Cork a stroll for Iraq vet

For most sportspeople, the suggestion of Iraq as the next step in a fledgling career might, you’d imagine, hasten the search for a new agent.

But when new Neptune recruit Nigel Byam left down the phone after a call from his agent in 2012 he ended up in central Iraq in Al Hillah, a city sitting on a branch of the Euphrates River 100km from Baghdad.

Look up the country on the travel guide, Lonely Planet, and the first sentence you read, unsurprisingly, is a warning against ‘all travel to parts of Iraq and against non-essential travel to the rest of the country’.

Given the current context then, with the re-deployment of armed forces in the region, for an American the move seems even more ludicrous, a bad movie pitch with Steven Seagal in the lead.

But Byam, who only left the country in May and who had previously played in Bahrain, recalls his experience in warm terms.

“Basically I had a Middle Eastern agent and he connected it,” the 27-year-old from Grenada says. “Things recently have started getting worse again but Al Hillah is one of the safest cities. To this day it’s still safe. It’s more like a country life. I didn’t really have anything to worry about. I was about two hours away from Baghdad. It’s not that far but they have security checkpoints every other block. Without security it would be a much quicker drive.

“I stayed in a house that was pretty decent. The living conditions are a little lower than what we are used to but I adjusted pretty well even though there was absolutely nothing to do there. Technology wasn’t great. They didn’t have any PlayStations so I just had my iPad and worked out, pretty much.

“Originally you think: ‘Iraq, really?’ And I was a little nervous about it and the situation when I got there. But I met my team-mates and they were completely wonderful guys. I still speak to them today. They are great people and they made me feel really comfortable there.

“I was in a country neighbourhood so I could walk a little bit down the road to the shops. It was very family-oriented. I knew everybody around the neighbourhood. I didn’t really go anywhere outside of it but in that neighbourhood everybody was cool. You’re basically confined to the area, to be honest. But it’s a sacrifice that we make.

“All the locals pretty much followed the team so they would have known who I was. I lived with two other Iraqis. They were from extremely far away so they stayed in the house with me.”

In March this year, a suicide bomber drove up to a checkpoint in the north of the city. As security forces approached, the driver detonated the minibus which was packed with explosives 34 people died while scores were wounded.

“It’s a big city and that was going on while I was there but the news coverage is not that great. The security arrangements are extremely strong there with bombings and so on, so it was very different. We had to travel to Baghdad and we took a regular coach to games. You go into the club grounds and there were severe checks for bombs. But it’s not as bad as it sounds.

“The finances were amazing there and it was a pretty decent place. I developed a good relationship with the team because I spent two years there. We became really close. That drew me back the second year. I was the only guy from America on my team but other teams actually had two Americans. They loved me so much they decided to go with just me!

“The facilities were amazing, pretty huge actually. You wouldn’t get great attendances at the games but they had pretty good stadiums.”

A yearning for new experiences and to play where basketball is more respected prompted him to seek a move to Ireland, even if it was financially unfavourable.

“Financially it was a big loss for me but basketball is more respected here so it’s worth the sacrifice. I wanted to experience Europe.

“This is my third week here and compared to what I’m used to this is completely amazing. It’s a beautiful country. You’re free to walk around which, obviously, most people don’t even mention. But coming from the Middle East where you’re not free to roam and see the scenery it’s wonderful in that sense. I’ve also been reading about the history of Neptune after my coach recommended a book to me [Hanging from the Rafters: The Story of Neptune and the Golden Age of Irish Basketball, penned by Kieran Shannon].

“It’s a pretty cool history,” Byam says.

And he will get the chance to write himself into that history starting with a Cork derby against UCC Demons that, given his career landscape, doesn’t seem too daunting a prospect.


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