Kieran Shannon: It’s time Irish basketball’s unsung heroes get funding they deserve

Because of what was happening out in Tallaght over the weekend, this piece was always likely to be about basketball, and then a certain event in California last Sunday confirmed it could be about nothing else.

Kieran Shannon: It’s time Irish basketball’s unsung heroes get funding they deserve

Because of what was happening out in Tallaght over the weekend, this piece was always likely to be about basketball, and then a certain event in California last Sunday confirmed it could be about nothing else.

The past few days there have been essentially two groups of people on the planet — those emotionally struggling to process the loss of Kobe Bean Bryant and his daughter Gianna, and those struggling to get their head around why so many people have been grieving Bryant.

Even someone with as rounded a knowledge of sport as Off the Ball’s anchor Joe Molloy admitted to being taken aback by the scale of the reaction, but as he’d learn from his various contributors, there was a reason it has been “absolutely enormous”.

It’s hard to think of an athlete who has ever meant more to a city as Kobe Bryant meant to the one where he moved as a kid — because even when entering the NBA, at 17, he was still a kid — grew up and played in, and ultimately died, 24 years later.

For a time Napoli’s fervour for Diego Maradona was greater but then it turned on him and ran him out.

Michael Jordan once owned Chicago but eventually would put up the house for-sale sign.

Boston has had a long and deep affection for Tom Brady but the team aren’t even named Boston and don’t even play there.

Brett Favre put Green Bay back on the world map but it was still just Green Bay.

About the nearest thing approximating Laker Nation’s sustained adoration of Bryant is Barcelona with Messi, or how Cork felt about Ring. And even for all the charms and grandeur of those two cities, they aren’t quite LA.

In the city of stars, Bryant was the stars’ star, the entertainers’ entertainer. Snoop, Jack, Jay-Z, Beyonce, Denzel — Kobe was the one they paid top dollar to see courtside and meet after backstage.

Because they knew they were going to get a show. His contemporary Tim Duncan may have been as just as great a player and a better teammate to play with but no one since Dr J and Jordan was more compelling or fun to watch.

And that show ran and ran, year after year, night after night. Denzel in a good year could feature in maybe three movies, possibly do a stint on Broadway as well.

But it wasn’t like you could see him on the boards every night. With Kobe, you could, on the box or on the net. There is no more relentless grind of a schedule in world team sport as the NBA.

Eighty-two games before you even get to the playoffs with all its best-of-seven series; Phoenix one night, Philadelphia the next. Jordan once spoke about how, every time he walked into an arena, he was mindful that somewhere in the crowd was some kid who was seeing him for the first and probably only time: He wanted to give them memories to last a lifetime.

As with so many things when it came to him and Jordan, Bryant felt similarly obliged: No load management for him.

It has been well documented that he barely scraped over the line to win his fifth NBA championship in 2010 against the Boston Celtics but little about why.

He entered Game 7 of those finals with a swollen right knee that had been repaired twice. His right index finger was ravaged by arthritis, having been broken in two places earlier that season.

He wrapped athletic tape around a splint to provide enough support to shoot the ball. He even figured out, with an assistant coach, to change his shooting stroke by resting the ball more heavily on his thumb and middle finger so his index finger would be merely aiming the ball instead of driving it.

As Ian Thomsen noted in his book The Soul of Basketball: “It was extraordinary for Kobe to count on winning a championship with a jump shot that had been overhauled in midseason.

"And yet his accommodations were taken for granted by opponents and fans, so high were the standards to which he held himself.”

It was that almost demented level of detail and dedication to adjust, improve, compete that made him not just an LA legend or a US icon, but a global one, revered by fellow superstars from Ronaldo, Messi, and Neymar to Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal, all of whom have publicly paid tribute over the last 72 hours.

But there was another reason why a Molloy initially struggled to grasp that Bryant was more than an LA legend or a US icon. Kobe Bryant was that big around the world because basketball is that big around the world.

There can still be a tendency here to perceive it as merely ‘American sport’ but it is a world game, second only to football. You only need look at the starting lineups for the upcoming NBA All Star game.

Reigning league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is Greek. The sensational Luka Doncic, who wasn’t even born when Bryant made his own second All Star appearance, is Slovenian. Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam are from Cameroon. In all, there are 108 ‘international’ players, from 37 ‘overseas’ countries, currently playing in the NBA.

But not only may a Molloy and many others here have previously failed to grasp how big basketball is around the world, there can also be a failure to recognise its popularity and contribution in Ireland.

All through last week, as Basketball Ireland began its year-long 75th anniversary celebration of its founding, the National Basketball Arena in Tallaght was as vibrant and hectic a venue as anywhere in the country.

The weekend’s club National Cup finals began with a terrific encounter in the wheelchair final where Cork’s Rebel Wheelers edged Killester, the renowned club that would win the women’s Superleague final the next day.

On the Saturday and Sunday, women’s finals were staged either side of men’s, as has always been the way in Irish basketball but still isn’t the case in either of our national sports.

Basketball has one of the most enduring women’s national leagues in Ireland; since 1979, it has continuously had teams traversing the land, week in, week out, for six months.

That same winter of ’79, soccer had to fold its then six-year-old women’s league, didn’t revive it until 1987, and saw it collapse again in 1989, only for it to be re-established in 2012. Irish men’s rugby, let alone women’s rugby, didn’t have a national league until 1990. Even hockey, that other great bastion and champion of women’s sport, only started running leagues on a national basis in 2008-9, 30 years after basketball.

The arena out in Tallaght was probably at its loudest last week when it hosted its national school finals from the Monday all the way through to the Thursday.

What was striking was the diversity of teams and winners. The girl’s U16 A final was won by a school from Kenmare, the girl’s U19 A final by Portlaoise. In the B and C finals there were teams from Cavan, Donegal, Clare. In the club cups, the U20 men’s was won by Moycullen.

This sport isn’t just played in Dublin and Cork. In fact it has clubs in every county bar Fermanagh and Armagh.

Yet as CEO Bernard O’Bryne pointed out in these pages, while there are few sports that are played in as many schools (over 900) and by as many kids (more than 60,000), the sport often struggles to get access to those same school halls after 4pm; the cost of insurance and hall hire is often just too high.

Although over 240 clubs nationwide still take on that challenge, it is a continuously cumbersome one that needs government intervention.

A dozen years before he’d assume the position of Dublin manager, Dessie Farrell remarked in his book:

“We delude ourselves, telling ourselves ‘We’re a great sporting nation.’ We’re not. I often wonder if the GAA has been as much as a hindrance as a help to sport in general.

By providing a sporting infrastructure for two games alone, has it let successive governments off the hook for not providing municipal sports centres in every major town?

Although facilities have improved since then, Farrell’s central point remains. Facilities are built or renovated according to political favour. Indoor sport is prohibitively expensive in this country and thus unfairly treated.

Our approach and policy to sport, especially of the indoor variety, needs to change. Voluntary clubs that cannot afford to build their own facilities need the rent of existing ones subsidised and insurance costs priced reasonably.

Also in these pages last weekend, Paul Kelleher of Neptune and John Cunningham of Moycullen mentioned how it would be a double standard for Sport Ireland to bail out the FAI when, in 2009, it cut all funds to Basketball Ireland after it had its own significant case of financial mismanagement, albeit not anywhere on the scale of what occurred in Delaneyland.

An Irish women’s team that was on the verge of breaking through to the top 12 teams in Europe had to disband, as did the senior men’s team, as there were no longer the funds to field them; if it happened now, there would probably be a public outcry, but a decade before 20x20, there wasn’t.

Ireland has returned to senior international competition since 2016, as has some level of funding for basketball, but only at half its 2008 levels, while both senior national teams participate in the lowest rung of European competition.

All international programmes are 70% self-funded; kids and veterans alike have to pay to play for Ireland.

On the 75th anniversary of the country’s biggest indoor sport, it would be timely and deserving for Irish basketball to be restored full funding and to be supported for how it has included sections of the community when others haven’t.

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