Ireland leap to Europe's notice


Irish basketball crossed a threshold in the National Arena on Saturday night. The 76-78 loss to Croatia made for an emotional night in Tallaght but the result will have shaken the antennae of basketball nations across the continent.

Just last year, Ireland was hardly sign-posted on the mainstream European basketball map. The influx of American-Irish to the national side since the widening of FIBA nationality regulations has given this country a promising national team.

Saturday night's visit by Croatia represented a stunning leap in terms of the quality and force of basketball ever witnessed on Irish soil. Consider. It was Croatia that finished second to the original "Dream Team" of Bird, Magic and Jordan in the 1992 Olympics, sheer fantasyland in terms of the domestic game.

While the Croats were without there current NBA starts Toni Kukoc and Vlade Divac for their Irish visit, they brought with them some of the finest spot-up shooters in the European game and two of the biggest players, the 7ft 2ins Mate Skelin and his forward companion Anrija Zizic.

As a sports fixture, it did not have the same scale as a Six Nations rugby game or the general fever that World Cup soccer ties bring or the heritage of an All-Ireland final. But it was, nonetheless, an occasion of genuine pride and that the Irish almost humbled Croatia - they led 67-55 at the end of the third quarter - left the crowd feeling wistful and coach Bill Dooley annoyed.

"People will say that it was a good result for Ireland and I can understand why they say that but it's not good enough. With a lead like that, we should have won. Croatia is a calibre team but so are we. There were some referee decisions down the stretch that I wasn't happy with but I don't want to say that's why we lost."

Ireland lost because they entered an unlikely freeze after emerging to a rampant reception at the end of that third period. For the next six minutes, they played horribly and couldn't so much as buy a basket while Croatia silently set about eliminating the lead through the ultra-smooth-play perimeter-shooter Davor Marcelic.

"This hurts. We are a better team than Germany, a better team than Croatia. The thing is we lost both games but we weren't beaten. We passed up on the opportunity," said John O'Connell afterwards.

The New Yorker is a long-time devotee to the Irish basketball cause, declaring his availability at the age of 18, qualifying though his Galway background.

"I'm 27 now. Getting old. But you know, I'm proud that I helped carry Ireland during the years when we struggled and that I was one of the people who persuaded the guys who have come in to take up their Irish passports. I'm no longer one of the most important players on this team but this is an exciting time to be involved now."

The new Irish side does have a delightfully cavalier look to it. Here is the 6ft 10ins Marty Conlon, the former NBA journeyman with grandparents from Milford in Donegal, embarking on a new international life at the age of 36. There is Billy Donlon, the quintessential teak tough NYC point guard with the choirboy expression. And Mike Mitchell, a veteran of hoops life all over Europe and Australia, the oldest player on the side, the only non-white member and perhaps the most popular.

"It's good to be here," remarked Conlon afterwards, his lip swollen from a series of meetings with Skalen's formidable frame.

"We are still getting used to it and in the fourth quarter we probably started to stand around and look at each other a bit rather than concentrating on the team game."

The final game of this opening European semi-final phase is on Wednesday evening against Macedonia. In theory, it ought to be the most winnable of a series of games that Irish basketball fans can't quite believe are happening.

The wooden shack in Tallaght is still reverberating after Saturday night's game that was, in spite of the result, a joyous welcome inauguration ceremony for a whole new ball game. The next step is to start taking the big scalps.