October, 2008. Tralee Tigers’ defence of their Super League title isn’t going well. And that’s being kind.
Availability of players and issues with their home court have plagued the start of a season that began with a forfeit of their opening game. Worse follows after an 81-69 away loss to Limerick Lions, when head coach Mark Bernsen announces he is leaving for Switzerland.
Named coach of the year only months earlier, the Texan has received an offer he can’t turn down in Geneva and his loss to Irish basketball is compounded at the end of the campaign when the Tigers – a club with four national titles in the previous five years – folds. Such is the ease and speed with which fortunes can change in Irish club basketball.
Each season delivers new clubs and old entities with new names. Players come and they go, whether Irish or non-Irish, with mind-spinning regularity. Once proud ball towns and regions such as Tralee and Ballina can ride the adrenaline wave of success one minute and puzzle over how once-mighty clubs can evaporate into the ether the next.
It’s been seven years now since Tralee courted life with the Super League.
That span will be severed by both when the American takes the newly-minted Irish TV Tralee Warriors to the Mardyke next week for the Kingdom club’s first ever competitive game. Bernsen, who has “bounced about a lot like old coaches do” during four decades spent courtside, sums up pretty well what it means to have the town represented again.
“It means a lot. Even after I left and the Tigers kind of folded, when I would go back and visit it was always a case of ‘what are we going to do on Saturday nights?’ People wanted to make Saturday nights special again. A couple of clubs and some very influential people got together and worked very hard to make it happen.
“I know the people of Tralee are excited. It is a big step to jump straight back into the league not having been in it for a few years, but it is exciting around the town. Now, we haven’t played any games yet so we are still undefeated! We will see what happens when things don’t go our way, but basketball is back in Tralee so it is fun.”
Tralee aren’t alone in their giddiness. Sligo All Stars clock back in for a shift in the Men’s Division One for the first time since 2009, another capital club by the name of Dublin Lions will join them, and Letterkenny joins the party for the first time with players being drawn in from all over the county as well as North Star in Derry and even Omagh Thunder in Tyrone.
Niall McDermott, regional development officer for the northwest and head coach of the new LYIT Donegal club, has spoken of the need to provide such a focal point at the summit of the local game. And Sligo chairman Paul Clarke has highlighted the fact that these clubs will live and die by their ability to foster local talent.
“Exactly,” says Bernsen who has also recruited an American, a Serb and a Croat to the Tralee squad this season. “Now the kids in the town have something at 14 and 16 to go around the corner and watch and aspire to be. That’s a big thing. I tell you what: winning and losing is very important. I know that, but having this goal for young people to aspire to and watch is a special thing.”
Having Kieran Donaghy helps, too.
Bernsen calls ‘Star’ the Pied Piper and his availability for the Warriors will certainly add interest in Tralee and beyond. The importance of someone of that ilk can’t be stressed too much. Every scrap of publicity and every euro received is to be coveted in a league where expenses can run high and revenue drip low.
Tralee chairman Terry O’Brien appeared on Radio Kerry as recently as late June to publicise the fact that the club had yet to attract a main sponsor. O’Brien estimated that it could cost €60,000 and beyond to run a Super League team for a season and they were well short of that until Irish TV stepped in to fill a considerable gap.
“It is difficult,” says Bernsen who has worked with the haves as well as the have-nots given a CV which includes numerous American universities and high schools. “When you think about that it’s a lot of money and, for a small town like Tralee, it has to be something special. You have to give them that something special.
“The (National) Cup is a big deal. If you get on TV the sponsors love that. That’s something I learned when I got over here first. It’s a big thing but I think the people in Tralee value it and have stepped up to the plate. The committee has done everything it can. Whether it is a golf outing or whatever, they have tried to fill the bucket and hopefully keep it going.”
There are 24 men’s teams across the two divisions this year (17 in the women’s). That’s just three short of the high water mark reached back in the 1986/87 season. For now, it is just good to see the likes of Tralee back in the game.
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