KIERAN SHANNON: Top 25: Ireland’s greatest ever male basketball players

The eve of another cup final weekend and with it a sense of history about it for those of us steeped in Irish hoops, writes Kieran Shannon.

Shane Coughlan: The best never to play full senior international.
Shane Coughlan: The best never to play full senior international.

On one hand, there’s anticipating the history that could be made over the next few frenetic days and games, on the other, the memories of the tradition it will all follow.

We could almost go all Al Tony D’Amato Pacino with this weekend’s various finalists, invite them over to our house for some jambalaya with Ben Hur playing in the background, and remind them, “McHale, Sully, Jasper — you’re part of all that now.”

The cup is a little over 30 years old at this point, and the national league itself, 10 years older.

Enough time and body of work, you would think, to have a right good debate about what have been the best Irish players over that time span.

It also meant some stipulations. First, you’d to be over 28 to make this; hence, Kyle Hosford, the most dynamic guard in the country right now, must wait a bit longer for consideration.

Americans or Bosmans with Irish passports didn’t qualify either; hence, no Pat Burke of NBA or Real Madrid fame, or any of the US players who played for the national teams of the noughties.

A lot of things went into the mix.

Could they — did they — do it at international level against bigger bodies and bigger talent? Could they — did they — cut it as a pro? Were they fair to their own talent and thus their teammates?

Winning — and being the winning of — leagues and cups mattered. So did longevity, reliability, mental toughness, qualities often undervalued by hoops purists who can over-lionise maverick and technical skill. We did, however, show a preference for big men, as this is overloaded with guards.

There’s a long list of honourable mentions that we know will only prompt righteous outrage in some quarters. Pat Quirke, Mono McCarthy and Darren McGuinness were among the most mesmerising and outrageous ball-handlers and talents the country has seen but you couldn’t necessarily depend on them to make your next practice.

Anyone who played with or coached Karl Butler in the 1980s will say he was possibly the best junior and senior international of that era but visibility and longevity mitigated against him.

Likewise, Conor Grace, for all his durability in playing professionally for close to a decade, just misses out.

Up in the Joshua Tree in the heart of the Cork northside, Blue Demons fans will scoff at the absence of Mono, Noel McCarthy, John Cooney, Seanie Murphy, Brian Clernon and Niall O’Reilly.

Just down the road, Neptune diehards will be similarly derisive how Paul Kelly and a legion of guards — Gordon Fitz, Nugie, Noonan — were overlooked.

In Dublin, St Vincent’s stalwarts will question how Dave Fitzsimmons who graced Crystal Palace in the 70s is likewise omitted.

In Killester, Eamonn Molly’s omission will jar, as will the absence of anyone from the Westbrooks or Grennell households. A nod too to Pete Masden, who won his share of cup and league finals in the noughties. In Kerry, Tim O’Regan was one of the league’s first big men and scorers.

We could go on. Instead it’s time to see who made it. Cue the Chicago Bulls song, ‘At shooting guard, from Tramore, County Waterford...’

25. DAMIEN SEALY

A winner: with five Cups from his time with Notre Dame and Killester, no one has won more in January, though Shane Coughlan and Niall O’Reilly will probably change that this weekend. An international at a time when only a couple of Irish-born players were making the national team. Athletic, reliable, dogged, he was the X-factor for a lot of Dublin title-winning teams.

24. KIERAN DONAGHY

Too fleeting a basketball presence for some observers but in these eyes that can only affect his ranking, not his inclusion. Anyone who saw him and Micheal Quirke carry Tralee on their backs with both Americans fouled out to beat a stacked Killester team in the 2008 league final down in Limerick witnessed one of the standout moments of the Superleague era. Donaghy scored 22 points that day in a low-scoring game, having put up 24 points only a day earlier in the semi-final against Neptune. He would never play Superleague again after that weekend.

23. PAUL FITZGERALD

A couple of bigs just miss out here — Conor Grace, Jason Killeen — but Fitzgerald gets the nod.

At 17 he was starting and scoring a dozen points for Neptune in the decisive game of the 1983 league against St Vincent’s. Six years later his transfer and contribution to Blue Demons swung the first league of the one-American era. That he did very little after that was a shame but his size and moves made him probably the most valued Irish international of 80s.

22. JOHN TEAHAN

Rus Bradburd has coached a lot of basketball, including at D1 level with the likes of Timmy Hardaway, yet he’ll say Teahan and Kieran Donaghy are the two most ferocious competitors he ever coached. The key to Tralee’s 1996 league win and still the heartbeat of their other title-winning teams in the Donaghy-Quirke era.

21. MARK KEENAN

At 5’5’’ there’s hardly been anyone smaller to play for the national team yet he was central to it for over a decade, from starring in 1984 with the first junior team to win an international game to 10 years later winning the Promotions Cup. His handling, passing, speed and tenacity were reminiscent of Mugsy Bogues while his longevity – 17 years in the league – was staggering.

20. PAT BOYLAN

He maybe didn’t have the refinement, reputation or ultimately league medal count of other leading forwards of the 1980s but this St Vincent’s clubman was an exceptional athlete and big-game scorer; in three of the four Top Four National Championship finals that he won, he scored at least 22 points as well as racking up 21 points in the inaugural National Cup final against Demons in ’84. Could also play and score at international level.

19. ANDY HOULIHAN

He didn’t have the finesse of future inside players but Houlihan was the mainstay of the national team in the 70s. Then in the four Top Four finals either side of the advent of the Americans he averaged 20 points, with Demons or Killarney.

18. MICHEAL QUIRKE

Like Donaghy, we’d like to have seen more of him but in his 10 years on and off, he’d win two leagues and two cups. In the 2007 cup semi-final against Vincent’s he was an absolute beast, scoring 29 points, but his finest hour was his last hour when in the 2008 league final Killester’s big men looked like they didn’t even want to enter the key — his key.

17. GER HEAPHY

How special was this guy? His first game leaving Neptune for the North Mon in 1990 was a derby against Demons. Big game. Nerves could have unsettled him. He scored 40 points. A streetfighter. Pure dynamite.

16. SEAMUS WOODS

He would play most of the 80s in Division Two with St Colm’s from his native Limerick, but his astonishing versatility and guile would be showcased when he’d join Neptune, inspiring — not just helping — them to multiple honours; over five national finals in that time he’d average 16 points.

15. TIM McCARTHY

Danny Fulton reckons he never coached a smarter player for Ireland. Whether getting out on the fast break or making a cut to the hoop, no Irish player made layups or bigger baskets for Demons in the 80s.

14. OWEN McKEON

The league had some great guard in the 70s — Cooney, Molloy, Quirke — but McKeon was the first guard who could jump shoot off the dribble. Adrian Fulton can still see the 70-foot bounce pass he threw to a St Vincent’s teammate in the 1983 Top Four win. With his Kareem-like goggles, McKeon stood out in the 80s.

13. STEPHEN McGURK

From the moment he broke onto the national scene in 1993 with an MVP performance in the U19 Cup final and a couple of buckets in the senior decider, McGurk’s exceptional jumping and handling ability was obvious. He would continue to light up January weekends; the 30 points he scored in the last-second 2000 defeat to Notre Dame remains the most scored by an Irish player in a cup final. That Vincent’s went a 12-year stint without winning a league on his beat counts against him but that they rarely finished outside the top three in that time was a testament to his skill and consistency.

12. MICHAEL BREE

One of the best underage players this country has known — so good, the kid from Sligo would win a scholarship to Davidson College where he’d be their MVP in his senior year. He’d go on to lead the Swedish league and German second division in assist and steals. With his speed and handling, won 35 caps with the national team at a time native players rarely saw the floor, Bree was exceptional.

11. GARETH MAGUIRE

Another who cut it at international level. At 6’4’’ he was able to leap and help out on the boards yet he could stroke down three-pointers. That he never added a cup to go with his couple of leagues and three Top Fours could be held against him, but invariably Maguire performed for Star in all those cup weekends.

10. KARL DONNELLY

In 1989, Pat Boylan would go all Jack Nicklaus by saying already a teenaged Donnelly was playing a game he was unfamiliar with, such was his American-style handle, athleticism and scoring power. Vincent’s might not have won as much as he would have expected throughout the 1990s and beyond but Donnelly was a central reason as to why they were always thereabouts.

9. TOM WILKINSON

A bit of an Irish Larry Bird: he couldn’t jump that great but he could shoot, score, rebound and above all win. Possibly the most consistent Irish player from 1977 to 1988, and probably its best big-game player; he’d knock down 20 points in the historic 1983 Roy Curtis tournament win over Murray Metals. When you think of why Demons won everything in 1980 and Neptune would win most leagues after that for the next dozen years, Wilkinson is a big part.

8. ADRIAN FULTON

Probably the best pure point guard this country has produced, and certainly the best player the north has offered up.

7. SHANE COUGHLAN

Back nearly 20 years ago when he was still a juvenile player, Shane said he was uncomfortable with me noting in print the similarities between his game and Penny Hardaway’s. Well, he’s lasted longer than Penny anyway. With his vision, handling and back-to-basket moves he has to go down as the best player never to play full senior international basketball for Ireland.

6. PADDY KELLY

Possibly the best defensive player on this list, yet one of its best scorers too, from when he broke onto the scene in the late 90s contesting three U19 cup finals to scoring 28 points in the 2011 Superleague final win. The Killester man is probably the best player Dublin has produced.

5. PAUDIE O’CONNOR

The Kerryman who shook it all up. Not just by bringing in the Americans in ’79 but by being able to hang with them. Paudie was 6’4. Everyone else that height in the ‘70s played centre. He played point guard.

4. STEPHEN McCARTHY

It was 25 years ago this weekend that a scrawny, spotty teenager would come off the bench for a stacked Neptune team and go on to be their highest scorer and MVP in a cup final. He’d broaden out after that but he’d use that along with his incredible court sense and handle to uphold Neptune’s winning tradition.

3. TOM O’SULLIVAN

The best pure jump shooter the league has seen. No Irish player has scored more in cup semi- finals and finals. Throw in the seven leagues he won and the fact he did it at international level and O’Sullivan’s place in the top three is justified.

2. COLIN O’REILLY

The best thing about this year’s league or any time he’s played here, given he’s been a pro in England and elsewhere so long. Like most of the best, very, very smart, to the point he’s coaching Demons for a second straight year. Only one other player has so consistently run up such high scores in the league...

1. LIAM McHALE

Still, the king, edging O’Reilly for longevity alone; bear in mind that in 2007 he was still scoring 14 points in the Superleague final at 43 years of age. He maybe didn’t have Colin’s outside game — though he could score out there too — but for his sheer all-round game, toughness, scoring power, leadership and contribution to Irish basketball — transforming a small rural club into consistent contenders and two-time cup and one-time league champions — is legendary.

TOMORROW: Kieran Shannon ranks the top 25 women in Irish basketball


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