Few are feeling the absence of a full national senior women’s team more than the Dwyer sisters, but they remain standard bearers for Irish basketball. And tonight they aim to lead by example as their Team Montenotte Hotel Glanmire face DCU in the National Cup semi-final, writes Kieran Shannon
Gráinne Dwyer won’t deny it. All the recent accolades and recognition have been hugely welcome, affirming, energising.
Last month in a plush Dublin hotel, she was talking and taking selfies with Katie Taylor at the Irish Sportswoman of the Year awards. On that occasion, Taylor would win the overall title but shortly after the leading Irish women’s website Her.ie would deem Dwyer the outstanding Irish sportswoman of 2014 by popular vote as more than just the basketball community rallied behind her.
The other week, she and her sister and teammate Niamh were both invited to the inaugural meeting of the Women’s Gaelic Players Association. Basketball commitments prevented them from attending but that they were invited was a measure of their high-performance status among fellow sportswomen.
Anyone who has met or watched the Dwyer sisters play will know just what serious operators they are. One Friday evening last January, Mark Rohan, the serial Paralympic champion, turned on Setanta Sports. The women’s National Cup final was on. What Glanmire — loyally sponsored by the Montenotte Hotel — and UL Huskies served up was not just the best final in the 30-year history of the cup but as good and as thrilling as domestic or women’s team sport can offer.
At half-time, it was 52-40 to Glanmire. At the end of the third, it was 66-65 to UL. By the end of the fourth it was 85-apiece. In overtime Glanmire would shade it, 92-87, to give the Cork club their first senior title in four years, a famine by their lofty standards as evident by how emotive Dwyer was when lifting the trophy. Throughout, a mesmerised Rohan would tweet how marvellous it all was — the intensity, quality, athleticism and skill — and wondering and wishing if more games like this could be regularly shown on national TV.
Dwyer would also receive the Most Valuable Player award that night, but she’ll be the first to admit that it could just as easily have gone to any of four other teammates — or, because it was that special a game — any of four of her opponents, all of whom scored at least 13 points. “You could have thrown nine names into a hat,” she says, “and picked out any one of them.”
For her, it was nearly as if she was simply representing a special team, a special match, a special sport.
In the end though, the judges got it right, as did those selecting the sportswoman of that month. If there was to be one Irish basketball player in 2014 who deserved to share the same platform as the Katie Taylors and Niamh Briggs at the end of that year, it was the younger of the Dwyer girls.
In March, she was also the league final MVP as Glanmire once more edged UL with Gráinne following up her 21 points in the cup decider with 29 in the last game of the year; only once — Blarney’s Caroline Forde in 1990 — has an Irish women’s player a higher aggregate than 50 points in two senior national finals in the one year.
The summer would go pretty well too. In August she and Niamh would help Ireland qualify for the upcoming European Olympics in Baku in a modified 3v3 streetball version of the game. Yet as brilliant and refreshing as that has been as has sharing some of the limelight with the Katies and Briege Corkerys on the awards circuit, that’s not the stage she and her sister crave.
It’s now five years ago this month that Basketball Ireland made the shocking decision to withdraw all teams from international competition. The sport’s financial state and relations with the Irish Sports Council had never been worse. The crying shame of it was that the state of the women’s game and national team had never been better. Coached by Mark Scannell, they were on the verge of a breakthrough similar to that which the Irish women’s rugby team would pull off when winning the 2013 Grand Slam.
In the previous qualification tournament, they had come within a three-pointer of qualifying from the mid-tier of European basketball to the A grade. In their final game they beat Holland by five points. The National Basketball Arena had been rocking with more than 2,000 people in the bleachers, many of them schoolgirls dreaming of being the next Susan Moran, Michelle Fahy or Niamh Dwyer, all of them former D1 players with American colleges. The players themselves with their age profile, talent and ambition weren’t just dreaming but vowing to make the breakthrough next time. But then without any consultation, it was taken from them. Niamh was 27, Gráinne, 25.
Gráinne didn’t fully appreciate what had been lost. A fortnight after winning the 2009 league final with Glanmire, she headed to Australia for nine months, missing that last international qualification campaign.
“I’d been playing all-year round since I was 15 with Irish (underage and senior) squads, so I took what I thought was a year’s break from it. But then after that, it was gone for me. So as much as I try to take the good out of it and that at least I grew up having it and knowing it (existed), I think I’m more bitter (about it) now that I’m 30 and still see no signs of a full panel coming together in the next few years.”
Niamh at the time had a grasp of the magnitude of that decision. A couple of days after hearing the decision was imminent, she wrote a letter to whom it might concern. “I felt the players were overlooked, that it was done behind closed doors. We’d played Iceland the previous year and their players had paid their own way. I thought we should have been given that option, some option, that every option should have been explored.”
The significance of the option chosen is still being felt. Niamh certainly feels it. While in the league she still goes head-to-head with the likes of a fellow warrior in Lindsay Peat, they should still be playing side by side.
“The worst part for me is missing playing with the players that we play against. We were going up against top basketball nations and they were having to take us seriously. At underage we’d have beaten the likes of Germany. I miss that competition.”
So are the country’s youngest players, and the real shame of it is that they don’t even know it.
While they’re technically probably even more skilful than the Dwyer generation, Niamh and Gráinne would be less certain that the younger crop have the mental toughness that the likes of Peat and Louise Galvin had from regularly going into Eastern Europe and scrapping it out with the best there.
“When you’re playing for Ireland you always went in with that fighting, underdog mentality,” says Niamh. “Because what you were fighting for at the end of the day was respect. You had to fight to make the national team, you had to fight to get on the court, when you got on the court and you had to fight to gain any respect. Whereas you’re now in the Superleague in your 20s and that’s the highest level you’ve ever known, do you really know what it’s like to fight for it?”
“I think they all take it for granted a bit,” agrees Gráinne. “Like everything is on their doorstep or on a plate. There is one (younger) player who I think has it (the warrior mindset) and that’s Brunell’s Edel Thornton. I love watching her play. Whether she’s 20 points up or down, she’s still jumping on balls, showing the same aggression and passion.”
They still hope for the full national team to be restored, sooner than later, for the sport’s sake as much as theirs. There are enough players with previous international experience there to help make the transition back smoother. But they’re under no illusion how tough that would still be.
“Let’s be honest, I’m 32 now,” says Niamh. “If we were to go back into the international scene in the next year or two I’d back myself to make the team because I’m still one of the most competitive players in the league and I’d work to make it. But the problem is you’re going to be 33, 34 going up against someone who has been playing either international or professional ball for the previous six years when you haven’t. We’ve lost so much ground.”
Back when the Dwyers were in Presentation Thurles, basketball was the game. It was the highest participation sport in the country among schoolgirls and the lure of playing for that country was hugely enticing. They grew up literally under the shadow of Semple Stadium with Ger Redser O’Grady down the road a first cousin, but while Niamh played underage camogie for Tipperary and had been called into the senior setup of a county regularly contesting All-Irelands, hoops would win out. She was playing for Ireland and heading to an American college and after four years there would play professionally in Lithuania for a Euroleague team.
Gráinne played some camogie too but truth was she was more of a basketball player. More so she was an athlete. “I often say we were like a bunch of hillbillies running around after a ball. I see Orla O’Reilly now and she has all the shapes and makes of a basketball player. All I could do was put the ball in the basket.”
Looking back, she wasn’t true to her talent. Sure, Niamh had to work harder on her game. But Niamh did and would reap the rewards. She’d play for TEO Vilnius in the Euroleague, though she’ll openly admit she was more a Darren Gibson than a Roy Keane or even a John O’Shea in the rotation, serving as backup to WNBA All Star Katie Douglas. She’d then play in Latvia for a year. Even after returning to Ireland and winning multiple cups and leagues with Glanmire, she’d take 2011 out to play in England where she was that national league’s leading scorer. Gráinne hadn’t that same ethic. As Niamh says, “She wouldn’t even stretch before a training session.
“When I’d go out for a run, she’d call me Forrest Gump.”
Now Gráinne is a Forrest Gump, especially in the off-season. “I think it was only when I came back from Australia (in early 2010) that I realised how much I loved the game and how I hadn’t given it the time I should.
“Back when I played with (Waterford) Wildcats or even the first few years with Glanmire, I didn’t train half hard enough. But I think as you get older you get wiser.
“Now once a season ends, the season begins again for me. I’ve calmed down a bit. My passing and movement off the ball have got better. I’ve evolved as a player. And to be honest, that’s what kills me about the international scene now. A player’s peak years are 28 to 30 and we don’t have that stage.”
They’re thankful though that they have some international outlet. Last summer Basketball Ireland got the go-ahead and money to enter a team into a couple of 3x3 tournaments in Europe where the prize was qualification for this summer’s inaugural European Olympics in Baku, Azerbaijan, run by the International Olympics Council. Long story short, Gráinne and Niamh made the Irish selection, and in turn helped Ireland make it to Baku. Gráinne will be hanging with Katie again.
“To be honest, the 3x3 has given us a new lease of life,” admits Niamh. “The level of competition. And the format itself is brilliant.”
Essentially it’s streetball, outdoor, halfcourt, 3v3, though you can sub someone in and out when the ball goes dead. It’s 10 minutes, 12-second shotclock, with a point for every basket within the arc, two for outside it. Defensively there’s no help or let up. It’s non-stop, fast, physical, just the way the Dwyers like their ball.
Their first game was against Germany, out in a city square in Riga under a roasting sun. Names and reputation didn’t matter, a bit like when they beat a team from that country back in their underage days coached by Ger Tarrant. When the buzzer sounds, Ireland had won 21-13. They were on a roll, and after another tournament in Romania they had rolled all the way to Baku.
That though is parked for the summer. Now it’s all about the club and the cup. Though they’ll always be from Thurles, the Dwyer sisters are now synonymous with Glanmire. They’re even on the club committee, Niamh serving as treasurer and Gráinne the head of the fundraising section.
At times their service to the club has been testing. For four consecutive seasons they played under a different coach each time; no wonder with the stability UL and DCU had in James Weldon and Mark Ingle, the Cork side were losing major titles and games to their rivals. Over the course of three seasons UL would win eight consecutive domestic honours between cup, league and playoffs. Virtually every time they had to go through Glanmire and the Dwyers, and yet for all that resistance, every time UL would — until last year.
Things just fell into place – or at least they eventually did. The right coach in Paul Kelleher. The right American in Emile Harmon.
And two sisters who had just enough of losing.
“It was all worth it for last year,” says Gráinne. “It was just euphoria. I’ve a quote up on Facebook: ‘If you can’t run with your legs run with your heart.’ Those games against DCU and UL last year, that’s how I felt. In that cup final I did not feel tired. I could have played all night, it was such a pleasure to play in.”
The standard of the league and competition has dropped this year. During the summer Weldon, Vanderwal & Co all finished up with UL, making it the most sudden disintegration of a champion side since Jordan, Pippen and Phil all called it a day with the Bulls back in ’98. The Dwyers miss those players and that competition. That a warrior like Louise Galvin is now on the 35-person Irish rugby squad within a year of picking up that sport and Rachel Clancy now exclusively runs triathlons instead of fastbreaks underlines their argument how much the lure of playing for the green singlet is missed.
But thankfully there’s still their Peat and DCU. Tonight in the Neptune Stadium the sides square up for what will be the 14th time in eight years in the semi-final or final of either a league or cup.
They should be sick of the sight of each other. The way the Dwyers view it though they need each other.
Their most constant enemy is their best friend.
“I remember a few years ago (2012), there was an Irish select put together to play a couple of visiting US teams,” smiles Gráinne. “James Weldon was coaching us and we were walking through a play when Lindsay set a screen that just cleaned someone out. And you could see the younger players on the team going ‘Lindsay?! What are you at?!’ But she doesn’t know anything else. It’s all or nothing for her.”
Just as it is with the Dwyers. Just as it will be tonight.
Get there, kids. This is how it was, how it should be, and thanks to these warriors, how it still is.
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