In Tralee last Saturday night, all of the clichés that make up much of basketball’s great lure and lore applied. They were hanging from the rafters. The players could smell the popcorn. The place was hoppin’.
Isaac Westbrooks of the visiting Swords Thunder was shakin’ ’n’ bakin’, while with his wondrous ball-handling.
Kieran Donaghy of the local Garvey’s Warriors was chairing the boards. With Fergal O’Sullivan and then Trae Pemberton on fire, it was raining threes. And though the home side were down 14 early on in the third quarter, it went right down to the wire.
With 10.9 seconds to go, and trailing by a point, the Warriors came out of a timeout and ran a baseline inbound play under the Thunder’s basket for Goran Pantovic to sink a jump hook shot in the key.
It nearly brought the house down, and then Pantovic actually did, blocking a desperate last-ditch Westbrooks effort on the buzzer, prompting the delirious home support to storm the court, like a Stateside mid-major college would upon upsetting a number-one seed in the frenzy just before March Madness.
Had Tralee’s great coach of yesteryear, Tim McCarthy, been in the house and on the mic for this one, he’d probably have combusted and definitely orgasmed.
OH YES! TRAE FROM DOWNTOWN!
OH, DONAGHY GOES COAST TO COAST!
GORAN…. OH YES, BABY!
GORAN WITH THE CHECK— OH, GET THAT TRASH OUT OF HERE!
I LOVE THIS GAME!
It left everyone else privileged enough to be in the Tralee Sports Complex feeling the same. How could you not love this game?
My six-year-old son, at his umpteenth sporting event but only his second game of hoops, enthused on the court that this was “the best day ever!”
A bit further up the age spectrum, we met a man about roughly my own age on the way out after we were finally able to draw ourselves away from the gym. “Do you go to many matches?” he enquired.
Opting to save him a spiel about how I once wrote a book about all the barnburners that enraptured me and all of Cork back in the ’80s, I just nodded, “A few.”
“You can’t beat that for entertainment,” he said, shaking his head, like a man who’d taken in a lot of sport but appreciated what sport he had just taken in.
There were plenty others like him. All this took place in a county where football is king and a town which has a club, Donaghy’s own Austin Stacks, that is home to more All-Ireland SFC medals than any other in the country.
Yet last Saturday night, the Stacks current coach Wayne Quillinan was in the bleachers and out of his seat, beamingly applauding every trey from Trae. Barry John Keane, from neighbouring Kerins O’Rahillys, took part in the half-time halfway line shot contest.
So did Jack Barry, another local Tralee boy who played against Galway the following day. Kerry selector Liam Hassett and team physio Ger Keane were among the queue to warmly congratulate and embrace Donaghy on yet another remarkable comeback victory he’d inspired, just like the management and people of Kerry famously engulfed their howling hero out on the Limerick Gaelic Grounds field on a late August evening in 2014.
Even Westbrooks from the losing team found the whole experience a reminder of just how wonderful as well as cruel the sport can be.
The following morning on Twitter he’d prequalify a criticism of the game’s officials by profusely lauding the host club.
‘Tralee is by the far best place in the Superleague. The atmosphere is electric from the moment you enter the marble-floored arena. I love the way they are promoting the game of basketball to EVERYONE!’
Watching on, we couldn’t but wallow and marvel in the magic we’d just witnessed.
For a good while there in the late noughties, we feared that in years to come we’d sound like that old groundsman in the old Heineken Cup ad, the old stomping ground haunted by the ghosts of yesteryear.
Oh, yes, I saw some battles here, and in the Parochial Hall and the Neptune Stadium. Sometimes, it’s as if the place remembers…
But the beautiful thing is that basketball itself began to remember and duly revitalise itself. The 25th anniversary of the seismic 1985 Neptune-Demons Cup final paved the way for every subsequent Cup semi-final weekend to be staged in Cork, a gesture that both acknowledged and re-energised the sport’s old capital. Now, in recent seasons, the sport’s provincial tradition has been reawakened, most obviously and spectacularly in the form of Tralee.
Ten years on from winning a remarkable league title with the Tigers, Donaghy is on the brink of bringing the same trophy back to his hometown.
He’s no longer the young stud who could dunk over Americans and jump out of the building but he can still rebound over a few of them while his vision on and off the court soars above everyone.
Donaghy has regularly referenced just how much he was ignited and inspired by the Tigers’ last home game of the league-winning 1996 season when as a 12-year-old kid he gaped open-mouthed at the lighting effects for the pre-match introductions as much as the dunking exploits of Ricardo Leonard.
That was something like the town had in the noughties when himself, Mike Quirke, and John Teahan were winning cups and leagues with the Tigers, and it was something he wanted to bring back to the town after it had gone seven long years without premier basketball.
Now, 22 years on from being that kid squatted down by courtside, rocking out to Eye of the Tiger, Donaghy has hundreds of Tralee kids peering up at him and Pantovic as they come out for the opening tip-off to the tune of Welcome To The Jungle.
Thirty-six years after his father Jerome was among the first wave of US ball players to spread and preach the gospel of hoops, Isaac Westbrooks is playing in spots where they’re hanging from the rafters.
And likewise 36 years on from witnessing my first-ever game of hoops — Demons-Neptune, 91-92, in ’81-82 — I now have a son who similarly has a game and scoreline ingrained in memory: Thunder-Warriors, 74-75.
The league may never be as big as it was in the ‘80s — it’ll certainly never again have the novelty and glamour or American rock-star power of that era — but it can still go a long way to making basketball itself bigger than it ever has been here — while the national league may have been great back in the day, the national team hardly was — and inspire future generations to have their own hoop dreams, whether it’s to play with the local club in the Superleague, or take their talents abroad, maybe even, for someone, some day, to the NBA itself.
And for sheer end-of-season drama, this season’s Superleague is the most compelling since Gerald Kennedy’s immortal 74-foot Hail Mary on — or, in Killester, they’ll still argue, after — the buzzer 30 years ago.
Just 10 days out from the conclusion of the league and five teams can still win it — four from Dublin, and Tralee.
At first glance, Swords Thunder look least-likely to win it, with six losses to everyone else’s five, on the back of last weekend’s loss.
But the 2017 Cup winners can still force a playoff. Their last two games are both against fellow contenders, UCD Marian and Templeogue. Beat the two of them and that just leaves them hoping for Killester and Tralee to slip up somewhere.
That too is highly conceivable. This weekend Tralee visit Templeogue, last year’s league champions and this season’s Cup winners.
Twelve months ago the two sides played out an epic in the Oblate Hall, with Templeogue shading it, 96-93, to win the league and condemn Tralee to their only post-Christmas defeat of the season.
Killester’s three remaining games are all local derbies, including a midweek fixture next week against Templeogue.
In fact, we wouldn’t be at all surprised if it finished up with all five teams tied in first with a 16-6 record. Say Templeogue beat Tralee and Killester but lose to Swords. And Marian also lose to Swords. Then a five-way playoff it’ll be, inevitably delaying the end-of-season Champions Trophy.
Should there be a two-way tie, there will be a play-off to decide who wins it all.
Should three teams be tied at the top, the team with the best scoring difference automatically qualifies for the final, while the team with the second-best scoring difference will get home advantage in the play-off semi-final. Should four teams be tied, it’s 1v4 and 2v3, again the placings and home advantage decided by scoring difference.
All five of them can win it. With no traditional big dynastic dog a la Demons or the old Neptune there to trip them up, all five will believe they can win it. Templeogue have won two of the last three Cups as well as being the reigning league champions.
Tralee beat them in last year’s Champions Trophy final. Swords won last year’s Cup. Killester haven’t won anything since the league four years ago but none of the other clubs have their winning tradition.
And while Marian haven’t won the league in 40 years, they’re desperate to bridge the gap, having led the league all season and nearly winning the Cup as well, a competition the core of this team won back in 2011.
Whatever way it works out, this league will be just like that game in the Complex last Saturday night. It’ll be going right down to the wire.
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