KIERAN SHANNON: When we were kings

All these years later and so much about them remains the same.

Jasper McElroy is still a dude. Back in his time in Ireland he broke all kinds of scoring records and quite a few hearts and though he’s now 51 with a few flecks of grey that make him sometimes seem a ringer for Sonny Liston, he still looks like he could drop 30 on any team in the league, breeze into any nightclub in Cork and assume his position as the beacon of female attention.

Terry Strickland is still his chilled, dignified self too. The hairline has receded a bit and the midriff is a fraction wider than that of the fabulous athlete this country came to know and love all those years ago, but along with his old friend and rival Jasper, he’s the sharpest-dressed man in Charlotte tonight as the pair of them reunite for a television documentary being made by Motive TV about a time in Irish basketball and Irish life when they were gods.

As they beam and embrace like long-lost brothers, another couple of old friends watch on with a smile. Earlier in the day Paudie O’Connor, the man it was all those years ago who first came up with the idea of bringing pro American players into Ireland, flew in from Las Vegas. There to meet him was Tony Andre, the greatest player to ever tog out for O’Connor’s native Killarney and probably the best centre the Irish league has known.

Andre first played in Ireland in the autumn of 1981. His last league game was in March 1984. Playing alongside him that night with Burgerland Neptune was Strickland. Opposing him was McElroy of Britvic Blue Demons. Since that spring of 1984 Andre hadn’t met either of them or his old team-mate O’Connor.

Tony’s a lot heftier than he was back in the day but his love for the game and life itself is as strong as it was in the Ireland years. These days he’s based in Daytona, Florida where he is the head coach of a Division 2 junior college. His wife and soulmate Rita died a little over 10 years ago, which knocked the stuffing out of him for a while. He stopped coaching and instead worked in a tyre plant and stocked groceries until his son’s love for the game rekindled his own. Now the kid’s going into his last year playing college ball. He’s very selfless, says his dad. A bit too selfless.

“He doesn’t like to score!” Andre Snr declares to his gathered fraternity. “He likes to rebound! He likes to play defence!”

Strickland smiles between sips of his bottle of beer: “Man, don’t he know? You play defence, you get to take her to the prom. You play offence, you get to take her home!” And at that McElroy laughs. “That’s the Terry Strickland philosophy right there!” Basking in the reverie and bonhomie is O’Connor. He’s been in the States 25 years now and you could say he’s lived the quintessential American life. He’s had the marriage, the kid, the divorce and the obligatory heart scare, but hey, it’s all good, he smiles while holding the hand of his beautiful girlfriend Paula, at least a decade his junior. He’s a golf tour operator these days but that won’t stop him talking hoops and talking big.

“Let me tell you,” he says in an accent that’s now more Vegas than Killarney, “it’s a beautiful thing that we’re all still here, above the ground, and can talk about the great things you guys did for and in Ireland. The big disappointment is to know where the game is now. The people at home can be so small-minded. They don’t get just how big the game is worldwide.

“I tell you, if I was over there now, I’d put an Irish team into Europe. We’d pay the guys, including Irish kids if they were up to the standard, and bring in the likes of Real Madrid. What’s the biggest indoor stadium in Ireland? The 02, right? I guarantee you, I would fill that motherf**** tomorrow morning! Think I couldn’t? We’re Irish, man. Two flies going up a wall, we’re either betting on it or want to bet on it. That’s who we are, that’s our nature. You don’t think they’d want to see top international ball?”

You can hardly say it would be beyond him because a little over 30 years ago he instigated a scene that had once been unimaginable too. He grew up in Killarney, where he captained the Crokes and was on the margins of Mick O’Dwyer’s wonderful team, but the insularity and demands of Kerry football was all a bit wearisome. America and basketball had fascinated him since he was in his teens. He’d go to camps like Pistol Pete Maravich’s and come back with all the jargon and the drills. By the end of the ’70s he was ready to bring over American players, period. It was the cue for pandemonium and a revolution that would make basketball the sexiest spectacle in all of 1980s Irish sport.

Tony Andre was instrumental in that revolution. As O’Connor’s brother Seamie would once put it: “I saw him do things I didn’t know a human being could do.” The locals had never seen anyone who was as tall as him, could jump like him, dunk like him. They hadn’t seen anyone as black as him either. “The only other black person they knew,” says Andre, “was Arnold from Different Strokes.”

One time a kid in Kenmare came up, rubbed his finger against Andre’s forearm before looking at him in amazement. That black stuff wouldn’t come off! And much to Andre’s delight, the local women were also fascinated.

“I was living a dream playing in Ireland. The people were nice, I liked the girls and we were winning. I remember in my rookie year in college with Wichita State, the New York Knicks were playing the night before we played Marquette and I saw how people reacted to them. In Ireland it was like, ‘It’s my turn now’. I didn’t feel arrogant about it, I just felt, ‘I’ve arrived’. To me I was in the NBA.”

The trick was to keep all the adulation in moderation. Andre realised it wasn’t just his duty to be a player but to be an ambassador. He first got the grá for coaching from showing the local kids to shoot the basketball like Paudie, instead of kicking it like Páidí. He’d take O’Connor’s mother to the bingo the club would run to pay his wages. He’d even call out the numbers.

“It took maturity and discipline to survive and thrive overseas. In my second year we had a guy called Clarence Swannegan. He was a fifth-round NBA draft pick, played his college ball with Texas Tech. Man, he came over to Ireland and all he did was complain about this and that. He left in December. When he got back to the States, he found out his girlfriend had moved onto somebody else, so he wanted to come back to Ireland. But he had burned the bridge. He didn’t have the maturity for overseas.”

Strickland adds: “A lot of guys didn’t. It wasn’t for everybody.”

McElroy nods. He would play in Ireland seven seasons, leading the league in scoring for four of them. Discipline, he says, was the key to his longevity.

“I would see rookies coming in and party six days a week and still expect to perform at the weekend. They’d first come in and be jumping over the rim. By Thanksgiving they couldn’t even touch the net.

“The night or two before a game, I’d have no female company. To beat my opponent I felt I had to be disciplined, so my mindset was, ‘I’d love to be out having a good time or be with this girl but this guy is keeping me from seeing her’. Then I’d take it out on him at the weekend. You needed to have that edge. I’d even have it playing Terry. He was my best friend over there. A lot of people are amazed by that because of how intense the Neptune-Demons rivalry was but we’d go out together a lot, we’d be in the same houses for Thanksgiving or Christmas. But if I saw him a few days before we’d be playing each other, I’d barely nod at him. Because I was getting ready for war.”

Strickland and McElroy would be among the greatest warriors of that era, which is why they are so synonymous with it. In McElroy’s seven years in Ireland, there’d be only two cup final and two league-winning teams that didn’t feature either himself or Strickland. Only twice in national competition did McElroy fail to score fewer than 39 points against Neptune. The most he ever lost to them in national competition in the ’80s was by seven points. But lose to them he would, twice to last-second baskets of Strickland’s. Whenever Neptune-Demons went to war, it went to the wire. Only Cork-Tipp could rival it as a 1980s sports rivalry.

Many of those battles took place in the Parochial Hall in Gurranabraher. It was grubby, it was cold, it was magical.

“I loved that place,” says McElroy. “At first when I’d train there I’d wear gloves, it was so damn freezing, but come game night, what an atmosphere. The crowd would be spilling over the baseline. Kids were hanging from the rafters.”

The Parochial Hall was one of many things about Irish life that initially shocked and then endeared itself to McElroy.

“For the first six months I was over there, I was wondering why was it we were always taking the back roads to everywhere. It took a whole season to figure out there were no freeways in Ireland!” Then there was The Cure. Not the band, but his team-mates’ way of treating a hangover. One night he was out with a team-mate who must have sank back 20 pints. The next morning there was a knock at McElroy’s door. It was the same player, telling him they were heading to the pub again. The best cure for drinking too much was to drink some more.

“In Ireland, man, they’d be closing the bar, we’d be heading out the front door and then we’d be led around the back and come back in again! The Irish were big into their pints and their sing-songs and their jokes. One night this guy was telling us the dirtiest jokes. And I’m laughing along when suddenly he stands up. ‘Well, guys, I’ve got to turn it in. I’ve to say Mass in the morning’. He was a priest!

“I used to like going to midnight Mass myself but then I stopped because everybody in there was intoxicated, including me. I’d be standing up going ‘Lord have mercy’, wobbling around, and then once it was over it was right back to the pub!”

It wasn’t all fun and games though. Belfast could be scary. They can laugh about a lot of those trips now, like how was it that their teams always seemed to put them up in the Europa Hotel, the most bombed hotel in Europe, and freely advertise the fact, but some memories cause a chill to run up McElroy’s spine.

“I’m from the inner city of Chicago but I wasn’t used to seeing all that barbed wire. One time we were walking from the train station and this one army guy was there with his rifle and he rotated it all the way around, following me the whole time. I didn’t say a word, I just kept walking but he kept his gun pointing at me all the way. I guess he wanted to have some fun. I’ll never forget that. That bothered me a little bit.”

The strange thing about it all though, was that probably the biggest cultural adjustment would be when they would return to the States in the summer. For McElroy it would take a good month to get his head around it.

“I remember this one night when I was back and it was this all-black party. And I’ve got to be honest, I felt a little out of touch. I didn’t know what kind of dances they were doing but also, you know, in Ireland, you’ve adapted to the lingo and the culture and basically an all-white society.

“Now suddenly I’m feeling uncomfortable. I’m sitting down, all quiet, by a buddy and these girls come over and say to him, ‘What’s wrong with your buddy? Is he stuck up or gay or something?’ And my friend said, ‘No, it’s just he’s been away for a while’. They thought I had been in the penitentiary! But I hadn’t. I’d just come from a culture that thought you were everything. We were the LeBron James and Kobe Bryants of a country. It was a special time in our lives and later on it would give us confidence in other endeavours in life.”

These days Jasper lives in Louisville, Kentucky, working as a sales manager for Anheuser-Busch, the company that makes and sells Budweiser. He and his partner Tracey have a 13-year-old daughter, Alexandria, and he delights in telling his old war buddies about her first game of basketball the other month.

Paudie enquires if Terry has family.

“Yeah, man; my parents, sisters, brother. But no, no kids.”

“And did you ever marry?”

“Didn’t have time,” he says breezily.

And Paudie again chuckles his chuckle. “Great answer.” Terry seems content with his status. He lives just about 90 miles from Charlotte here, in a sleepy little town called Tobaccoville, where he’s built and lives in an impressive bachelor’s pad. He still works as one of the bar managers in the country golf club that he used to work the summers in upon his annual return from Ireland.

Sometimes all right, he wonders if he could have played at a higher level. He only started playing basketball seriously at 16 and resisted Division 1 college offers on the west coast in favour of staying at home in the Carolinas and playing with a NAIA Division 2 team. The summer before he came to Ireland he impressed in tryouts with the Washington Bullets without making the roster.

When he would return from Ireland in subsequent summers he’d often scrimmage with the players of the famous Duke University, where his brother Kevin would star and start in the hallowed Final Four. The elder Strickland brother would do more than hold his own in such company. Their guard, Johnny Dawkins, who would go on to play nine years in the NBA, would often marvel how Strickland could jump off the wrong foot and still slam it down.

In truth, they all could have played at a higher level. Andre only took up basketball at 17 and within five years his summer league team-mate and later perennial NBA All Star Dominique Wilkins was urging him to try out for the Atlanta Hawks. In high school McElroy was a peer and rival of Isaiah Thomas’s. In college he’d average 20 points a game for a Division 1 school. To this day he’s ranked one of the all-time legends of the playgrounds of Chicago.

But to make the NBA is to make the most elite league in world team sport. It’s as marginal and as ferociously competitive as Brian O’Driscoll making it and Paul O’Connell not. In the ’80s the courts of Ireland were graced by some incredible players. In the end, Mario Elie was the one who made it to the NBA. In Strickland’s estimation, Ray Smith was the greatest player to ever play in Ireland — but he’d have taken Jasper ahead of Mario too.

“Jasper could have made it to the NBA because he was such a scorer. In the NBA you never turn down scorers. Jasper was better than Mario but Mario went after it harder.”

So how did Jasper feel about Mario making it? There isn’t a hint of jealousy, only pride.

“I was Mario’s biggest fan,” says McElroy. “When he made it, it felt like a few of us had made it. He was a great player. A big reason he made it was because of his skill level. He had a great attitude. And he got the breaks. He was friends from high school with Chris Mullen, who was at Golden State who were coached by Don Nelson who had a soft spot for players who had played overseas. And it wasn’t like Mario went on to be just a bit player in the league. He won three championships. He was a starter. So the fact he made that impact and yet I could more than match him in Ireland, it made me feel proud. Like I said, it made me feel a few of us made it.”

And, of course, in a way, they did make it. As Andre says, in Ireland it was like they were in the NBA.

For a few years they were gods.

* Terry Strickland, Jasper McElroy, Tony Andre, Paudie O’Connor and many more will be featuring in an upcoming documentary on Irish basketball in the 1980s, which is being produced by IFTA-award winners Motive TV and will be broadcast on Setanta this summer.



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