Dog days over as Ireland reliving hoop dreams

It’s not quite something anyone’s roaring from the rafters or the rooftops but it’s not quite a whisper either. Word is out: Hoops is hopping again. Hip again. Happening.

Kieran Donaghy has noticed it almost everywhere he goes. When he first walked into a Kerry dressing room, about the only other basketballers any of them had heard of were Michael Jordan and Michael Quirke. 

Now there’s a good group in there that can give him the breakdown of Russell Westbrook’s latest triple double from the previous night or update him that Anthony Davis went for 44 and 18 in a nice win for the Pelicans. 

Once you have an iPhone, it’s pretty hard to escape the NBA, to not love this game.

On the street, kids and parents stop to say how much they enjoyed the buzz at the Warriors’ last Superleague game in the Complex or the last camp he ran and inquiring when’s the next one.

It’s not just Tralee. It’s all of Kerry. Three years ago the county had no representation in the men’s national league. Now it has three men’s teams on the national stage, with Killorglin and Killarney playing Division One ball in front of good crowds every fortnight as folk from emerging rural hotbeds like Rathmore and Gneeveguilla make their way in, just like they used to flock from all over Mayo to catch Deora and the McHales in the old barn in Killala.

All around the country the game is spreading. Just over two-and-a-half years ago, on the eve of another Superleague season, I wrote about how the league had too many clubs from Dublin and not enough from the regions. 

Now there are two clubs from Galway operating in the top flight when, from April 1988 to April 2008, there was none.

In Division One there are now 14 teams, ranging everywhere from Donegal and Sligo in the north-west to Kilkenny and Carlow in the south-east. It’s nearly like the ’80s again, when, for a couple of seasons, there was even a Division Three to accommodate all the towns and clubs wanting to be some part of the big show.

And, of course, the senior national teams are back. Granted, only in the Small Nations but that’s fine. After eight years out without international competition, it’s like learning to cycle again. The important thing is Ireland is back on the bike.

And so as the sport this
weekend celebrates the 25th anniversary of the opening of its National Basketball Arena, which in turn hosts another National Cup finals, there’s a vibrancy and optimism about the sport again when for so long there was pessimism.

A lot of the ’90s was taken up complaining how it wasn’t the ’80s. A lot of the noughties was taken up about how it was better in the ’90s. Then at the start of the decade the sport found itself on its knees and in debt to the tune of €1.2m after gross misspending and poor governance.

If one sport was a microcosm of the collapse of the Irish economy, it was Basketball Ireland. Almost overnight, a full-time staff of 27 was reduced to 12. Its entire international programme had to be disbanded, the equivalent of the troika stripping the State of its
economic sovereignty. Not just teams and staff had been stripped — so had a sport’s confidence.

Now, though, it is up of its knees and about to stand again on its own two feet. 2017 was a huge year for the sport in this country, not just by hosting the women’s U18 European B championships but medalling at it, finishing silver to Germany, playing every night in front of a packed Arena; as hoops lifer Francis O’Sullivan said to Amy Murphy upon her return to Brunell training after those heady nights last August, “You only made me cry twice.”

2018 should be another landmark year for Basketball Ireland. Because after seven years of steady stewardship from chief executive Bernard O’Byrne, it should mark the year the sport finally clears its debt.

“I think it’s achievable,” says O’Byrne. “I hope to be able to say at the AGM in June that we have completely cleared the bank debt which would leave only a small debt to FIBA who helped us out at the time with an interest-free loan. At the moment the debt is down to under €200,000, so by the AGM we should be free of bank debt, which will be huge for the sport and a great achievement.”

Clearing the debt should free up the sport to further develop the sport, with the appointment of a technical performance director a clear priority; as manful a job as the current Elite Pathway Committee have done in recent years, as a collective they wouldn’t have the required expertise of high-performance sport as the right performance director would.

But already good structures have been put in place. In the noughties the growth of the game was stifled by a self-defeating stipulation that no development officer could have an affiliation to a particular club; it often meant coaches with a background in GAA rather than basketball landed the job. Now the five full-time development officers are all hoop zealots, spreading the word with missionary intent.

The establishment of the regional academies, overseen by seven respected, qualified, and paid coaches, is another big positive in identifying and developing talent, rolling out high-content coaching to more than 600 kids around the country. But, of course, it will have its challenges, as one of those coaches, Puff Summers in the south-east, recognised when sitting down with this paper earlier this month.

“I think the hardest thing in Ireland is being able to get coaches on the same page. That’s what we’re trying to do now with the academies, to teach with some level of uniformity. Obviously, I’m going to be way different to what the coach out west is like, but as far as the stuff we’re teaching, it has to be the same.

“A difficulty with Irish teams in the past was you might have played U16 with Joe Boylan who has a certain philosophy and terminology and then you go and play with Paul Kelleher at U18s and it’s a completely different system. So you’re having to learn a whole new different way and it’s just wasting time. We don’t have that time. So the academy helps with that. It means that coaches will have to put their egos at the door for the betterment of the kids and the country.”

There remain other challenges with the international programmes. Players and coaches are having to fork up 80% of the costs of playing for and coaching their country, the rest picked up by Basketball Ireland. O’Byrne’s aim is that ratio will be inversed.

As for the state of the league, there are a lot of upsides. Pat Price has remarked that the schemes run in the recent Marian-Killester Cup semi-final by Ioannis Liapakis and Brian O’Malley was at a level of sophistication and competence as high as the league has ever witnessed.

Kieran Donaghy has found after eight years out of the Superleague that the Irish player is considerably more athletic and skilled than he was. Even Donaghy, at 34, is tweaking and improving his game, finishing a basket with a Eurostep move last weekend for the first-ever time.

Does that necessarily mean the league is better than it was when he and Tralee Tigers won it 10 years ago? No. If at stages in the noughties there were too many Americans on the floor, now there aren’t enough. 

No way should a Puff Summers and Michael Bonaparte be job sharing, rotating their minutes. Let them both play. Let any two Americans play. 

“The league,” says Price, “deserves a second import on the floor. It’s our shop window. While it’s wonderful that the Division One league has never been so good, I’d like to see the Superleague being more attractive.”

Other things have helped its attraction. The re-establishment of promotion/relegation has added a more urgent dynamic to the league. Hula Hoops have probably been the most engaged sponsor at all levels of the sport since ESB a few years either side of the millennium. 

Games are routinely streamed with Basketball Ireland; its press officer, Mary McGuire, is a model for best practice on social media. Donaghy’s teammates can now catch the Garvey’s Warriors as well as the Golden State variety on their phones.

A few years back there for a while, basketball felt like it had been reduced to just being a one- or two-weekend sport. The Cup. Now it’s all-season round again, Marian’s quest for a first league in over 40 years being as closely monitored as their push for a second Cup in seven years tomorrow night.

The sport still has a job in selling itself to a wider audience, including government. As Donaghy points out, on paper it ticks all the boxes any sports minister would want. There’s no need for any major integration between the male and female game; the women’s game has always been on the same billing and some footing as the men’s. Its skills are transferable to most team sports as the makeup of the international women’s rugby team and your elite Gaelic football team will show. It’s safe. And it’s indoors.

As Owen McKeown, the St Vincent’s great, once said, with our rainfall, everyone should be playing basketball.

But at least more are now playing it, watching it, following it. The glory days mightn’t be back but the dog days are over.

  • Griffith College Swords Thunder defeated Éanna 79-62 in last night’s Men’s Super League clash at Coláiste Éanna.


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