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A teasing glimpse into an era where the sport was king

Thursday, 31st January, 2013 6:52pm
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A teasing glimpse into an era where the sport was king

Kieran McCarthyThe Southern Star, Saturday, February 2nd 2013

IT was brilliant but cruel, all at the same time.

Akin to introducing you to the woman/man (delete where appropriate) of your dreams, the sock to your foot, only to snatch it away, making you walk barefoot instead, in the winter, in the snow, at night. You get the picture.

Gripping viewing, yes, but the fantastic Irish basketball documentary that aired on Setanta Ireland, We Got Game, that is rightly receiving widespread acclaim also leaves you feeling somewhat cheated with the current state of the game in Ireland.

It teases you with what we had.

Back in October 1979, when Killarney man Paudie O’Connor, as he does, thought outside of the box by persuading two Americans, Cornel Bedford and Gregg Huguley, to help kick-start his own town’s quest for top honours, even Paudie couldn’t have envisaged how his bold move would transform the Irish game. But that’s just what it did.

That paved the way for Tony Andre, Terry Strickland, Kelvin Troy, Deora Marsh, Jasper McElroy, Ray Smith and Mario Elie to dance on Irish hard courts with feet so light, ballerina-esque twirls mashed up with brute, physical strength, and skills so sublime that it left fans hanging from the rafters to see these black American superstars.

They were local heroes, larger than life characters, everyone knew who they were, what they could do. Quick question - how many of today's American players garner the same respect and attention?

They were the halcyon days of Irish basketball, captured so magnificently in We Got Game and Kieran Shannon’s superb Irish basketball book (a must-read for any self-respecting sports fan), beautifully christened Hanging from the Rafters.

Unlike modern-day basketball which survives in the big cities of Dublin and Cork predominantly, back in the glory days of Yanks, dunks and fireworks, the rural outposts of Killarney and Ballina went basket for basket with the city slickers. And sometimes even won. Not anymore.

What makes it worse, it was Irish basketball itself that not only sounded the death knell, but that drove a stake through its own heart back in 1987, voting to restrict the number of American players from two to just one.

Burst

Just like that, the bubble burst. The final buzzer sounded.

As a kid growing up in Killarney, basketball was a big part of the town’s sports identity, both in the local schools and in St Paul’s Basketball Club, who at one stage had men’s and women’s Superleague teams. Not anymore.

Starting off in this business, there was nothing I enjoyed more than a Friday or Saturday night, packed into a hot, humid and heaving Pres Gym in Killarney to cover a Superleague game. Those days are gone.

But this is not just across the county bounds, this happened in several outposts all over this once basketball-loving land of ours.

Here in West Cork, right now the game isn’t where it once was, almost accepting its position as a minority sport, in the shadows of the GAA and the other sports that have simply left it behind, like soccer and rugby.

In the city, at least the Neptune and Blue Demons’ men’s National Cup semi-final in mid-January highlighted that fierce rivalry that might help re-energise this flickering flame because basketball is a sport that deserves so much better.

Basketball Ireland itself, the organisation charged with the responsibility of promoting this great game, has made some questionable decisions in the past, choices that have damaged the sport, and it hasn’t ever recovered.

But to see a packed out National Basketball Arena last weekend for the National Cup finals was encouraging because, in terms of character, noise, entertainment and excitement, it’s hard to beat a good basketball game. It has everything that is good about sport, and then some.

Just as one swallow doesn’t make a summer, one weekend where basketball took centre stage doesn’t cure all the sport’s problems.

It helps, of course, pushing basketball back into the mainstream, even if it’s just for one weekend, giving it a chance to show off its wares and entice people to games.

Stories like Brunell’s 16-year-old Edel Thornton becoming the first ever player to win the MVP awards in both the women’s U18 and U20 cup finals last weekend help highlight the game, push it back into the headlines for all the right reasons.

But to be honest, despite the great, passionate people still involved, outside of them and away from its hot spots in the cities, the sport just isn’t what it once was – the talk of its town.

Strongholds

Here in the west, Skibbereen and Bantry were basketball strongholds, but that’s not the case anymore.

While at underage level success is still had – Bantry have won the men’s U18 B county championship this season, Skibb face Neptune in the Division 2 final – the truth is once these players grow up and fly the nest, that’s it.

Skibbereen’s Rose Breen, April Cahalane from Castletownsend and current Cork football star Nollaig Cleary were all gifted players, stand-out names at the top level, so good that they would make you want to see them play.

But the game’s top players now are playing in front of paltry crowds, with UL Huskies’ ladies’ coach James Weldon, in a weekend interview, admitting that as little as ten people watch some of the Limerick team’s games.

This UL team, double-winners from 2012 and who retained their cup crown last weekend, enjoyed a 45-match unbeaten run, and have in their ranks Rachael Vanderwal, who was involved with Team GB in last year’s Olympics.

That such a dominant and talented team can’t pull in the crowds, apart from cup semi-finals and finals, tells its own sorry tale of Irish basketball.

Perhaps, people aren’t opening their eyes to the just how exciting a sport it is, and how beneficial it can be to GAA players, improving hand-eye co-ordination, speeding up decision making, improving fitness, as well as being involved in a fast-paced exciting sport.

If there is one sporting resolution that a sport fan wants to make, then make sure you plan a trip to the National Basketball Arena in Tallaght next January for the cup weekend. You won’t be disappointed.

For now, and for some time to come, We Got Game will tease us with what we had, but at least we had it.

The kings are dead. Their thrones lie empty. The empire is no more.

• Following me on Twitter - @KieranMcC_SS

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