Jason Killeen nurturing hoop dreams of the next generation
Templeogue player knows what it takes after brushing shoulders with basketball greats
Jason Killeen (left): Trying to co-ordinate a national programme and commit to Superleague basketball with Templeogue is as demanding as anything he has done in the game. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
In the national basketball arena on Thursday, St Malachy’s, the reliable Belfast powerhouse of Belfast basketball took on CBS the Green from Tralee in the U-16 boys A final. Those present witnessed something special. CJ Fulton, Malachy’s slight and exceptional point-guard, hit 15 three-pointers over the course of the final. Kieran Donaghy, up to watch the local lads, declared it the best shooting exhibition he had ever seen. For Jason Killeen, the development officer for Basketball Ireland, it was an encouraging sight. He thinks the standard of the game at underage level has skyrocketed in recent years. And he should know.
Killeen is one of the relatively few Irish basketball players to have brushed shoulders with the current elite of the world game. With his height (he was 6’7” at 15 and was 6’10” by the time he finished growing) he was one of the outstanding players in the Irish schools scene in the late 1990s, co-captaining a strong Ireland U-16 team and catching the eye of a number of visiting coaches.
It resulted in an offer to go to Notre Dame Academy to finish out the last two years of secondary school on a scholarship. “We knew absolutely nothing. I remember at home we went out and bought a map of America so we could figure out exactly where it was. The one thing my parents always had and talked about was the price of a flight home. If things didn’t go right, they made sure I knew that was there. But I was fortunate that I was met by some very good people who looked out for me.”
For Killeen, it was a leap of faith. He knew that the school had a good reputation in basketball but didn’t really absorb its prestige. His very first game was against Oak Hill, another school with an emphasis on elite basketball. Their star player was Carmelo Anthony, who, of course, went on to become an NBA untouchable, with multiple All-Stars and contract renewals in the tens of millions of dollars. But in 2002, Killeen knew nothing of him.
“I remember talking to my Dad on the phone the next day and thinking: I am not sure if this is for me. I didn’t realise he was special at the time. I thought that he was just the standard.”
All’s fair in sport and commentary @templeogue_bc’s Jason Killeen and @UCDMarian’s @conormeany may be going head to head Saturday night in the @HulaHoopsIE #HulaHoopsCup but are loving life on commentary together at #SUBWAYSchools today pic.twitter.com/KF45BKWDxa— Basketball Ireland (@BballIrl) January 23, 2018
His time there was just before the advent of mass smart technology so friends kept in touch the old way: they fired off letters. He wrote back. Life became a series of daily practices and studying and travelling to games. Killeen thrived: he was good enough to get an invitation to the ABC camps, a kind of tournament/showhouse for the best couple of hundred players in the country.
Among the hopefuls that year were JR Smith, who won an NBA title with Cleveland last year and Dwight Howard. Killeen went on to play for Winthrop University and the Ireland national team. His head coach then was Jay Larranaga, now an assistant coach at the Boston Celtics.
So his experiences leave him perfectly placed to help and advise Irish teenagers who may have opportunities similar to his own. Trying to co-ordinate a national programme and commit to Superleague basketball with Templeogue is as demanding as anything he has done in the game.
“It is a huge commitment but being honest I feel lucky. One job complements the other. The reason I applied for this job and am so interested in it is that basketball gave me so much as a kid who grew up in Southill in Limerick . . . I think I have been to over 40 countries at this stage. And it is down to people taking their time to help me. So for me to be able to help kids follow their dreams: there is no greater reward. I’d say we have more kids in American high schools and colleges than ever.”
This weekend is Cup Weekend, one of the highlights of the Irish basketball season. On Saturday evening Killeen plays for Templeogue against UCD Marian in what will be his fourth national cup final. Templeogue have become one of the new strongholds in basketball: this is just their fourth season at Superleague level. In their first year, their record was 1-17. “They have been strong at underage for some time but that leap to Superleague is considerable. I don’t think people realise the toll it can take on the mind and body,” says Killeen.
Recruiting Mark Keenan as head coach was central to Templeogue’s quick transformation into one of the strongest clubs in the country. He had previously coached Killeen during two exceptional seasons at UL with a team that landed the league and cup double. One of his first acts was to fly to France to see Killeen play: just to keep in touch until the Limerick man was back in Ireland again.
Now, they are working together and back in what should be a cracking city cup final. Killeen is both one of the best Irish men to have played the game and a fanatical fan of the game. And whether he is watching players he once played against on ESPN or experiencing the thrill of a fifteen-year-old Belfast lad shooting the lights out, he believes there is one quality that sets the best part.
“It is efficiency. Even when you look at Irish kids here. I don’t think this is as prevalent here as it was but you see the big kids being stuck under the basket to get rebounds and then a few years later he doesn’t have the skills. I think the players who take the next step know two or three positions and are good at it.”
It’s just one of the elements he hopes to pass on to the next generation. The Irish game is in good hands.