The Kieran Shannon Interview: The shadow of The Shot

Neptune hero Gerald Kennedy. Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

Gerald Kennedy played high school hoops with Michael Jordan, he played Division One college ball in the States, he showed a young Steph Curry a few tricks. But he came to Ireland and never left. In the week of a remarkable Super League denouement, he is remembered for Ireland’s greatest basketball climax — the 74-foot buzzer-beater that won Neptune the title in 1988. But he’d like if you remembered him for a little bit more.

Even now, as he orders a latte in a suburban Dublin mall, he still can’t quite shake The Shot.

The remarkable climax to this season’s Superleague – with just five days left in it, had as many possible champions – prompted hoops followers from Kieran Donaghy to the Ball In Europe website to wonder: had any Irish sporting league, basketball or otherwise, had a run-in quite as open and as dramatic as this? Until the answer went from the elusive to the obvious: But, of course – Gerald Kennedy, and THAT play.

It was 30 years ago this very week: Kennedy, with his striking Grace Jones flat-top haircut, a look inspired by the frontman of his favourite funk group Cameo, took to the floor of the Neptune Stadium for overtime in the host club’s final league game of the season against Killester, the storied Dublin club featuring Kelvin Troy and his most trusted wingman, Kenny Perkins, father of future NBA champion Kendrick.

Roy Curtis, a basketball beat reporter at the time, had billed it in advance as “simply the biggest day in the history of the league”.

It was a tale of two cities and a feast and a famine.

No Dublin side had won the league since the advent of pro American ball players at the start of the decade but Killester could change that.

Neptune were looking to extend their hold on the league title to a fourth consecutive time. Their fate, however, wasn’t in their own hands.

Also playing that day were their deadly local rivals, Blue Demons. Were Demons to win as expected up in Glasnevin against a depleted St Vincent’s side, beating Killester wouldn’t be enough for Neptune as in the case of a tiebreaker, Demons had a superior head-to-head record to them.

But just as Kennedy and Troy and premier local talents like Tom O’Sullivan and Eamonn Molloy took up position around the mid-court circle for overtime to tip off, Neptune stalwart and matchday MC Noelie Allen made a sensational declaration on the mike. He had just been handed a slip of paper – no texts or Twitter back then – relaying that the stadium had just received a phonecall from Dublin and Demons had sensationally been beaten by a point.

A wave of electricity surged through the stadium. An entire season had been reduced to five minutes. Whoever won overtime won the league.

With a second to go in overtime, the sides were still tied, 83-apiece, when Neptune rashly fouled Kenny Perkins inside Killester’s own three-point line, gifting him the chance to walk down to the opposite free-throw line.

The Neptune bench immediately called a timeout, trying to psych Perkins out; two years earlier in a National Championship semi-final at the same venue, he had similarly overthought and missed a pair of clutch free-throws.

Breaking from the huddle, Gerald Kennedy had a word to his fellow American, Ray Lawson, hoping for the best and plotting for the worst. If you rebound or take the ball out, get it to me.

“It was looking bad for us,” Kennedy says now, sipping on a latte in the suburbs of north Dublin. “But the whole time I was saying to myself, ‘I can do this. I’ve hit big shots in my career. I’ve made buzzer-beaters before.’”

With the old ‘one-and-one’ rule in operation at the time, Perkins needed to make the first foul shot to have a second, but really only needing to make the first; with just a second left, the second shot didn’t really matter. The first was everything: for the club, a league title, and for Perkins himself, redemption.

“Kenny would tell us later,” says Kennedy, “No way was I going through that shit again.”

Perkins nailed the first and turned to salute the delirious Killester fans in the stands. Down by the other free-throw line, Troy shook his fist. They had the league. Perkins had his redemption. Didn’t matter about the second free throw now. Actually, better if he missed it, because by the time it would come off the rim, Neptune wouldn’t have enough time to get off a shot.

Perkins though wanted this moment, this redemption, to be perfect. He sank the second. Swish. Sweet. While Lawson took the ball out of the net, made sure he was standing behind the baseline and snapped the ball to Kennedy out on the wing 74 feet from the Killester basket while facing his own, it wasn’t as if Neptune were going to score! Troy had the backcourt covered. Killester had the league. Surely.

But Kennedy had the ball and he still had a second. In one motion he turned and hurled the ball, like a baseball, the first sport he played as a kid in Florence, South Carolina.

“I just threw it. As if, ‘Well, if it’s up there, it has a chance.’ Then everything just went black.”

There is no video of what happened next: it remains only in the memory of those who witnessed it and the imagination of everyone else – including Kennedy himself.

“I never saw it go in. All I can see is this blackness and hearing this huge roar. And then being mobbed. That’s all I can remember. That was it!”

And that was it. Irish basketball’s Michael Thomas moment, a year before that famous goal in Anfield. Its Seamus Darby: just as Kerry is still haunted by the intervention and mention of Offaly’s supersub in ’82, Killester members and supporters have been scarred by the sight and memory of Kennedy.

“Anytime I meet anyone from Killester, they can still feel that sting. ‘You making that shot….’ It’s almost like they’re trying to tell you, ‘I hate you for that.’”

Yet while Kennedy marvels at how an Irish basketball match or a play in 1988 could stir – and still stirs – such emotion in people, a part of him would like to escape the shadow of that day, just like the Killester folk that he encounters and haunts.

Yes, he’s the guy who pulled off The Shot. But he’s not The Shot. The Shot is not him.

“I don’t like to talk about The Shot much, man. It bugged me for a lot of years. I mean, of course it’s one of my fondest memories here – but there are so many others. But it nearly seems that’s all I did! Even today, the kids that I coach, whenever they google me, it keeps coming up – The Shot! I want to be remembered for more.” Because there’s a lot more to be remembered for.

****

HE was an All American in high school, among the best, playing the best, throughout the Carolinas; Xavier McDaniel and Tyrone Corbin from Columbia, Anthony Jenkins from Spartanburg, and one Michael Jeffrey Jordan from Wilmington. They knew Michael was good, really good, but no idea how good.

“Playing in a summer league tournament or at a camp, you know how it is: the best players congregate, picking each other’s brains, laughing, jawing. ‘Hey, you say it’s going to be a long night, but you’ve got to play defence too! I don’t just play one half of the floor!’ I’d have feared no one. I mean, no one could have foreseen that Jordan would go one direction and a guy like me would go another.

“It was competitive. It’s not like this generation where the players seem to be all friends. We were friendly more than we were friends. We were more warriors. I mean, I don’t think me and Jasper [McElroy] spoke to each other my first three years in Ireland. It was only when times were winding down that you’d have talked and gone, ‘Wow, interesting guy.”

Kennedy and Jordan would remain friendly enough to stay in touch through a mutual friend, and though they didn’t get to meet up when Jordan was over in Ireland for the Ryder Cup, a few years later Jordan would trust Kennedy enough to show his Chicago Bulls teammate Scottie Pippen a good time around Dublin.

Kennedy would befriend other Carolina royalty. After a couple of outstanding seasons at a leading junior college, Southern Idaho, he was snapped up by one of the top Division One programmes in all of America, Virginia Tech, where he formed a backcourt and friendship with future NBA star Dell Curry. The pair would continue to meet up through the years, allowing a certain little Stephen the opportunity to admire and study Uncle Gerald’s trademark crossover for himself.

Kennedy would move on from Virginia Tech in his senior year, frustrated by how restricting injury, his role and playing time were. Coach Charlie Moir thought enough of him though to send him on to his brother Sam coaching at a leading Division Two programme, Catawba College, back in the Carolinas, where Kennedy would get the opportunity to rack up enough numbers to impress agents looking to recommend players to Europe. Corinthians – or Roadspeed as they and their sponsor were known by – were such an interested party, so in the early autumn of 1986, Kennedy found himself landed – and stranded - in Dublin.

“Our first league game of the season, we [Kennedy and American teammate Ryan Tuck], we didn’t get to the gym ‘til half-time! No one picked us up! Somebody said, ‘You could have taken the bus!’ We had never left the house without someone picking or dropping us off. We didn’t even know you had to hold your hand out for the bus to stop. We would be there standing at the stop and the bus would fly by and we’d say, ‘Why didn’t it stop for us?’”

Soon enough, it would come to feel like home. The locals took to his warm, beaming smile and sunny disposition while he found them friendly too. The ball was good, so was the money, so why go home? This was home.

The game would take him all over the country. His first year with Roadspeed, he developed such a reputation as one of the best all-round players in the country, he was signed by the sport’s flagship team, Neptune, for that 1987-88 season. He would guide them to the league and Cup double, scoring 35 points in both the Cup semi-final and final and that league decider against Killester. The following season in Tralee, where he’d guide them out of Division Two and into the semi-finals of the Cup, a run which Kieran Donaghy cites as his first sporting memory.

Later he’d play for St Gall’s in Belfast, Sligo, before finishing up around the turn of the millennium. The grind caught up on him. Playing through injury for fear of being replaced by another American and not getting a pay cheque the next week. You were a piece of meat in a way. Disposable. Injured – fine, we’ll get someone else. Play badly – we’ll look for someone else. Another bad game, another loss and the league is gone, so you’re gone.

“The one thing I didn’t like about basketball here, they were always in a hurry to get somewhere but never in a hurry to develop. I mean, the players who came here, they were after playing four years of college basketball where it was all about development.”

But for all the disillusionment he had, the game kept drawing him back. He coaches a club team in Drogheda looking to go national league soon. He coaches school teams in Ballyfermot and Rathmines. Schools is where he finds the game is at its most pure.

So, he never left. Ireland became his home.

“Because I became a man here. Ireland made me a man. I mean, 22 years of age, right out of college, you’re still trying to find your way in the world. But this is where I grew up. This is where I had my kids.”

Erica is Erica Cody, a talented and passionate singer and songwriter who he went to see play in Whelan’s just the other night and opened for En Vogue in Vicar Street back in the autumn.

Terezita was born back when he was playing for St Gall’s in Belfast; again, he’s so proud of her, now studying marine biology.

And then there’s three-year-old Carlos, he and his Gran Canarian wife Natalia’s bundle of joy. Kennedy’s 55 now, but Carlos makes him feel so much younger.

“Some people have said, ‘Man, you’re so old [to have another kid]! But it’ just a number, man. I’m healthy and I tell you, it’s given me and my whole family a new lease of life.”

Oddly, he’s found he’s encountered more racism this side of the millennium than he did in his first 15 years here, but for the most part he’s found Ireland is better for its greater diversity.

“One guy said to me, ‘Go back to your country!’ And I said, ‘What country is that?’ And he went, ‘Oh, you’re not one of them.’ As in African, not American. But I said to him, ‘Man, until you heard my voice, you were thinking of me as one of them.’ But I’m like, Why not be all of us? We’re no different.’”

He’s one of us. Among the first wave of pro ball players, the first black people here, the new Irish. Walking social history.

And sporting history too. A few years back when Hanging from the Rafters came out, he was on a plane to the States with a copy of the book in his hand when a stranger asked: Excuse me, are you by chance Gerald Kennedy?

He nodded he was.

The man asked if he could introduce him to his son who was enraptured by the same book. Gerald Kennedy! The Shot!

Kennedy flashed that great smile of his, they talked, and as they parted ways, Kennedy gave him his book.

“Cool!” the kid went. “Could you sign it?” Yeah, sure, said Kennedy. Where?

No, not at that front. But the page recounting The Shot.

And Kennedy smiled again. Hey, there’s a lot worse to be remembered for.


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