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.”