KIERAN SHANNON: The Big Interview: UCC Demons' Niall and Colin O’Reilly

The straight-talking, record-breaking O’Reilly brothers are on the verge of another Cup final win for UCC Blue Demons tonight in the National Basketball Arena. They discuss how little coaching there was back in the day and how there’s plenty of it going on in the Mardyke these nights.

BROTHERS IN ARMS: Niall and Colin O'Reilly will play crucial roles for C & S UCC Demons in tonight's National Cup final.
BROTHERS IN ARMS: Niall and Colin O'Reilly will play crucial roles for C & S UCC Demons in tonight's National Cup final.

ou can hardly talk about Irish basketball right now without mentioning the O’Reillys. It’s just a matter of which one to start with.

Twenty-three year-old Orla is playing terrific ball in her second season in the Spanish Premier Division, the best domestic league in Europe.

Last month when her CB Bembiere side came up against high-flying Gernika featuring former UL Huskies Olympian Rachel Vanderwal, O’Reilly blitzed them for 24 points in the first half alone. There isn’t a better Irish player playing today.

Unless you count her brother.

Back home, Colin, after a fine pro career himself abroad, is underlining his status as one of the greatest players, if not the greatest, Ireland has known as one of its own. He’s not merely starring for UCC Demons who are running away with the league. His game intelligence is so high, he’s coaching them as well, just like he did last year.

And then there’s the eldest of them, Niall. This is his 10th National Cup final. If Demons overcome UCD Marian as expected in the National Basketball Arena tonight, he and his longtime friend teammate Shane Coughlan would move to six medals, out on their own.

In any other household, plonking that chunk of metal on the kitchen table would take pride of place.

With the O’Reillys, medals, especially domestic ones, carry only so much currency. For them everything is about the game itself and how to get better at it.

That’s what Orla has done. When she returned home for the Christmas break she did a workout with former UL Huskies coach James Weldon. He was bowled over by her development.

“She was every inch the pro,” he says. “She’d come down on the train that morning to Killarney, helped coach at our camp for six hours.

That’s a long day, the gym was cold, it would have been so easy for her to say ‘Can we get something to eat?’ and forget about the workout. But she wanted no way out. Then her intensity. She was push-passing the ball off the dribble with both hands, left and right. That’s a very difficult skill yet she was passing it so hard to me my hands were ringing.”

Colin would work and think the same way. It’s how he rolled when he played in the German Bundesliga and five seasons on and off starting in the British Basketball League.

When he visited Orla a couple of months ago and took in one of her games, about the only thing he told her was to relish the experience and challenge of being a pro.

“She created the opportunity for herself with the work she has done,” he says in that very direct way of his. “And she’ll only grow from that because of what she’s going to do herself. That is the key to professional sport. Everything is geared towards your performance.

“When you’re a pro, you’ve got to be very selfish. You wake up in the morning, it’s your decision if you want to progress that day or not. If you want to be lazy, go back to bed, which is what some fellas do and they last only a few years, that’s fine. But it’s on you to be selfish for yourself.

"Make sure you get up, do your gym, eat properly, take a nap during the day to allow the body to recover; then later, work on your game on your own. It’s one of the things I like about individual sport — it’s on you. Basketball is team-oriented. You can try to hide. But if you want to last, you can’t.”

Sister and brother would have worked out down in the Mardyke as well over the Christmas. It’s a habit that was ingrained since they were kids in the backyard; it was just a matter of which brother and sister they paired up.

With Orla’s twin Sinead another standout player that would go to Binghamtom University on scholarship, you’d always find someone to workout with if the other two weren’t in the mood.

“They’d be nothing special,” says Colin. “It wouldn’t be like we’d be telling each other what to do. I might take something from one of the coaches I’d work with and they’d bring that into their own workout. A lot of basketball is just repetition of the right thing, just trying to create a habit.”

There’s a striking and even likeable directness and non-sentimentality about the O’Reilly boys. A fortnight ago when they overcame an early but considerable deficit against Swords in the Cup semi-final, Demons’ comeback and display would prompt Francis O’Sullivan, father of current players Adrian and Ciaran, to draw historic comparisons.

The team basketball Demons would put on reminded him of the selflessness of the 2000 Neptune team which Niall started on. The way Colin thought led that comeback and took the game over in the second quarter though was, in his eyes, “Jasper-esque.”

Niall though doesn’t particularly look favourably on the style Neptune played en route to his first league medal. And Colin would be sceptical of some aspects of the glorified ‘80s, particularly how teams and coaches were overreliant on talents like Mr McElroy.

“Back in 2000, Gerry Fitzpatrick was coaching that team and was probably streets ahead of everyone else in the league,” says Niall. “But I don’t think the style of play was very good. It was winning basketball, but not attractive basketball. I don’t know if you’d get away with playing that style now.

“I don’t think there was a lot of coaching going on in the 80s and 90s, to be honest,” adds Colin.

“It was pretty much roll the ball out and get it to the Americans. And yeah, they’d get 60 points between them but what were the other three guys on the court doing? An Irish guy might knock down a few open shots and everyone celebrated that, but while there were good Irish players then, where was the coaching in that?

“You give me the budget they had back then and I’ll bring in two ringer Americans as well but I’m not sitting down my Irish players and telling them to throw the ball to those fellas every time they go down the court. There’s more team-oriented basketball now. It’s definitely faster. And for that reason it’s a lot more to entertaining, as far as I’m concerned.”

To play how Demons now play though required a change of mindset. Back when Colin played for them during the 2008-2009 season after his contract and the economy in Iceland crashed, they had been irresistible, winning everything in sight.

They had the league’s leading player and scorer. In Doug Leichner they had its best coach. When the pair of them left, standards dropped, to a large extent unknown to themselves.

“We’ve had some very good set-ups in Demons but we had kind of gone stale as a team,” says Niall. “We were still tight, competing in cup finals, but we needed someone to come in and look at it from a different perspective.”

When Demons couldn’t find another coach to replace Paul Kelleher in the summer of 2013, Colin and Demons decided to go with him as player-coach. It was something different. Everything would be different.

“I suppose a lot of us needed to be challenged,” accepts Niall. “We had developed some [bad] tendencies. We were playing at a slower tempo. We had a lot of talent but we weren’t really fit enough to play at a tempo to make the best use of it.”

And would that include yourself?

“Absolutely,” he smiles. “You get into a cycle. You know you’re going to play a lot of minutes so you’re minding yourself during the week. Your body so only trains at a certain level. When the season ends you chill out a bit in the summer. In the pre-season you still have a few niggles and you’re not pushing yourself the way you could or should. [With Colin] all that went out the door.

“One of the best things he did was he recalibrated our expectation of what we were going to get from a season. It wasn’t necessarily we’re trying to win this or that – in a club like Demons, that’s a given. It was how he threw it more back on the players themselves.

"You need to get in shape. You need to be able to knock down open shots and shoot x percentage. You need to be able to execute the offense. Otherwise you won’t get minutes on this team.”

He had them back in the gym that June. That had long ceased to be the norm. Under Colin it’s the minimum expected.

“There’s a mindset in Ireland that when the season ends people stop basketball,” he says. “They take four months off, they don’t do anything to help improve themselves. So when I first came back it was ‘Right, one season carries into the next. Take your month off, then get to work while still being able to enjoy your summer.

“I’ve had 13 different senior coaches on three different continents from when I turned 18 and you learn something from every one of them. A Serbian coach was very strongly of the view that if you weren’t fit, you couldn’t play basketball.

"That’s the Eastern European way. So the first two months all we did was run and then shoot at the end for an hour. Then for the first month of full-on basketball there was a lot of stop-starting because I was trying to introduce something brand new.

"I’d have strong views on how the game should be played, coming from the BBL. It’s not the most X and Os league but it’s very fast and very intense. There’s no letup otherwise an American can drop 16 points on you in five minutes.”

Implementing his vision was a process. As Niall says, “It was a two-way thing last year. Guys had to learn how to be coached like this and Colin was finding his way how to be a coach. And it was more a case that we needed to catch up with him.”

It restricted Colin’s playing time; whereas this year he’s averaging 22 points a game, last year he was only on 12. It might even have restricted their trophy count. They would win the cup and the end-of-season Champions Trophy but defeats to Killester and Neptune down the stretch of the league would cost them that title. Colin though could live with that.

“Overall I was delighted with the season. I won’t call it a process because in Demons I don’t think you’re allowed that, you still have to win trophies, but the fact we lost only two games was great from my point of view.

"It gave us something to build and work on. In preseason I could say ‘Right, we won 90% of our games last season yet it still wasn’t good enough for what we feel we are capable of.’

“There were a lot of times where I had to stop the point guards and say ‘Right, let’s get into this set, the American hasn’t touched the ball in five possessions, we’re just running up and down and haven’t scored.’

"We weren’t as freeflowing, we weren’t reacting as I wanted so I had to micro-manage more. This year fellas automatically know what spots to get to.”

Standards are exacting. Last month in the local derby they were over 40 points ahead of Neptune at the end of the third quarter. In the fourth Demons would score just seven points. O’Reilly lifted them.

“We just let ourselves down. The only time I’m ever annoyed with the group — and I include myself in that because I’m a player — is when we don’t do justice to all the work fellas put in during the week.”

Training is ferocious. The internal competition too. Cody-esque. Colin doesn’t insist or even tell you that you should work on your own game outside training; it’s just implicit; to get those minutes, to get that edge, get in that extra workout.

There’s no coffees at lunch or after work as to how things are off the floor or what you could be working at on it.

No one has asked to meet over their minutes and he hasn’t sought or held any such sitdowns either.

“From the first day I met them, it’s whatever you do in front of me is going to earn you your playing time. There’s nothing else to it. If I see you doing the right thing over and over again, you’re going to play more minutes.

“You can’t take a night off from training, you can’t take a possession off, because the other fella is trying to take minutes off you at the weekend. This year if a fella isn’t playing minutes, the other nine guys know why. It’s not necessarily mistakes, you don’t get punished for [making] mistakes. You get punished that someone else is performing better than you.”

That’s the pro mentality — it’s on you.


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