KIERAN SHANNON: Donaghy earns reward for retaining the spirt of innocence

Kieran Donaghy

Last week, just before he would inspire Austin Stacks to their first county title in 20 years and win the right to captain Kerry in 2015, Kieran Donaghy ran a five-day basketball camp for 150 kids in his hometown of Tralee.

Caid and cispheil have long complemented each other in Kerry. Johnny Culloty, Tadhgie Lyne, Derry O’Shea, Danno Keeffe and Niall Sheehy all played basketball as well as football for Kerry when both sports were run along the lines of the inter-county model.

Then in the 70s, when basketball switched to a club-based national league, Stacks had a team in it, with John O’Keeffe among their ranks, just before Paudie O’Connor and Killarney down the road would bring in Americans and Americana to transform hoops into being probably the most exciting sport of the 1980s.

O’Keeffe wasn’t the only member of Mick O’Dwyer’s team of all talents to hone some of those talents playing on the hardwood. Mikey Sheehy often credits Jimmy Hobbart, a local international basketball coach, with tutoring him in the subtleties of space and movement on the football field. Eoin Liston and Sean Walsh have regularly advocated that every aspiring Gaelic footballer should play basketball, with Liston going so far as to say “every football club should be playing basketball in the winter”. It’s a view that Donaghy has echoed and if anyone is a walking endorsement for such an experiment, it is Star himself. Take the way he can brilliantly use his body and hips to take up position around the goal. He credits a lot of that to the rebounding skill of ‘boxing out’ his opponent which works off the premise that first make sure your opponent can’t get the rebound before you yourself try to secure it. At his Be A Star Domino’s camp these past couple of Halloween weeks, he’s even brought out balloons to instil in campers the habit of first putting a body on your opponent instead of giving in to the natural inclination to just go for the ball first.

Or take his goal in the All-Ireland final, when he intercepted Paul Durcan’s short kickout. Afterwards he would talk about how he was trying “to hedge” between Durcan’s two outlets, Leo McLoone and Eamon McGee. It was pure basketball parlance. These days ‘hedging’ is more frequently used as a term for the skill of defending an opponent setting a screen but in some 1990s Irish basketball circles, ‘hedging’ was a way of defending a 2-on-1 fast break: dart at the player in possession and instantly dart back into the passing lane, making the man in possession more likely to either take a tentative shot or throw a pass you can steal. Donaghy’s hedging led to the ultimate steal and most decisive goal of Championship 2014.

Yet if there’s something Donaghy and his story this year can really teach everyone, it is not so much something from basketball as an ideal and concept articulated by a basketball figure. Donaghy will be familiar with the name of Pat Riley. Four years ago, the Kerryman spent time holidaying in Miami, playing some hoops in a local park, taking in a couple of games featuring LeBron James and the Heat, and even bumping into and conversing with the legendary Magic Johnson while running on the beach. Riley coached Johnson to four NBA titles with the LA Lakers in the 1980s. Then as general manager of the Heat, he saw to it James brought his talents to South Beach. And in Riley’s eyes, the foundation to the success of both franchises, or anyone else’s — including Donaghy’s — is a word you think would be the antithesis of winning in sport: innocence.

“Let me explain what I mean,” he’d write 20 years ago, in the first chapter of his book The Winner Within. “There’s a tremendous difference between innocence and naivety. Being naive means failing to understand or acknowledge the threats to your personal territory, and it’s pitiful. Most people get over being naive very quickly but then go to the opposite extreme, to an exclusive focus on Number One, (which Riley would famously term ‘The Disease of Me’).

“Being innocent means understanding territoriality and knowing each player has his space — and then putting it aside for the good of the team... Innocence is about trust in a team. It’s an attitude: doing your most for the team will always bring something good for you. It means believing everything you deserve will eventually come your way. You won’t have to grab for it. You won’t have to force it. It will catch up to you, drawn along in the jetstream, the forward motion of your hard work.”

George O’Connor and Billy Byrne understood that. At the start of the 1996 season, Wexford manager Liam Griffin told both thirtysomethings that while this would be probably the one year in their careers that they wouldn’t be starting on the team, that the team still needed them.

O’Connor said whether he wore number 5, 15 or 25, he’d be there for Griffin. “I’ll carry the oranges if you want me,” responded Byrne.

Come August, Byrne would come off the bench to score the winning goal in the All-Ireland semi-final. Come September, 37-year-old O’Connor would come in for his first start of the Championship.

But not everyone gets it. Conor Mortimer has released a book that has garnered most attention for how he walked away from Mayo after been left out of the starting 15 for a second consecutive game. Innocence would be a cornerstone of that setup which would help make it so competitive in his absence, but Conor himself obviously didn’t quite grasp it the way his old teammates or especially Donaghy would.

Donaghy wasn’t passive about being peripheral for most of this past summer — that would have been a display of naivete.

In an excellent recent interview with Newstalk, he spoke about how he could retain his competitive juices and simultaneously put the team first. “I looked at myself at certain times in July and August and said ‘Maybe I am gone, but you’re going to have to dig in, keep going, suck it up and your break will come. And when your break comes around, you must be ready to take it.’”

He did. He sucked it up, and now thanks to that spirit of innocence, he’s hoovering up everything else.

An All-Ireland, an All Star, a county title, and now the captaincy. He didn’t have to force it, it simply caught up with him, the forward motion of his hard work and innocence.


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