Mark Keenan gritty tactician with soft skills

Mark Keenan will coach in another National Cup final tonight. The challenge is new for his team Templeogue, but this is Keenan’s stage, says Pat Price

Walk into a Templeogue training session, and you may witness 6’10 Conor Grace or sharpshooter Paul Cummins taking entire segments of the practice, offering nuggets of wisdom from their own journeys as successful players.

Where is the coach? Standing aside and listening.

Rather than feel threatened by men of their experience and grooming — Grace an NCAA starter at Davidson and long-time professional player, Cummins also a Division One player at Lafayette and former Irish senior international — the coach instead makes intelligent use of these resources.

It only seems odd if you don’t know the man, who is preparing for his seventh Premier National Cup final in eight years.

Encouraging cooperative learning, Templeogue head coach Mark Keenan parks his ego, and ultimately creates these bonds of trust among the players that reinforce the collective responsibility which comes with championship calibre basketball.

Keenan gets more by giving more.

Jason Killeen anchors the middle for the finalists, and this isn’t his first run of success alongside Keenan, after raising trophies down in Killeen’s hometown of Limerick.

The seasoned centre heaps praise on his coach for giving him and his teammates structure yet freedom, all of which is based on trust.

Keenan doesn’t want robots, he points out, and recognises the ample talent around the court.

This evening’s final will feature two newcomers to the big stage.

Both GCD Swords Thunder and Templeogue are newbies at senior level, but both have assembled line-ups worthy of hoisting the trophy.

Swords dismantled last year’s pole-to-pole leaders UCC Demons in surprisingly dominant fashion in their semi-final, while Keenan’s men held on for dear life in theirs, trailing for nearly 38 minutes before pipping Pyrobel Killester.

Whereas the two Dublin sides are in their first final, Keenan himself will aim to capture a record-tying fourth cup, after steering both Limerick and Killester home over the past 10 seasons.

It’s hard to teach a ‘feel’ for the game. Keenan’s breadth of experience is such that this feel is readily available in his toolbox, possibly never illustrated better than when he reluctantly reverted to a zone defence in the second half of the cup semi-final.

Faced with an anaemic offence, foul trouble, and a double-digit deficit, he dropped 6’10’’ Killeen in as space-taker alongside 6’10’’ Grace, and the Killester threat dried up.

The reward is an appearance in yet another final, his 13th joust for a national trophy.

The post-game joy with his players belied the fact that this is now a yearly rite of passage.

Widely recognised as a staple of both the domestic and international set-up, hardly a player or coach in the scene isn’t familiar with Keenan.

The relationships and respect that build over time is certainly standing to the man who now oversees a top-shelf lineup, including four senior internationals around a core group of Templeogue’s home-grown talent.

Keenan belongs to the league, and more often than not, the league — or at least the league title — has belonged to Keenan.

Playing for Ireland in 2008 and 2009 were among Killeen’s happiest times as a player.

He and others felt cheated that the plug on international basketball was pulled just as they were coming into their prime, but he had loved working with Keenan.

The decision to move to Dublin and join forces with Keenan for a third time (after winning the double with Limerick in 2012 and another league in 2013, Keenan’s fifth in six years) would prove timely for Killeen.

Within a short period of time, Keenan had orchestrated a gradual Irish international reunion with Grace, Cummins and trophy-magnet Paddy Kelly, an ex-Killester star.

These players, alongside American Michael Bonaparte, talented guard Paul Dick, the bouncy Lorcan Murphy and young backcourt trio Sean Flood, Stephen James, and Baolach Morrison create a depth of talent that’s only been tested this season by injury woes.

Keenan boasts extensive links with the international setup. He served on Jay Larranaga’s Irish senior men’s staff in the 2008 and 2009 European Championship campaigns.

Larranaga, now serving as the top assistant with the Boston Celtics, speaks of his experiences with the team and Keenan in particular.

“Mark has an incredible mix of intelligence, work ethic, and humility that make him a joy to work with and play for. When we worked together, I really appreciated his ability to see a game from both a coach’s and a player’s perspective.”

That’s high praise from a future NBA head coach.

He loved coaching in Limerick those three seasons but the travel wore on him.

Still, he had the decision to make, and he didn’t walk away lightly, especially since he didn’t leave Killester, UCD Marian, or indeed St Vincent’s on his own terms over the previous 10 years.

There’s a another factor involved here — “grittiness”, which is now trumpeted in sporting, business, and academic circles as the top determining factor in success. Psychologist and teacher Amanda Lee Duckworth,, in a now-famous “TED Talk”, defined “grit” as “passion and perseverance for long-term goals”.

The word itself often elicits visions of somebody hard-nosed, feisty or combative, right? Someone maybe a bit rough around the edges.

That would seem at odds with Keenan’s character, as he’s warm, affable, and wildly likeable.

But inside lurks a fighting spirit, and he’s long enough in the tooth to know what works for him these days.

He simply wants talented, high character people in his camp — earlier coaching gigs soured when bad apples were kept in the orchard, and he was going to build this the right way.

If Keenan’s self-belief may have been challenged in those first few seasons in the league, you’d hardly know it by what he’s done since.

A league and cup double while at Killester and Limerick is pretty astounding, given that they happened only two years apart.

In Templeogue, Keenan saw great opportunity with an established club — certainly up and coming in terms of Premier League potential, but he believed he could bring that young crop of players together with some experienced talent.

His first call was Killeen, who after two seasons in Limerick, had signed on to play with a French side.

The flight landed in Biarritz on a Friday. Keenan rented a car and drove to Marmande, a small French village with beautiful basketball setup.

There he watched the game, had a few jars with the boys afterwards and did what he does best — struck up and furthered friendships.

“It was great to look over and see him there,” said Killeen.

“This is not normal. It’s not normal in these parts that a domestic league coach hops a flight to France to maintain a relationship, out of his own pocket.”

It’s these soft skills, beyond the Xs and Os, that gain the advantages for Keenan.

Keenan has adjusted and become wiser through the years.

It’s that passion and perseverance for long-term goals that make him the country’s grittiest coach, not to mention most undervalued.

Pat Price coached the Irish national men’s team from 2007 to 2009, and captured the Irish National Cup four times.

 


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