to have a female head coach (Gillian Hayes) this season, though Mullally’s ex-‘Midlands’ teammate Niamh Dwyer is also now assistant coach with Fr Mathews.

“Basketball’s given me an education and I’ve travelled the world but, when you have a five year-old, your perspective can change,” Mullally explains. “We felt it was time to move as our daughter hadn’t started school yet.

“There’s definitely more women in coaching in America now, it’s changing,” she observes.

“You can talk about equal pay and things but, for me, it’s actually about women getting opportunities first. That was a huge thing for me in taking this job. I feel very blessed and very committed to coach the women’s game.”

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