The Big Interview: Irish basketball star Jordan Blount bringing it all back home

A decade on from being the youngest Irish player to go abroad to carve out a career, he’s returned home to tend to his terminally-ill brother while trying to elevate Irish basketball to new heights
The Big Interview: Irish basketball star Jordan Blount bringing it all back home

IN CONTROL: Jordan Blount, Neptune and Irish international basketball player, outside Neptune Stadium. Pic: Denis Minihane.

We meet at his suggestion outside the GPO of his hometown on a drizzly midweek afternoon.

An Echo boy calls out that famous refrain, only now without its familiar prefix, as Jordan Blount with a broad grin extends his hand before guiding you to a favourite dining spot of his. He strides the streets, enters the establishment’s door, greets its staff and takes his seat with the air of a man at ease in his own skin and 6’7” frame and being back in a city he purposefully left a decade ago when he was only 15.

But just because he’s comfortable with himself doesn’t mean his life is. It’s anything but. When you begin the conversation by asking what it’s like to be Jordan Blount right now, he says candidly, “At the moment it’s a lot. There’s so much going on outside of basketball while I’m trying to uphold who I am within the basketball community. I kind of knew that would be the case when I came back, but there’s a lot of different moving parts every single day.” 

We’re speaking just a fortnight after he and his family learned his brother Garreth’s illness is terminal; a week after they set up a GoFundMe page to prolong his life for as long as they can, and the day after they and some close friends moved him into an apartment just behind the Neptune Stadium; mere minutes into our chat there’s a phone call from the guardian angel that’s former Neptune star Ger Noonan, on his way to check in on Garreth.

Garreth is only 22. He began the year teaching and coaching in Spain, the same country Jordan played professionally in for years. He was a fine baller himself, playing underage with Ballincollig and then a bit in England, and even a better citizen of the sport, running camps in disadvantaged areas and coaching in local schools. But then he went for a check-up and from the blood clots on his shoulder they stumbled upon why he had been finding it hard to eat his food the past while. He had oesophageal cancer.

RECOGNITION: Garreth Blount Junior pictured with his brother Jordan Blount after being presented with a reward to recognise Jordan's achievement in playing for the Irish senior men's team over the summer. Pic: Cork County Basketball Board.
RECOGNITION: Garreth Blount Junior pictured with his brother Jordan Blount after being presented with a reward to recognise Jordan's achievement in playing for the Irish senior men's team over the summer. Pic: Cork County Basketball Board.

At the time they thought it was operable, curable, though serious enough for Jordan to decide he was going to come home and be based in Ireland for the 2022-23 season. 

“Possibly the only regret I have in my life or career is that I wasn’t there by my dad’s side when he passed away two years ago. When Garreth was diagnosed, it was about creating a situation whereby I could still do everything I wanted to on a basketball floor yet also be there for my family.” 

So, he was there the other week when Garreth was told the cancer was back and too aggressive to stem. He’d likely three or four months to live. But if he were somehow to get immunotherapy, that life span could extend to a year. That was enough for Jordan; immediately he set up a GoFundMe page, rallying Cork and the Irish basketball community to raise the €84,000 required for Garreth to receive the dozen doses staggered over a year.

They’ve already surpassed that figure, a measure not just of Garreth’s desperate plight but also the standing the Blount family have within the sport.

Jordan himself is like nothing the Irish game has known before. Someone who with his skill and size can play every spot, from one to five. Who at 15 decided he wasn’t going to simply follow in the path of all the former Neptune greats before him and be defined by how many banners he helped put on the walls of its celebrated stadium. Instead he blazed his own trail, created an entire new pathway, heading abroad at 15 to train and play at the sport full-time, become an U18 Euroleague tournament MVP and leading scorer, brushing shoulders with Real Madrid’s Luka Doncic before moving onto D1 college ball in the States, then playing pro.

When the Irish national team won the European Small Countries in 2021 in such fashion as to demand a return to Eurobasket qualification, he led the team in rebounds (10.5), assists (5.5) and was its second-leading scorer (14ppg), made the All-Star Five. Other players, male and female, don’t appear to particularly embrace being the face of the sport here. Blount does. He has Donaghy-like magnetism. Star power. Instead of shying away from any mantle, he wants it, is built for it.

And of course, he’s his father’s son.

Gary Blount Snr wasn’t shy either. Or to buck any trends or pave his own way, no matter who it upset. He was a pure Dub, from Ballyfermot. A handy player, and not afraid if you considered him a physical or even sometimes a rough one, the kind whose elbow he’d look out for and pull up as a well-regarded ref years later. He played a bit of national league with Marian but mostly in the Dublin local leagues with various clubs. But he’d fallen for a traveller girl called Kathleen and with family members on either side disapproving of such a non-traditional relationship they set out for a new life in Mayfield in Cork with their children, including Jordan before his first birthday.

HOME: Jordan pictured at Bells Field in Cork.
HOME: Jordan pictured at Bells Field in Cork.

Gary being Gary, he immediately immersed himself in the local hoops scene. As a ref. As a coach. And invariably he immersed his son in the sport too, even naming him after its finest exponent. The pole of the clothes washing line out the back was uprooted and converted into a hoop to coach his son how to shoot, jab, and drive.

Jordan tried other sports, like Gaelic, even winning a Sciath na Scoil with his primary school, but it and the weather it could be subjected to wasn’t for him. 

“I remember going to a game in secondary school and it started lashing out of the heavens right before halftime. I mean cats and dogs! I was gone there and then!” 

Basketball instead offered shelter from the rain and whatever other elements were raging at the time.

“My dad was always realistic with me. You know the way when an adult talks to a kid their voice changes? Dad always spoke to me like I was an adult even when I was nine, ten years of age. I was living in a rough area in a council house with two parents who were on the dole raising six kids. All around me, friends, even sometimes family, were getting into trouble, so he said, ‘Look, you can mess around or you can put your head down and dedicate yourself to this. Your choice.’ 

“And so I went and played basketball 24/7. Even if it was raining, I would walk from Mayfield to Neptune and back, three times a day. It just took over. It was a way to make my dad proud and give him such a sense of accomplishment. And it did - you wouldn’t be able to have a conversation with him without him talking about me. The pathway we chose, you could say it was unconventional for an Irish player. But we were almost desperate. We just wanted it more.” 

We’ll come back to all what transpired over the following decade. The move to Plymouth at 15. Going to Spain at 16 and the offer from Real Madrid to play alongside Luka. The States. Back to Spain to play pro. But first we’ve to go to when he returned to Cork in March 2020. The world was shutting down and Blount’s own world was about to change utterly too.

His dad had been sick all of Jordan’s life but during lockdown he especially started to fade, bit by bit. He now thanks Allah for the time they got to share in those five months, though sometimes curses himself that he didn’t stay even longer.

Like everyone they were glued to The Last Dance. 

“Kobe is my man and I think LeBron is the best-rounded basketball player ever. For years Dad would say ‘I should have named you something else!’ So at the end of every episode, Dad would turn to me. ‘And do you think LeBron could do that?!’” 

And then there was the Scrabble. They’d play it morning, noon and night. Gary Blount Snr might never have gone to college or even worked but he was a sharp, intelligent man. 

“He’d read two newspapers every day,” says his son. “Do their crosswords. Had a vocabulary you wouldn’t believe. I mean, some of the shit he’d come up with! And you couldn’t challenge him. I never beat him my whole life – up until about four or five weeks before I left.

“Then I started beating him. And I’d start talking shit to him! ‘You used to be the smart one! Now it’s me!’ We’d keep playing on our phones online when I left to go and play in Spain. Again, I was beating him. But then as the weeks went by, he stopped. Everything stopped. He declined rapidly. And then that October he passed away.

“It was then I realised, ‘The prick – he was letting me beat him at the Scrabble!’ It was his way of accepting what was happening to him and saying, ‘Yeah, Jordan, you’re the man now. You’ve got this.’ I thought that was very manly of him.” 

Gary Blount died on a Saturday morning, seven hours before his son was meant to play for Basket Navarro against Barcelona’s second team. For a couple of months Jordan had been caught in two minds. 

“The only thing in those final weeks that was keeping my dad going was my game on a Saturday. So, I’d be wondering, ‘Should I go home and be beside him while he’s going through this, or would that be selfish of me and take away the one day he’s looking forward to? Or am I being selfish by staying here and playing?’ It was a lot to be dealing with.” Now he faced another dilemma: to play or not to play the day his dad died. So, he did what he thought his dad would have wanted. “He’d have given me a slap above the head, ‘Go out and play, you clown!’ So, I did.” 

The following day he headed back to Cork and the day after that buried his father.

“The funeral was at midday on a Monday. The club wanted me heading back on a flight at midnight. I called them. ‘Listen, I’m not doing as okay as I thought I would. Can I stay another couple of days?’ But they were insistent. ‘No.’ So I had to go back.”

It took 23 hours door-to-door. Instead of just booking him a direct flight to Bilbao, the itinerary the club came up with included multiple connection flights and then a three-hour bus ride back to the town he was living in; they didn’t even bother to have someone pick him up at the airport. When he finally got off the bus, he learned from a teammate that the squad was going into lockdown for ten days as another teammate had tested positive – the previous Saturday morning. Blount was livid. He could have stayed in Cork, spent time with his family, worked out more than he could in isolation back in Spain.

The lack of empathy and respect meant his time with that club and even his agent was over but his time in Spain was not. He was snapped up by Force Lleida, a Catalonian side operating in the Spanish second division, making it one of the top ten easily in Europe.

Blount had long been aware of the strength and depth of Spanish basketball. It was why at 16 he’d headed off for two years to play and train at the Canarias Basketball Academy in Las Palmas. It was intense – the 5am early rises, the 6am workouts, the 2pm shooting practices after school, weights at 6pm followed by another team practice – sometimes frighteningly so. He saw kids dismissed on the spot for something as innocuous as going to the shop after school instead of heading straight back to their house; others have their phone and laptop confiscated for the crime of not playing particularly well for a couple of consecutive days. It broke some kids. It made him – or at least didn’t break him.

PUSHING THE PACE: RJ Kelly Flexachem KCYMS and Jordan Blount Energywise Ireland Neptune (White) in action at the Killorglin Sports Complex .
PUSHING THE PACE: RJ Kelly Flexachem KCYMS and Jordan Blount Energywise Ireland Neptune (White) in action at the Killorglin Sports Complex .

He was the most valuable player at the junior Euroleague tournament. Shared the court with Luka Doncic (“He was outrageous even then – I remember we tried to trap him around the midcourt and he casually dribbled over to the corner and fired an over-the-shoulder pass to the opposite far corner, straight into the guy’s pocket for the corner three”). 

Madrid even offered him to team up with them and Doncic, but he declined, he and his father fearing the hint of professionalism could jeopardise his opportunity and goal of landing a scholarship with a US D1 college.

Now though that he was a pro, after graduating from the University of Illinois at Chicago with an honours degree in psychology, Spain was the best place to be and remain one. He played a handful of games with Lleida, loved his time there, but understood that once they got the chance to sign a Michael Carrera who had starred for Venezuela at the previous year’s World Cup, his minutes were going to be seriously limited. So, he dropped down a division by picking up the phone to an old friend from Cork, Adrian O’Sullivan, who was playing with a club near Salamanca.

“We actually got it written into the contract that if I was going to go there, I’d have to live with Adrian. He gave me a lot of comfort. I was obviously grieving the loss of my father – though to be honest, I don’t know if I’ve fully processed or grieved it yet: I’m almost waiting any day for this massive breakdown or outburst. But Adrian was able to spot when I wasn’t being myself. If there was a morning when I’d walk into the gym with my hoodie up and head down and not really interacting with anyone, he’d grab me straight after practice. ‘Come on, we’re going to get a roll.’ And we’d go up to the shop and come back and have a chat.” 

He has another strong support system around him these days. Last summer, after an injury-disrupted season playing in Iceland, he at 25 married Alaa, the Egyptian girl that he fell head over heels for while they were both studying in UIC. A recent masters graduate in kinesiology now lives with him in Cork while he’s converted to her religion, Islam.

“She has to be the purest, most genuine person I’ve ever encountered. There’s not an ounce of badness in any realm of her life. We first met when I was a freshman in college, but she brushed me off! Then in my junior year we met again at a ball and I asked her to give me a chance and let take her out. In our religion you do not enter relationships frivolously; you enter one with the view to marrying. And I can safely say that even when we were apart during lockdown or I was playing in Spain there was never a sense or feeling, ‘Oh this isn’t going to work.’ Our connection was as strong as ever.

“And it’s even stronger now. The more I learn about Islam, the more connected me and my wife get. To be honest, it wasn’t an issue for me [converting to Islam]. The basis of the religion is simply about being a good person and praying and giving praise. With Christianity, I didn’t believe all the stories we were getting told. You go to mass and the reading will be about Mary riding a donkey into Bethlehem. It’s all about the people who told the stories. In Islam it’s more about you. It’s more practical, relatable.” 

Seeing Cork through Aya’s fresh eyes has helped make the transition to life back home fresh, easier, more fun. It could be challenging otherwise, returning to a town and scene he figuratively and literally outgrew a decade ago; he was routinely scoring 40 points-plus against overmatched underage opponents. But it helps that both he and Neptune have been grown-ups about their arrangement. Traditionally homegrown players haven’t been paid in the Irish league, certainly not over the table, and any professionals have been signed up on a year-by-year, sometimes week-by-week basis. Blount’s contract is for three years.

“What would be the point in me saying ‘No, I’m not getting paid’? I want to be transparent about my career and so every young fella and girl in the country can see, ‘Hey, that’s a pathway I can pursue too.’” 

If Ireland is the right league for him, then he’s certainly with the right club. Although he’s not beholden to the club’s proud history – “I’ve seen some of the old footage so I’m not going to have someone ‘Oh the players now wouldn’t live with the players we had’ – he’s respectful of it and energised by it: he wants to end the club’s 20-year wait without a league title, 10 years without a Cup. It has the heritage, the dynamism, the crowds, the coach to make his return something special.

COACHING DUTIES: Jordan Blount, Neptune and Irish international basketball player, speaking with the players as head coach with St. Aidan's Community College in the Basketball Ireland Post Primary Schools South Under 16B final which they won at Neptune Stadium.
COACHING DUTIES: Jordan Blount, Neptune and Irish international basketball player, speaking with the players as head coach with St. Aidan's Community College in the Basketball Ireland Post Primary Schools South Under 16B final which they won at Neptune Stadium.

“If Colin [O’Reilly] wasn’t the coach, I don’t know how I’d be finding it all. But Colin is outstanding. He brings a level of professionalism that I don’t think any other club in the country has. Because he’s been a pro himself and his basketball IQ is off the charts. I wouldn’t say I’m so much learning anything new from him but I’m learning how to do stuff better from how he designs sessions and teaches the game. Even the other night in training I was driving to the basket and able to see a read from the defender’s reaction – ‘They’re definitely going there’ – that I wouldn’t have experienced playing, say, in Iceland last year.

“There’s a real ambition about the club. Even walking past people on the street you’ll overhear, ‘Oh, were you at the game on Saturday evening in Neptune?’ It’s become the place to go in Cork again on Saturday evenings. The club is putting on a show. And on the court, we’re putting on a show. I know fans love when I scream after an And One [when he scores despite being fouled and has a bonus free-throw]. That’s what some people don’t get. I’ve been told, ‘Oh, you need to keep the head down, stop talking to them refs.’ And I’m thinking, ‘You actually have no clue what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.’ That roar creates energy, momentum. It brings 50 people back next week.” 

And of course, Garreth is watching on too, just like his dad lived to see Jordan play on Saturdays. So long as they have this last dance he’s going to jump and shout as much as he wants.

· Energywise Neptune play DBS Eanna Saturday in the National Cup quarter-final in Neptune Stadium at 6.30. 

For more details on the appeal for Garreth Blount, see the GoFundMe fundraising page.

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