Westbrooks clan carve out a special Irish niche



MARCH 30th 2008, the Tralee Tigers have just completed the double over Killester in the league final.

But just off the main celebrations, a poignant scene unfolds as Jerome Westbrooks finally retires from basketball, age 50, ending a 27-year relationship with the Dublin club.

"My family came onto the court and gave me a big squeeze. I've had a wonderful career with many memories, like playing for Ireland from 1991 to '96, but that moment was special."

The Westbrooks name has a secure place in Irish basketball history. The second-eldest son, Isaac, just completed his first season as a professional in the Icelandic leagues. Undeterred by the limited daylight and subdued environment, he intends to return to a premier league club next season. He also recently followed his father's footsteps into the Ireland squad.

The oldest sibling is Chicago-born Michael, who is currently based in Spain. Both possess degrees from US universities. Michael gets married in August. "They are in a similar position to mine when I first came to Ireland as they're playing basketball professionally, but it would not be the most financially lucrative arrangement.

"It's always okay if you love doing what you are doing. The proof is both are prepared to continue doing it next season."

Aaron, who is 21, is next. Currently a power forward with Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, following in his brothers' footsteps playing in the NECSAC conference, known as the Ivy League of small colleges.

Then there is Leah. She left Holy Faith secondary school in Clontarf and has almost completed her freshman year in Mount St Mary's university in Maryland where she is on an athletic and academic scholarship.

After making the varsity team, something only achieved by an exceptional minority, her season was curtailed by a broken hand.

"I think it was indirectly beneficial," says her Dad. "As she is also on an academic scholarship, it brought double the pressure. The injury at least relieved the athletic demands at a crucial period."

Jerome then adds, with undisguised pride, that Leah has been asked to captain the team next season.

Finally there is 16-year-old Eric. At one point, Isaac informs us, the family thought he would be lost to football but with transition year being spent in Yorke Community High School in Elmhurst, a suburb of Jerome's native Chicago, that option is less likely. "All the kids, except Isaac, went to America for transition year," explains Jerome. "He is out there until the middle of June. As he is on a transfer programme recruiting eligibility rules and past abuse, means he could not play High School ball. But he has been playing club basketball, which is a high standard. He's already had a private coaching session that he said was the toughest training regime ever." The last line is delivered with laughter.

Bob and Liz King are christened his "Chicago parents". They are the actual parents of Michael's college buddy. You see, the Westbrooks family connections run deep.

"All of us have different basketball stories," explains Isaac. "Different doors have opened for us as a result of the game. Some through chance, others through family connections and Dad's networking abilities. It's a lifelong thing I guess."

Jerome's story is unique. One of the first arrivals of the "American Boom" that hit the Irish Superleague in the 1980s, he made the unusual decision of returning after one season with new wife, Lois, and infant son, Michael, in December 1982.

"I came back to work as a social worker in Dublin's inner city. It was a two-year contract based in the Seán McDermott (Street) area. I continued to play basketball but it wasn't enough to provide for a young family. Michael had been born in Chicago six weeks before we returned.

"We said we'd give it two years but then a similar role came up in Trim, Co Meath. That's where Isaac was born. In 1986 we moved back to Dublin and Aaron was born. In 1988 we reached another crossroads as Leah was on the way. We went back to Chicago for the summer of 88 but after talking with friends and family we decided Ireland was where we would raise our kids.

"I began to develop a basketball career. I was playing but also started running camps and part-time teaching. At that point I submitted my degree (physical education and art) to the department of education. In 1990 it was passed by the registration council. I was teaching in St Fintan's but acquired full status in Portmarnock in 1998."

It was a natural progression for the kids to follow him into prospective basketball careers. They are a special Irish family as religious faith plays an active role in their north Dublin household. "It is important to the whole family. We practice an evangelical Christian faith at the non-denominational Trinity Network which has three congregations in Dublin. We attend the north Dublin congregation but all three come together every year."