Timely weekend to revisit an era when 'We Got Game'
BASKETBALL:Documentary recalls a strange and wonderful period for Irish basketball
One incident above all confirmed for Terry Strickland that he was a black man in a very, very white country. This was in 1983 and the North Carolinian was still settling into life in Cork city, where he had come to play basketball with Neptune. He was walking down the street with his team-mate Ray Smith. Both were used to the open curiosity of Irish people towards their skin colour but when a dog on the street stopped stone dead, gave them a long stare and then started barking, the two men cracked up laughing. “Even the dogs . . .” Smith said.
Strickland recalled the moment during his contribution to We Got Game: The Golden Age of Irish Basketball, which airs tonight on Setanta.
The timing is significant – the last weekend in January has always been to Irish basketball what September is to the GAA. The women’s and men’s national cup finals take place tonight at the Arena in Tallaght. The men’s final, coincidentally, will feature UL Eagles, the reigning champions, against Strickland’s old team. Neptune were the bluebloods of Irish basketball during Strickland’s time but haven’t won the National Cup since 1992.
Neptune coach Mark Scannell was a player during the strange and wonderful epoch which is covered in We Got Game. Directed by Garry Keane, the documentary was inspired by Kieran Shannon’s book Hanging From the Rafters, which examined the 10-year period when clubs like Neptune and North Mon and Ballina and Killester “imported” a generation of exceptional American players like Strickland, Kelvin Troy and Mario Elie, whose CV boasts a National Cup with Killester and three NBA titles with the Houston Rockets.
The sheer novelty of having two Americans per team and the transformative effect they had on the speed and pattern of the Irish game led to an unprecedented surge in the popularity of the sport. Killarney’s Paudie O’Connor was the first to sign Americans and other clubs felt they could either follow suit or allow the Kerry men to dominate.
“And that wasn’t going to happen,” reasons Neptune’s Tom O’Sullivan in the documentary. What nobody could anticipate was the quality of the US players who came to Ireland in that period. Kelvin Troy was one of the top-rated defensive players in college basketball and played against Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.
Jasper McElroy remains a legend in Chicago basketball circles. By 1984, eight of the 20 Americans playing in Ireland had been drafted (but not signed) by NBA teams. They narrowly missed out on Madison Square Garden and so ended up in Inchicore’s Oblate Hall. For most, that was fine.
Several Americans, like Ballina’s Deora Marsh and Troy, made their lives in Ireland. “The one thing I’m grateful for is that my kids are Irish because everyone loves the Irish,” Troy says. “It’s the one place I feel blessed.”
Elie moved on after one season and after a glittering NBA career now works as an assistant coach with the Brooklyn Nets. Dave Hopla, a white guard with a sensational shot, played with St Gall’s in Belfast in the mid 1980s. He now works as a shooting coach with the New York Knicks. All have warm and vivid memories of the camaraderie and the sheer strangeness of the Irish basketball scene in the 1980s. It is arguable the vivid hold which the game had on the public imagination would have waned with time. But the Irish basketball association’s decision to limit each club to one American seemed to stall the momentum that the national league built up throughout the 1980s. Attendances dipped in the 1990s and US players seeking to play in Europe were snapped up by continental teams.
But the national cup remains the marquee weekend. Tickets for tonight’s finals have sold out. For Neptune fans of a certain vintage it will feel like a return to halcyon nights. With Montenotte featuring in the women’s game – also against University of Limerick – it feels like a big night for Cork basketball. When Neptune won the title in 1992, it was their third cup in five years.
“We’ve just been trying to keep a lid on all the ancillary stuff and keep the team in a bubble somewhat. It’s not easy on a week like this,” Scannell says. “But it’s brilliant for all the kids in the club, all the coaches and people on committees who have been putting in the work to get us to a position where we are back in a cup final. My job, and the team’s job, is to put in a performance all those people can be proud of and hopefully we perform to our ability Friday night.”
UL coach Mark Keenan played point guard for Killester during the Troy-Elie era and reckons the atmosphere on cup weekend is reminiscent of the brightest years in Irish basketball. “No matter how many times you have been there you get the nerves.”
Anyone who experienced the nights Keenan did as a player can’t help but feel Irish basketball had possession of something magical and let it slip. The energy and interest may not have been possible to sustain but the footage in We Got Game is a terrific salute to the fact the revolution, brief as it was, did happen.