Nothing encapsulates what’s both exciting and slightly concerning about Irish basketball for the season ahead than this weekend’s opening tip-off schedule.
None of the five men’s Premier League games take place tomorrow. All five are on tonight.
All five feature a side from Dublin. Four of those games are in Dublin. Three of them will be on simultaneously in Dublin.
A couple of hours after newcomers Eanna start it all off by hosting Swords Thunder at 5pm, last year’s all-conquering UCC Blue Demons come up against Templeogue, the side that went closest to ruining their unbeaten record in all competitions last year and should challenge them most this season as well.
It’s the kind of game that players from other teams and clubs would want to take in. A repeat of the Champions Trophy final up in Galway when Demons had just a basket to spare over Mark Keenan’s side. A first chance to take in how Demons are shaping up without the institution that was - and is - the now-retired Shane Coughlan and with the newly-recruited Roy Downey. An opportunity to see how Paul Cummins slots in with an already veteran-friendly Templeogue line-up.
Only thing is, there are a couple of games clashing with it across town. While Colin O’Reilly graces the famed Oblate Hall out in Inchicore, out in Belfield UCD Marian host Belfast Star. Over in Clontarf, Killester take on Moycullen. Even with the powers of bi-location the most zealous of Irish hoops fans would be missing some action somewhere in town tonight.
The conundrum illustrates more than the league’s capacity to miss out on a decent promotional opportunity. It underlines just how fleeting and fragile and geographically-lopsided the national league experience has become.
When Basketball Ireland first dispensed with promotion and relegation and established the modern Premier/Super League for the 1998-99 season, six of the 14 clubs were based in the capital.
Today there are 10 Premier League clubs. Sixty percent of those operate out of Dublin.
It’s why Moycullen’s return to the top flight after a sabbatical is to be welcomed, just as Belfast Star’s was last year after a similar break - and Portlaoise Panthers stepping up to the top flight of the women’s game is probably the most heartening development of them all.
Basketball will always be a city game, especially with the employment gravitational pull the big smoke will always have, but a national league needs sides in the regions as much as basketball in the regions needs sides in the league. Only 14 years ago Waterford won the league. Tralee finished second. There were sides from Killarney, Sligo, Tyrone. What any Rip van Winkle reawakening from then though would find most astonishing is that tonight’s crammed fixture list doesn’t feature the once mighty Neptune.
Their absence has ramifications beyond Leeside. Each year there’d be thousands of people who would flock to see Demons-Neptune like no other game; forget the ‘80s, that rivalry helped revitalise the buzz of the National Cup with the regularity they’d meet in Cup semi-finals from 2010 on. The same buzz just won’t be there in their absence.
Clearly though Neptune are quite at sea, and to extend the nautical metaphor and their maritime origins, need to get their ship in order. This week the club decided to place their U14 team in the B grade of the local competition, something once as unimaginable as their senior side not playing in the top flight at national level.
What will help sustain the club is the promise they have in the older juvenile ranks. Some of those players could well backbone a side returning to the Premier League. Some will take their talents elsewhere, either in this country or beyond. Certain club stalwarts might baulk at the impact such a transfer of players could have on the prospects of raising more banners to go with the club’s famed 11 leagues, but the definition of success in Irish basketball has to extend beyond just how many leagues and Cups you win.
Which brings us to the biggest newsline of this season: Team Hibernia. Starting in late October for six consecutive Wednesdays a men’s league select will play in the FIBA Cup. It’s an exciting, welcoming development, an outlet for our domestic players to play against better players and become better players themselves.
The fear is that it’s been too rushed and that the team could get crushed. The next time the side reconvenes will be the night before their opening game on October 29 (Now if tonight’s manic schedule of games had been done to allow Team Hibernia train tomorrow, that would be terrific). That’s not a team or a programme, more like a group just meeting up. There hasn’t been adequate buy-in from the club, possibly because there hasn’t been enough time or effort for and from the association to sell its benefits to the clubs.
Then again, those benefits should be self-evident. It can’t be a one-off affair but rather a minimum three-year project. It deserves time and support.
For what it’s worth, we reckon Demons, hell-bent on duly honouring the club’s silver anniversary next year, will retain their title. But it’s how a Colin O’Reilly-coached team do in Europe rather than domestically will be the real fascination in the months ahead. As much as Basketball Ireland needs to empower the regions, its clubs needs to think less parochial and more global.
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