Andrew Sanders breaks down the rise of one of the most influential Northern Irish basketball clubs; Blackstone Ballymena.
(Huge thanks to Paul McKee for providing significant material that went into this article, I hope I’ve done him justice! Thanks also to Ryan Hayes)
Directions: North on University Road. Follow A1. Exit onto M2 toward Larne/International Airport/Seaport/StenaLine. Seventeen miles. Take junction 11, the A42 to Ballymena/Broughshane/Cushendall. Turn left onto Broughshane Road. Destination will be on the right.
Benjamin Franklin used to say that only two things were certain in life: death and taxes. If there was a third, it would be “the gym at St Patricks College Ballymena will be colder than an eskimos fan on a Sunday night.” And, if we were to add a fourth, it would be “someone from Ballymena Blackstone will try to punch you in the nuts.” I should add, at this point, that nobody from Ballymena Blackstone, or Team Grouse, as the club was known for many years before the name change, ever actually punched me in the nuts.
Sunday nights in Ballymena were perhaps the least favourite part of my two years playing with Queen’s in the Premier and National Leagues. One used to wonder if the school actually had some sort of refrigeration system that kicked into gear at 4pm on a Friday. It was the sort of cold that made you feel exposed in your basketball kit, longing for long sleeves. Sure, it didn’t help that my first year with Queen’s we had these ghastly black and yellow kits that were easily the least comfortable thing I’ve ever worn to play basketball.
For those currently competing in the Premier League, a competition that has become increasingly diverse in terms of location since my time in Belfast, the Sunday night trip to Ballymena is a thing of the past.
Last year, we posted on Facebook to try to “crowd-source” some insights about your experiences playing with or against Ballymena – we’ll just refer to them as Ballymena for the purposes of this article. Thanks to everyone who did so, particularly to the Ballymena guys who shared our requests and elicited responses far beyond our immediate circle of contacts. Special thanks to Connor O’Dornan who might finally have paid the Ballymena club back for his controversial move to University of Ulster! (Just kidding). We’ll conclude this article with some of your recollections.
There was always something about playing games against Ballymena. Firstly, they were good. Let’s not pretend otherwise. My first Premier League game was against them at the Queen’s PEC. They smoked us. My lasting memory of playing at St Pat’s was Mark Rodgers, otherwise known as Beefy, the impossibly large and yet athletic forward for the 21st century incarnation of the Ballymena basketball club, finding my friend and co-editor Niall McDermott a little too late on the weak side help and throwing down what would have been the nastiest dunk I ever saw in one of my own games….if he hadn’t backrimmed it. Niall took great pleasure telling us how his D had put Beefy off.
The club had a corps of guards who would get up and down the floor, hustle on D and generally make life difficult for you. More than one of you commented that the aforementioned “nut punch” was your abiding memory of playing them. There’s no doubt there was that edge to playing them; they played the game on the edge. With everything they had. Sometimes that spilled over, but sometimes it just put you off your own game.
Basketball in Ballymena can be traced back to the 1960s when games played at the Parochial Hall inspired the All Saints Youth Club during the latter years of the decade, into the 1970s. Paul McKee recalled:
St. Patrick’s Secondary had a few golden years from 1970 to 74 at schools level under PE teachers Sean McGoldrick and Dominic O Loan, when they played and won a number of Ulster titles at various school levels and I had the pleasure of participating in three Ulster finals in succession at that time.
During this time, a senior club began to develop, of which McKee became an integral part. He highlights the role of the basketball families, which almost every club in Ireland depends upon. For Ballymena circa 1970, it was Brian Robinson who drove the club with his passion for the game. McKee is quick to highlight his admiration for Robinson, saying “his legacy was to give me a desire to play and coach this great sport. Many referees would tell a different tale of Brian as his passion often brought him into conflict as they frequently did not see eye to eye.”
His first experience of basketball, from the 1972/1973 season was:
a game between All Saints and Annadale in the small gym at St Patrick’s Secondary. This gym had a piano in the corner and a stage with no overhang on the basket. Many lay ups ended up on these structures that were used by the home team as an extra defender. I recall Annadale needed a win to stop St Gall’s winning the league. The Ballymena side were not considered as a team to trouble the mighty Annadale, so they sent a weakened side. This was a mistake as they underestimated the power of the piano. The game was very physical relative to today’s game and I recall a free for all on the floor at one stage. Welcome to Ballymena!
The images invoked by McKee will be familiar to anyone who has seen the excellent “We Got Game” documentary by Garry Keane (if not, visit this link). Where teams in Cork and Kerry had crowds spilling on to the court, Ballymena had a piano. The physical style of basketball, typical of Ulster hoops at the time, would remain a hallmark of McKee’s own Ballymena teams for almost forty years to come.
McKee left for Manchester in 1976 to study and returned in 1979 when he set up the club that most of those reading will be familiar with. He became a star guard for the club before injuries forced him to focus solely on coaching, a role he maintained at the club through to the bitter end. Ultimately he coached at Ballymena for three decades.
The All Saints club had folded the previous year and McKee was able to tap into the structures of the old club and add in some new faces through the Mid Ulster blitz in Limavady, notably Micky Moran, Paddy Chivers and Damian Clarke: “We had come together for the occasion and won a tournament beating Mid Ulster Dodgers in the final. These players were a great addition to the old squad and playing out of Ballee school the team won the Division two league and cup in 1980.”
The club spent two years in Division One before achieving the league and cup double in 1983. New signings such as Gerry Meehan, Colin Craig and Raymond McGuckin brought significant talent to the roster and helped develop the game in Ballymena as the club achieved promotion to the Premier League. McKee emphasises the strength of the game across Ireland (and, indeed, across the water in the UK) at this time:
The game was at its peak in Ulster, with four national league teams competing in the top league. The north was awash with top quality American players. These US professionals not only brought entertainment they gave us new heights to strive for in our playing and coaching. It was a very competitive time but a great experience always trying to test ourselves against those national league teams.
The development of players at St Patrick’s College, under McKee’s watchful eye, helped sustain the club as the old guard began to move on during the 1990s.
In the 1990s the club was beginning to get a supply of players from St Patricks College. Each year just one or two was enough to see out the old faces. Well almost everyone had moved on except for Tom and Gerry. These two were the backline and the backbone of the defence since the early eighties and before. Notorious dead leggers on the baseline drive. Then Dave Beckom came to town in 1991. Dave had played national league in Dublin and Cork for some time and was reaching the end of his career. He brought a special type of coaching to the schools that inspired interest and growth in the game. His stature and personality had the town buzzing with curiosity. He was to lift intensity to two and then three training sessions per week. The club expanded to two senior teams in a short time. Dave moved on and through the 90s the Ballymena club was competitive at the top level with some runners up slots and a few cup semi finals but not making any big impact against the national league teams.
Harry McGarry, the combative guard who played for the team well into its twilight years, began to organise social basketball sessions on Saturdays. McKee highlights the extra court time that this provided to players as crucial for the success that both club and player enjoyed during this period. Those of us involved in the game across Ireland and the UK well understand the important of recreational basketball, away from the watchful, but occasionally controlling, eyes of the coaches of our respective clubs. These sessions are what breed enjoyment and love for the game. There can be no doubt that “Harry’s Saturday Club”, as McKee puts it, played an integral role in the development of the players who would represent Ballymena into the 21st century.
The 21st century brought a lot of success to the Ballymena club. It changed its sponsor of 15 years from the Grouse to the Blackstone. In the late 1990s and early 2000s a lot of work was going on within the club to strengthen the squad. More coaching was happening in the town schools as Paul Gillan took basketball to the Primary Schools with the help of a Sports Council Grant and set the foundation that would see a crop of young players come through in ten years time.
The club fielded three teams in Ulster leagues for the first time and in 2002/2003 they won the Premier League, lost the cup final and won the All Ireland non national league club tournament. This was a great performance against Sutton who were winning throughout and a Grouse press turned a four point deficit in the closing minutes, resulting in baskets from Paul Gillan, Kieran McGaughey and Kevin OBoyle to give the club its greatest success.
The final decade of the club was an up and down time. It enjoyed some tough defeats and some spirited victories. McKee recalls this decade with great fondness:
2004 saw a mix of form in the league and a cup final defeat to Queens. It was 3 year before the Blackstone was to collect their next trophy winning the Cup in 2007 with the defeat of Lisburn in the final. After this the Blackstone went into a period of change as some of the old and young stars moved on. Mark ‘Beefy’ Rodgers was a big loss to the club and Connor O’ Dornan and Damian Gallagher left too soon for UUJ. It was also a fortunate time as there were good young players to fill the gap and 2009 to 2012 were three strong years at the Blackstone with the arrival of this crop of young talent marked by the shooting of guard Martin McDonald. These four years saw the Blackstone in the top four play offs each time and challenging for the league at various times.
Soon, the club found itself unable to get a squad together for matches.
By the 2013 season the writing was on the wall. For the first time in 34 years Ballymena was struggling to train or put a team on court. The results showed this. Where did they go? Some to college, some to Belfast, and some had just got injured or were too old to compete. The supply from the school had gone as it had been getting smaller.
No more Sunday night trips to the coldest gym in Ireland. No more dead legs on a baseline drive. No more nut punches.
In 2012 Paul McKee was awarded the British Empire Medal for services to amateur sport. Shortly afterwards he was visited by perhaps his most famous former pupil, Liverpool FC manager Brendan Rodgers.
We’ll finish this article by sharing some of your memories of the club.
I had 21 happy years playing for blackstone/grouse! While playing for the club I experienced playing at all levels u18, div 2, div 1 and premier. Oh and won at all those levels lol even an all ireland club winners. All the credits must go to Paul Mckee who worked endlessly with both school and club teams to take all us players to the levels we have achieved! Over the years I have seen players come and go and can’t remember anyone ever being turned away! As a team there were many great battles fought on the court and I ahd the pleasure of making alot of friends (hopefully). Thursday n Sunday evening are not the same now even though I didn’t play the last season due to the knee injury!
A lot of great ball players came outta ballymena. Despite the scraps . I’m sad to see them go. UPPA grouse!
Trainings and matches with Grouse/Blackstone were some of the best days of my life. All made possible by Paul McKee. For a one man band with very little financial help he was able to produce professional players, players who play college level in USA, underage internationals and countless players who played at Ulster schools level.
Some of my favourite memories were from the intensity of the rivalries Grouse/Blackstone had in the Ulster Premier League, especially when you all came to St Pats Gym.
The generation led by Beefy, Harry McGarry, Boogie, Hutchy Paul GillanKieran McGaughey etc Vs The Queens teams in the mid 2000’s was unreal. The likes of Andy Dolliver, Dawsy, Fergal, Simon, Robert etc all in their prime, were games i will never forget. Intensity, quality and athleticism on the court was through the roof! Not too mention the quality of coaching with Gav Garland Vs McKee on the sidelines. Really spurred younger players to get to that level.
Our rivalries against North Star also come to mind. What a team they were with there homegrown players mixed with American imports. Great friendships from Basketball Camps were put aside. Always gave us massive motivation going into the games.
We always loved when Star came down. Always good to get a slap at Bobby, Michael McKillop and the gang
It was always nice to beat Jorndastown after they plucked our childhood team matesConnor O’Dornan and Deo Gallagher from us lol
Our most recent generation led by Adam Murray Marty McDonald Adam HillisMichael McDonald Aaron Brown and all the lads, was an amazing team to play with. So much quality with young and fearless lads. I think it was 3/4 seasons ago, we had a terrific year and felt we were going to win the playoffs, but we were beat in the Ulster Semis by Dungannon Cavaliers. They were a terrific team, Maybe one of the best to play in Ulster IMO. Their eastern europeans had so much quality, size and toughness. We had some great battles with them which I will never forget.
Hope everyone in the Ulster Basketball Family is doing well! Thanks for the memories!
Cracking memories! 10 great years with the club and a lifelong connection. All started (and sadly ended) with Paul McKee! His intensity and passion was second to none…whether it be a First Year Blitz, a D2 game on a Tuesday night in Ballyclare, Premier League rivalries against Northstar, Queens and Dungannon in particular, or in All Ireland Club Championships!
Me, Damien Gallagher, Adam Murray, Peter McNicholl and James Maguire staying in playing after school til 6pm on a Thursday night and then hanging around the town until training at 8pm…any wonder my knees are shot! Sunday night training in January when we had to wear hats and gloves while playing!! Staying in the hall until midnight…15 of us playing 21!
I remember doing the table just to be able to watch Harry throw alley oops to Beefy! And Gilly averaging 6 charges drawn a game!
Division 2 trips away on school nights were great and the All Ireland Clubs in Limerick is still one of the funniest weekends I can remember!
Difficult club to leave and definitely the most difficult team to play against when I did leave!
On that note, I am hereby proposing an Annual Reunion Tournament? Afternoon of games followed by a night in the Ballymena Blackstone! Has to be in early January and we have to use one of those old worn Spalding balls that Keith Miskella has kicked up and down the hall until it’s like an egg! When is Paul McKee back??
Great time and memories! Been with the club from I was 6 or 7. Came in and watched the guys do there thing were unbelievable teams which made me wanna play.
90’s team was unreal and a tough team. Harry Mcgarry slicing through opposition with his moves on point. Paul Gillan showing me what bravery and defence was all about taking charges and blocking out a lot bigger and stronger players by getting low and boxing out. Baz Kat Gillan for shooting always good for a few three’s the famous Beefy who was known for size and skill just an all round beast! Shane craig, Colin Bucky Mc Cambridge, aidy mc Cambridge,Mark Skiddy Mc Gaughey, Kieran mc gaughey and Jonathan McAuley being hard, tough players. Also Carl quigly, peewee (rip), Charlie McCollum great players.
Watching these guys and playing with these guys made me the player I was. I played hard and relyed on my defence as I wasn’t a shooter despite Paul McKees efforts.
Paul is/was an amazing coach taught me so much on and off the court, Tom Agnew- what can I say about him only a complete legend!
I loved games against Queens, dungannon, strabane, ballyclare and particularlyNorthstar where I had many great battles with these players.
Nothing more I enjoyed than tussling with them. I had a lot of respect for these players and appreciated the toughness of them.
My favourite time was holland and I will never forget it. Also playing for ulster under Gavin garland
(The best Chinese ever)
Made a lot of friends over the years maybe a few foes as not everyone liked my style of game but that was my game and how I played! Hopefully there are no grudges as I just liked the sport and played it how I was brought up playing it, tough.
Thanks a lot everyone for the memories and the great games over the years!!! Really sad the club is no more
The club was a great get away for us when we were younger, filled our Saturdays, Sundays and Thursdays with craic!! Everybody loved everything about the setup we had! Training sessions were so competitive and games were the opportunity to show Paul McKee we were ready to take the next step up to div 1/ prem! It was amazing playing your first game of the season as a premier league player at 17 years old! Was a terrible shame for the club to have to closed their doors but unfortunately another season just wasn’t on the cards!
I always looked up to the veterans, Bucky mccambridge, Harry Mcgarry, hutchie, skiddy – the list goes on! And I always wanted to be on the same level as Hayes, adam Murray, Conor odornan, DAMIEN gallagher, Pete mcnicholl, gavin and Paul gillan, beefy rogers and the likes! Only had the opportunity to play a handful of seasons with guys that had such an impact on not only our recreational/sporting life, but also taught us valuable lessons that we could carry with us through into school, university and personal lives!
I would love to be involved with another Ballymena team again- but would be the same without the guys we have lost to other areas, countries and clubs? I would love to have McKee as a coach again, rob ably never mentioned it at the time but he was a great inspiration and his passion for everything to do with the game is what kept my desire to play better for his team, alive!!
Grouse was a fond memory of when I first picked up a basketball and watched games , but I miss the days of being apart team Blackstone the most!
The club was an incredible place to grow up! The training sessions were more intense than the games. The older lads did a good job of making us younger players welcome and keeping us in our place. Tried joining other bball clubs since leaving ballymena but the craic could never reach the level we had for so long. Can’t believe no-one has mentioned our unforgetable trip to the u-19 World Youth Friendship games in Amsterdam! That was the best team I was ever part of and we knew how to enjoy ourselves as well. Thanks to Ryan Hayes, Harry McGarry and Paul Gillan for being crazy enough to take a group of 18 year olds to Amsterdam. Sad the club had to come to an end. Don’t see the lads enough anymore, hope everyone is doing well.
Hutchy and Boogie grumpy slaggins, Eminem playing on Saturdays, Beefy going on hands and knees to get James to fall over him backwards, being looked after well as a wee girl by Skiddy and Bucky, McDonald’s trips at Dungannon camp, creepy Benburb and wakin the Derry boys up at 5am for the bus, some brilliant talent over the years, coaching with Adam and co, introducing the ‘young’ lads like Marty at the leisure centre, taking the score with gloves on (warmer outside!), Keith’s Harlem Globetrotter style tricks, Paul G betting everyone on half court shots, Harry being chilled with a regular different pair of boots, finding the keys in our house…so many more!
Being away at uni and playing basketball in England these past two years I always can’t help but compare my new university club team against the blackstone club team that made me a player to begin with. (thanks to all the great coaching – both basketball and in life!)
The things that are missing is the 7 to 9 starts which actually lasted until 12 and the 8 to 10 starts that actually went on to 1! Most of the time we played on but sometimes we would just sit in the gym an share the most bizarre experiences and stories – I have to say a lot of my humor these days has definitely been a result of listening to ‘reely’ younger versions of Adam Hillis, Adam Murray, Peter McNicholland of course the newer mad cases that grew up alongside me such as Niall O’Neill. Thursday and Sunday nights are without a doubt some of the best nights of my life.
The other memory I have to share is probably an important one for me which set off the spark for my enjoyment from competitive sport. It was junior basketball and we had Ryan ‘Henn’ Henry coaching us and we were playing Letterkenny. Myself,Aaron Brown, David Murphy, Michael Murray and Patrick McCormick were playing against Séamus Ó HÍcí and his team. All ten of us played the whole four quarters and for grouse (I think it was) we got our first junior win! It was a battle and I won’t forget it! Great times!
I always think about this, I hope that someday, when all the Ballymena crew are dead and sitting before the big man, he will put me out of my misery and tell me who has scored more baskets in the legendary St Pats sports hall! All I’m saying is it’s close between me and Adam Murray! And then we will all be handed a mixtape, hopefully that will last for days, of all our best moves and plays as a team and individuals and we will sit and enjoy every second!
All the way from France, Chris Butler:
The Christmas dinners and end of season dinners with big toms old school stories, most which should never be repeated, Paul gillan driving like a mad man to away games, super league players always playing for star lol, playing drunk v dugannon on st paddys day, and after mckee telling me i ever do that again, he would kill me
I would not be where i am today with the Ballymena Blackstone or team.grouse! Mckee is to this day still one of the best coaches i ever had, the guy just had an uncanny way of getting the absolute best outta every person to step foot into the hall! Playing u16 with harry mcgarry as our coach or Paul Gillan, doing to score board while premier league team was playing, watching beefy just beast people! The best thing was even after people left the club, every summer the doors were always open! The next generation was always playing Adam Murray Adam Hillis PeterMcNicholl the list goes on its honestly sad to see so see such s great thing stop, all those kids who won’t get s chance to be around that type of club! Great club, great people
Sad to see this played for a good few years after I left St pats high school of which paul mckee was coach as well . What time n dedication that man gave to basketball in Ballymena. Thurs n Sunday night basketball I’ll never forget some great times
Late Sunday night tip off, cold gym, beefy playing the middle of a zone jumping out of the gym. Horrible place to have to go win….
Great supporters of the Donegal Invitational, will be missed!
Some brilliant games both in Ballymena and Strabane always “White-hot” competition Paul Mc Kee was a legend !!!
Remember the first time I seen an in-game dunk was beefy throwing down a massive rim rocker like it was nothing!
Great respect from Omagh for all Paul McKee has contributed over the years
Great club, great memories of playing basketball there. Of all the sports I have played, Mark ‘Beefy’ Rodgers was one of the best athletes I have ever seen, his dunks were incredible.
Id say not many teams looked forward to the trip to St Pats on a Sunday evening to play games but personally it was one of my favourite away games because you always knew it was going to be a great game. There aren’t many teams in the country at any level that play with 100% intensity from the opening tip to the final buzzer regardless of the score. I played for many years and saw a variety of line ups in the Blackstone team and they all played with that same tenacity and desire to win which was no doubt instilled in them by the great Paul McKee. One of my favourite games that I can remember was back in 2000 I think playing for Star in the regional final for the All Ireland Clubs up in Ballymena LC. One of the best match ups was Beefy vs Paul Dunlop and of course it went down to the wire. Thankfully we came out on top but it took every ounce of effort to do that, just like every other game Ive played against the Grouse/Blackstone. Im also happy to say that 2 of my closest friends (O’Dornan and Gallagher – no homo) have come from this great institution.
Played v grouse/ blackstone since I can remember – Sunday nights in that freezing gym – actually played against McKee before his knee made him stop! Big Tom and the rest of the boys would play so tough then have a laugh with us after the game- then I can remember playing against these two wee fellas who never left me alone – always hounding me all over the court – Connor O’Dornan and Adam Murray- then there was Beefy and Harry – beefy was a beast and you could never catch Harry!! Both the nicest guys off the court as were all the guys! Always a tough match and I always relished heading up for a battle in the school gym- loved those baskets too – good rings for shooting! Paul’s passion for the game was unreal as was Ryan ‘s. Very sad to hear the club is to be no more- as the rest of you I have great memories, wins, defeats by 1 pt and 25pts, and many friends from Grouse/Blackstone (and before!) hope all of you keep playing if you can!!
And last, but of course never least, Paul McKee:
To close I would like to thank all the guys who played and coached over the years to make a great club. We had our own style and often were our own worst enemies on and off the court. We liked to compete and give our opponents a hard time as you know. I hope you all have a successful season!
These days he enjoys watching UCAM Murcia play in the ACB in Spain. In his own words: “a door closes and another opens.”