SIDELINE CUT:Dan Trant, who was tragically killed in the attack on the World Trade Center, was smiley and quick and – best of all – he was a showman
EVERY TIME the television shows the aeroplanes melting into the towers, I think of Dan Trant. I saw him play basketball only once but it was enough.
The details are hazy – it was in Belfast and it was a tournament weekend but whether Trant was playing for Marian or one of the local teams I can’t recall. I was about 12 at the time and was too mesmerised by the player himself to care much about who was surrounding him. Irish basketball was, for a brief period, littered with supremely gifted players who had brushed shoulders with the mythical NBA names only to end up playing here, on the edge of Europe.
There were a few years in the early 1980s when parish gyms around the country hosted genuinely exotic creatures. For instance, somewhere there is a photograph of Bernard King standing in a gym in Collooney, Co Sligo. That’s a bit like having Christopher Walken appearing in Christmas pantomime in your local hall. Dan Trant belonged to that glamorous club and he came to Ireland in 1984 with the most fabulous of all stories: he had been drafted by the Boston Celtics.
At the time, the Celtics were little more than a fable. It would be another couple of years before BBC began showing a Saturday night highlights show of the NBA. The only empirical proof that the Celtics truly existed came in the form of posters available at the shop in the summer basketball camps in Dungarvan.
You could get huge door-size imprints of Larry Bird, who no one in Ireland had ever seen play but who was said to be able to do impossible thing with a basketball.
It was a bit of a shock to first lay eyes on this Bird character: albino pale and flaunting a blonde hillbilly moustache, he looked more like an extra from The Dukes of Hazzardthan the world's supreme ball player. To be honest, Dan Trant looked more like how we might have imagined the world's best player to look. And here he now was, in front of us.
And he didn't disappoint. The rumour at the time was that he had been "cut" by the Celtics because, at 6ft, he was simply too small. He looked quintessentially 1980s American, which is to say that he wouldn't have been out of place in Risky Businessor Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
He was smiley and he was quick and best of all, he was a showman. He never gave a straightforward pass when a behind-the-back or a no-look crowd pleaser would do. He shot three-pointers for fun. The seconds that proved most unforgettable for me involved a particular move when he got on the end of a fast break and while in mid-air he scooped the ball underneath and through his legs and flicked it off the backboard to score a basket. It was one of those trick shots that lots of players of varying ability tried while goofing around: some managed to fluke the odd shot in, others almost castrated themselves.
But I had never seen anyone attempt it in an actual game and although it was absurdly showy, Trant made it look like the most natural and easy thing in the world. It was great.
I never saw him play again: he enjoyed an excellent season with Marian in Dublin but by his second year, other teams had him rumbled, closing down his outside shot and reducing him to the role of a passing point guard: Irish teams needed their American stars to score big so Sporting Belfast “sent him home” in the winter of 1986 and that was that.
It wasn’t until the autumn of 2001, when the world was feeling queasy and vulnerable that I next heard his name: someone said that Dan Trant had been among the victims in the World Trade Center attack. Immediately, I thought of the quicksilver player I had seen in Belfast all those years earlier.
It was hard to reconcile that someone so mischievous and bright should have been caught up in something so epochal and terrible.
A few years ago, when Kieran Shannon embarked on his noble mission to write the definitive account of the 1980s basketball phenomenon in Ireland, Hanging From The Rafters, he chronicled Trant's life before and after that fun year of escapism in Ireland.
He opens his piece on Trant with an unnerving passage set in the days after the USA began its invasion of Afghanistan: “On the very first of those missions there was a guided missile with a special message on it, which Admiral Dave Mercer, then commander of the Carrier Air Wing and his unit inscribed as a tribute to a brother of Tim Trant, a close friend.
“Painted on the side of the 2,000lb bomb were the words –
From: Dan the Man #12.
In the mid-1980s, Dan ‘The Man’ Trant wore jersey #12 for Marian basketball club and the Irish national team. On September 11th 2001 Dan Trant had been working in the World Trade Centre.”
It turned out that Trant had grown up in one of those steadfastly Irish Massachusetts homes – his grandparents came from Dingle and Salthill – with Clancy Brother LPs and Kennedy brother photographs. He was an exceptional athlete and although his height meant that he ended up playing Division Three college ball, he enjoyed such a brilliant career with Clark College that he was drafted by the Celtics.
He was the last pick at 225 – Michael Jordan went third that year. In truth, Trant’s selection by the Boston side was a gesture to a local talent more than a cold-headed recruitment: Trant was never going to break into a team that had just won the NBA championship.
But still, he spent a summer playing ball with Bird and company which is, I think, more magical than if he had hung around the fringes of the squad for a season. That autumn, he was in Ireland.
In the years after he returned home, the charmed life seemed to continue: he worked his way up in the Cantor Fitzgerald firm as a trader and by August 2000, he was making good money and had moved his wife Kathy and young family to Long Island. He spent the evening of September 10th with his sons at a Red Sox-Yankees baseball game and life was glorious.
So Dan Trant’s name will be among the thousands of names called aloud at tomorrow’s 10th anniversary service in New York. His is just one life, one story among the thousands of rich lives that met such sorrowful ends.
But the sheer energy that he carried with him into basketball halls on both sides of the Atlantic made a lasting impression and when you think about him up there in those hulking, stricken towers, the mind-bending senselessness of that day comes rushing back.
In the bleak, confused days after the atrocity, Michael Jordan made a much trumpeted comeback to basketball playing for Washington in New York’s Madison Square garden. Inevitably, the occasion overshadowed the game.
Speaking before hand, the New York Knicks’ coach Jeff van Gundy deviated from his thoughts to pay tribute to one of the victims. “I didn’t know him well as a guy and I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years,” he said of his former college adversary. “But I remember Dan could play. He could really play.”