Warriors’ coach Pat Price says quality of Irish players has never been higher
Tralee Warriors and UCD will square off in back-to-back games in 24 hours on the closing weekend of the season
Tralee Warriors’ head coach Pat Price: “I think Irish basketball is comfortable in its own skin. We know what the numbers are on the ground.” Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Irish basketball is having a moment. From the transatlantic exploits of Aidan Igiehon to the liquid smoothness of emerging Belfast teenage point guard CJ Fulton, a thrilling winter will have an apt Super League finale.
The game doesn’t always get the exposure it might do in Ireland, but anyone in Tralee this weekend can’t but notice the way the local basketball team has caught the imagination of the community. Because of a fixtures postponement Tralee Warriors (15-4) and UCD Marian (14-5), who are sitting first and second respectively in the Superleague table, will square off in back-to-back games in 24 hours on the closing weekend of the season.
On Saturday night the Kerry club is in Belfield for a five o’clock tip. Then both teams head south for Sunday’s game in Tralee, where the title will be decided in front of a raucous full house.
“Any coach in any code, any league would want that opportunity if offered to them… the chance to raise the trophy on your own home patch on the final day,” says Warriors head coach Pat Price.
“On your own home patch on the final day. But we know that by talking about it is not how it happens. We’ve got a process to take care of. Forty minutes Saturday. Forty minutes Sunday.”
It’s appropriate that Tralee Warriors are central to this story line. The intense connection between town and team has been one of more absorbing sports stories of the year. Their home games sell out; the crowd is in the gym an hour before throw-in, and games against Cork city rivals generated midweek ticket queues in local shops. The scenes were reminiscent of the madding days of the mid-1980s, when national league basketball enjoyed an unstoppable surge in momentum.
The presence of Kieran Donaghy, less a Kerry sports star than folk hero, has helped to raise the profile of the team. Pat Price has been coaching in Ireland on and off for two decades, and his friendship with Donaghy was instrumental in him agreeing to take the coaching position. However, he feels that the community response is not simply down to Donaghy’s effervescence.
“Yeah, Kieran is certainly a big part of it. But people aren’t stupid. They see the effort and enthusiasm on the ground. And there is a work ethic and passion in these players and the people in the club. And it is fairly tangible. They are the guys around the block.
“Darran O’Sullivan is one of our best defenders; Fergal O’Sullivan one of our best shooters. But they can be found pulling pints six nights a week down in the local pub. So there is an Everyman quality to it but they are able to be high performance athletes too.
“And they are desperate for success. Everything I thought it could be, it has. When you know there are a lot of people behind the scenes doing everything possible to make a club successful, that’s fairly easy to sign on to.”
Price is sanguine about the profile of Irish basketball. He is the head coach of the Ireland U-16 team in addition to his Warriors role.
“I think Irish basketball is comfortable in its own skin. We know what the numbers are on the ground. The association is continuing to roll out development officers. I think social media has really helped in that people have the game in their pocket now.
“And the quality of the home-grown Irish player has never been better. Sometimes I think people make the mistake of discounting the Irish player and assume if someone can score 25, then the imports must be shocking. But that is a pretty limited scope of understanding of what it takes. There are a lot of talented young players out there. Guys like Lorcan Murphy and Neil Randolph who are doing things that would have been unheard of 25 years ago.”
Elite college level
He instances Dubliner John Carroll, playing with NCAA division one college Hartford, and Jordan Blount, at the University of Illinois, as two players raised and coached in Irish clubs now flourishing at elite college level in the US. He expects the numbers of Irish basketball players being offered and accepted scholarships to division one colleges to increase.
Yet for now Price’s focus is purely on the local. If Warriors do clinch this title they will limp rather than stride across the line. The team has been playing on hurt for weeks.
Paul Dick has been playing on an injured ankle for weeks. Dick, originally from Belfast, spent several years playing professionally in Europe, but a series of ankle injuries forced him to quit. He is doing an electricians apprenticeship in Tralee, and is one of the most lethal scorers in the Irish game.
“Paul’s been in physio all week. He’ll probably be a game-time decision.”
Kendall Williams, their American who arrived in January to replace Jordan Evans, the team’s leading scorer struck down with a season-ending knee injury, is definitely out.
Keith Jumper and Dusan Bogdanovic are also carrying injuries but will probably play. They will be patched up, but the attrition is down to the rigours on an intense season.
“It is no coincidence that the two deepest teams are contesting the league title,” says Price.
“Saturday night will be particularly difficult in Dublin. We know there will be a massive support travelling up from Kerry. So hopefully it won’t feel that far from home. We’ll get through those 40 minutes, learn what we can. We’ll make our adjustments for Sunday. And then…we’ll see where the chips are sitting Sunday afternoon.”