KIERAN SHANNON: Six foot 10 Conor Grace says: 'Yes, I play basketball'

Conor Grace : Played for the same college in the US as Steph Curry . Picture:Moya Nolan

At 6 ft 10, Conor Grace stands out. Not because he’s Steph Curry’s old college buddy at Davidson. Or that he’s survived the flares and fanaticism that characterise Greek basketball. Or played in the mad heat of Malaysia where the owners were even madder. But because he’s been out there, making his way not as Tom Grace’s son, but as an achiever in his own right

LUNCHTIME in a small Dublin cafe, and Conor Grace is talking in detail about, well, little details, something of a recurring theme in one of the most distinctive and admirable, if unheralded, careers an Irish professional sportsperson of this millennium has had.

A few days out from a National Cup semi-final for Templeogue and the 33-year-old is explaining how as a rookie out of college, he was taken to the side in Italy by a former Chicago Bull called AJ Guyton. If he wanted to have a lengthy career as a pro, Guyton kindly suggested, his shot had to get quicker.

“You see fellas now [in the Irish league] and they bring it down here (to the midriff area) and bring it back up [before shooting],” motions Grace. “At the pro level you have to be ready to shoot right away.

“Steph Curry is an extreme example of that. There’s no wasted movement. Most fellas when they dribble the ball, their non-dribbling hand comes out [to the side] to keep them balanced. If you look at Steph, often his (non-dribbling) hand stays here (mid-chest), so when the ball comes back, his hand is already there.

“You’d see the same with Ronan O’Gara making a drop-goal. No wasted movement, no big wind-up after he’s caught it. Just catch it, drop it, kick it. That’s what I had to work on that summer. ‘Aim, fire. Aim, fire.’”

Grace mentions those examples to best illustrate a subtle insight, but it’s fitting for another reason that he makes those couple of references. O’Gara excelled at the sport in which Grace’s own father, Tom, also represented Ireland and the Lions.

Curry, meanwhile, isn’t just the NBA’s MVP. He played for the same college and coach that Grace did, the Dubliner having helped Bob McKillop’s programme at Davidson progress enough for it to recruit an albeit under-recruited and underestimated talent that now wows the US on an almost nightly basis.

So when Grace refers to Curry as simply ‘Steph’, as if he personally knows the guy, well, it’s partly because he does. So much so that Curry knows him as Conor. They’ve played golf together at the Davidson meet-ups that Grace makes a point of flying in for every summer and that Curry often pops down to, being a native of Charlotte just 20 minutes away from the college’s campus.

The thought strikes you: While Grace goes about his lunch and business as modestly and unassumingly as anyone else here — if you can say someone 6’10” tall just blends in — there’s hardly anyone else here that can as breezily and warmly interact with one of America’s most loved sportsmen. ‘Hey Steph.’ ‘Hey Conor...’ Or who has survived the flares and fanaticism that characterise Greek basketball, and played in the mad heat of Malaysia where the owners were even madder. This isn’t any ordinary fella or life in our midst.

Even since his teens, Grace has stood out that little bit from the crowd — and been comfortable about it. He found no downside to being Tom Grace’s son, as often as he could be referred to as just that. It showed him he could make it playing for Ireland, in whatever sport he played. Nor had he any issue with being so tall.

“My dad would always have been telling me when I was younger, ‘Stand up straight.’ Eric Cantona would have been a big influence growing up, walking around with the chest out. So I always loved being tall. Now if you didn’t play any sport and just say, worked in the bank, I’d say it would be infuriating, people coming up all the time, asking questions...”

You can guess which ones. An old Davidson teammate, Martin Ides from the Czech Republic, had the perfect retort for them, sporting a tee-shirt that had emblazoned on it: 7’2” — And Yes, I Play Basketball.

Grace only took up the sport at 15, after his St Andrew’s junior school cup campaign. That summer he went to a camp in Gormanston where at 6’4” he caught the eye of John O’Connor who suggested he link up with a club like Marian. Within a year Grace was on a Dublin U17 squad, then an Irish U18 squad, coached by O’Connor.

A few people had planted the idea of him playing Division One college basketball in the US, even though only a couple of Irish boys had ever done that before, like Niall Phelan at Robert Morris, Sligo’s Michael Bree at Davidson. So Grace spent a year in prep school in Maine which did just what the title infers — prepping and steeling him for top-level college ball.

Pre-season with Davidson was still a massive culture shock. Even with Bree as a senior there to mentor him, nothing quite jolted him like those first few months under Coach McKillop. A practice might last three hours with just one water break. You had to be fully focused, fit — Grace’s body fat at one point would be as low as 4.9% — and assertive.

A few weeks in, a member of the coaching staff got all Yoda with Luke Skywalker on him. “He said ‘Can you guard this guy?’ And coming from Ireland, I said ‘Oh yeah, I’ll try.’ As in ‘Yeah, I think I can.’ I just didn’t want to sound big-headed about it. But he just looked at me. ‘You’ll try?! We’re going to get someone who can do it!’ Then all the American guys had their hands straight up. ‘I’ll do it, Coach!’”

Soon though McKillop and his staff trusted their Irish rookie enough to give him 13 minutes playing time in a shock win over North Carolina, Michael Jordan’s alma mater, on the hallowed court of the Dean Smith Centre. It was all over national television, the late ESPN anchor Stuart Scott, a big Tar Heels fan, being ribbed by fellow colleagues.

Soon after that, Grace was defensively assigned to future Olympic champion Carlos Boozer of Duke — “Man, the size of him was unbelievable; he probably outweighed me by about 50, 60 pounds.” The next three years Grace would be a starter, guarding other NBA talents like Andre Iguodala, Luke Walton, JJ Reddick. In his sophomore year he was the leading rebounder in the Southern Conference. In his senior year he’d captain the team to a 16-0 conference record and the last 16 of the NIT tournament. He was trusted. A leader. A Davidson Jedi.

Even now the force is still strong with this one. He continues to live by McKillop’s various maxims and detail orientation. Next Play. Cat And Mouse, where on defence he pretends to trap opponents, darting at them, forcing them to pick up their dribble, while he darts back again. Or Have An Act. Don’t telegraph your intentions, be it passing the ball, setting a screen, looking for the ball. Disguise them, play it cool, like, McKillop would joke with them, you might get with a girl you fancy.

At Davidson they had anything from 75 to 100 phrases of their own. On one road trip they were each handed a paper with all the phrases on it and they were each to write down what they understood them to mean. It was primarily to help gauge and guide the rookies. Grace aced it.

“It was amazing just how familiar everything was to you,” he smiles. “Ever sit there doing a quiz? And you know all the answers? And you’re sitting there, just loving it?” Even now, back a couple of years in his hometown working in financial services, there’s still an American inflection to go with his native south Dublin tone, meaning a question mark can often take the place of a comma or a full stop.

Grace, though, has spent as much time playing outside of the States and Ireland as he has playing in them. The autumn after he graduated from Davidson in political science in 2005, he was playing for a Serie A outfit called Viola Reggio Calabria, on the toe of Italy, the same club Manu Ginobili started his overseas career with. Another culture shock.

“At Davidson we’d all go out after games as a team. We’d eat together. On a Saturday after a home game we might go to a party where everyone had been at the game. In Reggio the only people who spoke English were on my team. And some of them weren’t even talking to each other. Because if someone is playing, it affects their stats, their prospects maybe of playing with the national team. So if you’re playing ahead of someone, when he meets you in the hallway, it’s not like he wants to go to lunch with you and talk about how great your game was.”

After Christmas morale would pick up, primarily because they picked up a couple of former NBA players. Jelani McCoy was a 2002 world champion with the LA Lakers, a model pro and gentleman. “I’ve found that the more successful people are, the nicer they are,” Grace says. “It’s the guy trying to climb the ladder that can tend not to be so nice.”

For the next eight seasons or so he’d play all over the place. Finland. Sweden. Holland. France.

Greece was fantastic. Fanatical. In some venues there were riot police and actual dugouts to shield the bench during timeouts. “You’d be sitting there, listening to the coach, and next thing, a supporter has run down and bang, he’s hit the back of the dugout, and you think it’s been broken.” At one venue the custom was that just as both teams got set for the tip off, the whole crowd would fire toilet rolls on to the court. “It would take five minutes to clear the court while the crowd chanted and sang. Then we’d play the game.”

His own team’s crowd were rather zealous themselves. The side had won promotion from the second division with a game to spare, so ahead of their final practice of the season, fans were invited in. They started setting off firecrackers. “Next thing — BOOM! A big piece of concrete from the stands flew onto the court. At games they’d set off flares. Eventually the place would cloud up so much you’d have to stop the game.”

Through all his travels, English was the official language of the game. Greece would again be the exception. That same season the head coach walked out after some local players complained about their game time. So his replacement comes in and is talking through his assistant coach or at times a player who has broken English.

“You could be coming off the court and the head coach is ranting at you. Basically ‘You are a fucking idiot!’ Then one of the assistants or teammates turns around and starts screaming at you as well. “He says you are a fucking idiot!’ Now, you’ll take it from the coach. But from a teammate who feels the need to scream it at you as well?!”

He smiles. After a while there were so many culture shocks that he became immune to them. One time he played for the Kuala Lumpur Dragons. He was rooming in an apartment with fellow Irishman Jason Killeen, right across the road from a 13-storey shopping centre. It seemed perfect. But little in professional basketball is.

The gym they trained in might have been beautiful but it had no air conditioning — a problem when the heat often hit 40C. The side’s owners felt that if you were good after two hours training, you’d be excellent after eight. After a day’s gruelling training, Grace conserved his energy ahead of the following day’s game. The coach duly gave him punishment sprints. Grace was barely able to move in the game and the next day got cut.

Hey, that’s life, he says, especially in this game. He still loved it, for the most part. Getting better and finding new ways to do so. But yeah, at times it was tough.

Growing up, playing professional rugby for Leinster wasn’t an aspiration or pathway. Brian O’Driscoll and Shane Horgan were only a couple of years ahead of him and had yet to break into the national consciousness or his. But over the years as he’d watch the pair of them from afar, he’d often think how cool that must be, being a professional sportsperson in your hometown, with family and friends at all your games. Grace might have played in some of the biggest and fanatical indoor arenas in the US and Europe but most of the time he was the only Irishman in the place. On the road, on a bus, it could be lonelier.

“See if I had a good game? I was, like, ‘This is the greatest job in the world. I’ll do this for the rest of my life.’ But I remember when I played in France, some of the bus journeys would have been 10 hours. And you could be there after another loss, driving back through the night, with no smartphone as you’d have now. You could maybe text someone with the phone you had but not at 3am. So you’re sitting there, the team’s morale and chemistry isn’t great, all your friends are back working and living in Dublin. And you’re going, ‘What the fuck am I doing here?

“But then you might have the next day off, you’ve practice, then a game, you play well, and suddenly you’re back: ‘I could do this forever.’”

He couldn’t. A couple of years ago he sustained a knee injury and so took that as the year to finally study a master’s, in management at the Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School in UCD. Last year he joined the workforce proper.

He’s still playing though. For Templeogue in the Premier League. And hopefully next summer for the Irish national team, back after a six-year hiatus.

Even in the past 12 months he’s seen the game here improve. UCC Blue Demons went unbeaten last season, a standard that Templeogue, for one, have gone all out to match. Dublin football star Kevin McManamon is team sport psychologist. Coach Mark Keenan is working his magic again.

Grace finds his game is sharper from the Team Hibernia experience. They may have weathered some heavy defeats over a six-game programme but the naysayers who rubbish it are being overly-insular.

“Players like Roy Downey and Kyle Hosford had never been exposed to that level of international competition before. Last season Demons would have caused everyone to step it up. Hibernia has tripled that rate of progress. A couple of slack minutes and suddenly, boom, you’re down 12 points.

“It was a great experience for our players to play against fellas who are in better shape than them. Who don’t take plays off. Who are more detailed. If I set a screen a foot away from where I’m supposed to, our guard then is coming around under extra pressure. The next pass is difficult, which makes the next pass more difficult. If I catch it 4ft outside the three-point line, I’m not a threat. You have to catch the ball where you’re supposed to.” He’ll be 34 by the time of the Small Countries tournament in the summer. Twice the age he was when he first wore a green singlet, a moment he still has framed at home. Eleven years older than he was first playing on the senior national team with Bree and nine veteran Americans like Pat Burke and Marty Conlon who played in the NBA.

“We came within a basket of qualifying for the A division of European basketball. At the time you’d have put basketball ahead of where Cricket Ireland was. A few years later, our national teams were taken away. If Sandymount plays Railway Union, who cares? If Ireland plays Great Britain in hockey, I care about that result. If Ireland play England in cricket, I care about that result. If Ireland play in basketball, you care.” And with it, maybe finally appreciate Steph’s friend and his career all that good bit more.


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