Mourning Irish basketball's first superstar and greatest visionary

It is hard to convey to the uninitiated the enormity of loss experienced by Killarney, Irish basketball and even as loud and wide a city as his adopted home of Las Vegas with the passing of the life-force that was Paudie O’Connor.

The late Paudie O'Connor, back row, far right, with the Gleneagle Hotel St Vincent's Basketball team in the 1980s. Picture: Don MacMonagle

Not even as titanic and unique a character as the late great P Ó Sé of Ceann Trá could indisputably claim to be the most roguish, charismatic and brilliant Kerry sports personality of the 1980s. That honour went to Paudie.

For all his professed love of politics, Páidí was never even a town councillor.

Paudie O’Connor was one by his early 20s, one of the youngest Killarney has known, before he’d later go on to be mayor.

Like Páidí out in the west, Paudie worked in the hospitality business for most of his life; in later years as a successful golf tours operator in the States, bringing the likes of Michael Jordan over to enjoy the best links of his native county, but initially as a barman and a life guard in the local Europa Hotel in Killarney.

That he didn’t drink at the time was probably a plus in that particular job.

That he couldn’t swim, maybe not so much.

Then again, he wasn’t going to let a minor inconvenience like that stop him assuming his lifeguard duties at the hotel leisure centre.

Just as a little rule about not being able to recruit and bring over professional American basketballers to play in the Irish league didn’t stop him either.

When they made Paudie O’Connor, they broke the mould, and then he went and broke and rewrote every rule going.

For one, that every sporting son of Kerry should aspire to play for Kerry. That was too restrictive and parochial an ambition for as bold and grand a spirit as O’Connor. He’d play some football, to a decent standard, captaining Dr Crokes and playing midfield for the county in a couple of challenge games. If he had been inclined, he’d have likely made the panel of the dream team Mick O’Dwyer was assembling at the time. But they were merely thinking in terms of All Irelands. Paudie was thinking international, going up against the likes of Italy, Yugoslavia, USSR. That was something distinctive, as opposed to, as he’d colourfully put it to me for Hanging from the Rafters, the book documenting the golden age of Irish basketball which he triggered, “being another guy around Killarney talking shite about winning a football All Ireland”.

America and basketball had always fascinated him. One of his earliest childhood memories is of the Harlem Globetrotters entertaining a packed Killarney recourse. In his teens he’d save up and go over to camps like Pistol Pete Maravich’s and come back with all the jargon and the drills. By the autumn of 1979 he was ready to bring over American players, period, setting the template for the ensuing decade and for everyone else to follow.

It is a testament to O’Connor’s genius that not only was he the player to first bring pro Americans over but he was the one local player at the time who could hang with them. He wasn’t just Killarney’s de facto GM: he was the country’s best domestic player. Before he landed the Americans on everyone, any Irish player who stood 6’4 as he did played inside. O’Connor played point guard, an Irish version of Magic Johnson. 

Irish basketball’s chief administrator at the time, Noel Keating, has bemoaned that for all the advances basketball made in the 1980s when it was the sexiest sporting show in the country, a pet grievance of his was that it was never extended Texaco Star status; for him the talent of Siobhan Caffrey and O’Connor should have won it such recognition because two such stellar talents deserved such recognition. 

“In my view he is the greatest Irish player ever when you factor in where he and the game was coming from in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Keating would contend in Rafters. “I saw Paudie do things on the court that were just amazing.” 

It’s easy and obvious to say that at some point someone was always going to bring American players over here, following nearly every other league in Europe. But if it wasn’t O’Connor, who would it have been? Who would have been the first to raise their head above the parapet, to make the leap? It took someone as cheeky as O’Connor to do it and someone as charming to pull it off.

The last time we met him was six years ago in Charlotte while shooting the documentary We Got Game. Terry Strickland had driven down from a sleepy little town called Tobaccoville 90 miles away, Jasper McElroy had flown in from Louisville, while Paudie had flown in from the one town fit for a man as flamboyant as him – Vegas, bringing his beautiful partner Paula, and Tony Andre, his best ever recruit for Killarney, along.

It was an unforgettable night, these American ball players meeting up to talk about a country and scene they’d never have inhabited if it wasn’t for the audacity of O’Connor. And naturally O’Connor was holding court, as genial and brash as ever.

“I tell you, if I was back home now, I’d put an Irish team into Europe!” he declared. “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 [3 Arena], right? I guarantee you, I would fill that motherf**** tomorrow morning! Think I couldn’t?” You’d never have put it past him, just as you couldn’t be up to him.

As they’d say where his kindred spirit Páidí is from, especially since he also is gone too soon, Ní bheithimid a leitheid ann arís.



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