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Former Ireland basketball player Kate Maher just doing it when taking on life’s challenges

Waterford native has turned her passion into a successful career with Nike

When Kate Maher left Waterford for Connecticut in 2000 to take up a basketball scholarship at Sacred Heart University, she was hopeful that it would be the start of a memorable adventure.

It’s worked out all right?

“It has,” she laughs. “I was just 17 back then, I was definitely hopeful. I left in pursuit of something bigger and better, determined to make the most of my opportunities, but I could never have pictured it like this, that I would have the life I have today. And I’m grateful for that.”

She’s speaking from her office at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, her base since the company headhunted her in 2020, appointing her as senior director of ‘Jordan Stores and Services’. That role involves leading teams designing Nike stores around the world, Maher tasked with focusing on the Jordan side of the operation.


The journey until then? Seat-belts on, there are a lot of air miles ahead.

One of six children, Maher grew up on a farm a couple of miles from Dunmore East, GAA her chief passion as a youngster, playing camogie and Gaelic football, the latter at underage level for her county.

It was when she started secondary school, at Mercy Waterford, that she was introduced to basketball, and it’s been a love-in with the sport ever since. She won countless honours with the school and with the hugely successful Waterford Wildcats club, and an Irish call-up followed.

That earned her a basketball scholarship in the States with Sacred Heart where she combined studying for a degree in International Business and Marketing with her sport.

Once she completed her degree she had spells playing professionally with clubs in Switzerland and Australia, while continuing to play for Ireland – a costly honour: “It was all self-funded, you had to pay your way to get back home”.

It was when she was representing Ireland at the World University Games in Turkey that she had a decision to make. Her agent had lined up a professional contract with a Spanish club, but at the same time she had been offered a place at the New Jersey Institute of Technology to do a master’s in architecture.

“I just didn’t know what decision I would make. I walked over to a pay phone, called my agent, he didn’t answer, then I called the university and accepted their offer. I didn’t want the decision hanging over me, it was kind of made for me. I left it to fate, I suppose.”

Her interest in architecture was largely fuelled by her experience working for her uncle in New Jersey during the summers. He was a developer who built luxury homes. “He was pretty wealthy, too, so I thought ‘hmm, that looks pretty nice’,” she laughs.

“But studying architecture was the most perfect thing for my brain, it’s a real mix of left and right brain. There are extremely artistic visionaries with no structure, and then there are the pragmatic engineers. Neither end of the spectrum was my strength, but being able to dip in to both is where I excelled. And still today, the way I work in retail is a combination of business and strategy, but also design.”

From here, the journey gets dizzying. A spell working on the building of a boutique hotel in Belize ... studying for a professional diploma in architecture in UCD ... working in Amsterdam with a retail design agency ... being hired by Japanese sportswear company Asics ... then being headhunted by Adidas, which saw her move to Germany.

Among her tasks with Adidas was the design of their flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York, then after a spell working with architecture and design agency Gensler in London, Nike came calling, her CV the stuff of their dreams.

“I wanted to work for Nike since I was a kid. As an undergrad in the States, I applied for an internship with them but ended up needing surgery on my foot so couldn’t do it. But as a basketball kid it was the ultimate brand. I mean, Jordan ...”

Now, the 40-year-old who fell in love with basketball as a kid back in Waterford, works alongside the man who played no small part in the development of that passion, the leader of a team tasked with designing the stores named in Michael Jordan’s honour.

“I’ve yet to meet Michael in person, but he’s on a lot of our Zoom calls. The first one was kind of amazing, everyone was taking screenshots, moving his face next to theirs, making out like it was a one-to-one meeting,” she laughs.

“He’s always very engaged in those calls, he wants to know how things are going and what’s coming next. He’s very involved with our athletes and the basketball players who are signed to the brand, and also in the performance of our basketball shoes.

“So, I was hired to create the future of retail for the Jordan brand, to create its own stores, to determine the strategy for it, create the concept and build a team to be able to do that.”

And that’s where she takes a whole bunch of lessons from her sporting days, her wish when it comes to building teams to be seen as the captain rather than the coach.

“Because you want to be part of the team,” she says. “And just like in team sports, you have all sorts of people around you – the talented one who maybe doesn’t put in all the effort, the one who really wants to optimise everything they have. The ones who will always cut corners, the ones who will do all the grunt work. You have to be able to deal with that. There are so many parallels between sport and life in general. Which is why having a background in sport is invaluable.”

A few months back she was in Milan overseeing the opening of a new Nike store there, her next big project will take her to Tokyo in March, and there are several more in the pipeline this year.

In the middle of it all, she hopes to find time to resume the volunteer work that took her to the Democratic Republic of Congo where, with the Adi-Dassler Fund, she coached basketball and helped set up an international school.

“Walking in to a store when it’s opening is amazing, but this was a whole different level of reward, to see how some of those kids from that foundation are getting scholarships to the States, they’re on the exact same journey I was on.

“When you’re on the basketball court with these kids, you’re the same as them, you’re playing by the same set of rules – you realise you were just born in to different circumstances. And that’s so unfair. Your privilege cannot be taken for granted. We didn’t grow up with much money, but I grew up with a lot of opportunities and tried to make the most of them. Sport changed my life and continues to do so today.”

She’s enjoying life in Oregon with her partner Lea Musekamp, who she will marry in Dunmore East next summer, but has reservations about a long-term stay in the States.

“I got here during an election year and Black Lives Matter, Portland was at the heart of a lot of the riots, that’s when you see a different side to America. And America just feels so divided, you’re always very careful around political conversation. The gun violence ... it weighs on your view, ‘am I going to stay here that long, is this an environment I want to be in?’

“The more I travel, the more I come to appreciate where I grew up, such a beautiful, peaceful place. But I appreciate everything about my life, I’ve taken my opportunities – but I know I was fortunate to get them.”

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan is a sports writer with The Irish Times