By RYAN HAYES
JORDANSTOWN – On Sunday night Ulster Elks guard Connor O’Dornan posted a simple message on Facebook, “… that’s why we all love basketball.” His was just one of the huge swathe of overwhelmingly positive responses to the first ever ESPN NI All-Star Event, organised by The Courtside Collective at the University of Ulster that afternoon.
As TCC’s staff and others rushed to update its social networking sites late into Monday night, the web was awash with glowing reviews, but it was O’Dornan’s simple message that struck me most. There are moments in sport which unify entire communities of fans and players; moments that inspire children to spend long summer (and wet winter) days and nights with a ball in their driveway; moments that reignite the fire for even the most jaded and cynical of old hands. This week culminated in one of those moments.
Sunday 15th April – Sunday 22nd April 2012 … The week that Northern Irish basketball made a show of strength. It’s true that basketball here still has a lot of work to do, but this was a week that has the potential to inspire those involved in the game to challenge any self-deprecating notions or perceived limitations on what can be achieved.
We remain relatively small as a sporting community but this ‘show of strength’, unlike all other such statements, was not for anyone else’s benefit. This was a week in which Northern Irish basketball showed itself what it can be.
It started last Sunday (15th April) when Christopher Butler (previously profiled on TCC) sank a clutch three-pointer with just 4 seconds remaining on the clock, sending his team AB Contern into overtime against rivals Grengewald. N.Ireland star Butler’s 27 points lead his team to both victory and promotion to Luxembourg’s top division. Ever dreamed of playing pro basketball and scoring a crucial buzzer beater? You can.
Mid-week, Ulster Elks star Daryl Shazier confirmed why he is perhaps the best American import to play in N.Ireland in over a decade. The 6’0” former Bucknell guard donned the green of N.Ireland to blow Wales away with a record 62 points in the final game of BUCS Home Nations competition. Shazier has already guided the Elks to the Premier Division regular season and play-off titles, collecting the Finals MVP to cap it all off.
Kids, I hope you’ve been watching…
This Sunday (22nd April) brought the showpiece event that capped off a great week … the ESPN NI All-Star Event. A 300+ sell-out crowd crammed into the University of Ulster to watch Coach Pat O’Neill’s Belfast All-Stars take on the NI All-Stars led by Coach Paul McKee, and no one went home disappointed.
The day began with the sharpest shooters in the country competing to be crowned three-point shootout champion. Fifteen men and women, representing their clubs, were selected to take part in the shooting exhibition but in the end, it was all about three players.
Meghan Houlihan of the Ulster Rockets won the crowd over with an excellent shooting display and almost chalked up a major coup for the women’s game by making the final of the first ever Three-Point Shootout. Darius Surginas (Armagh Magic) opened the competition in fine style with 16 points, while Marty McDonald (Blackstone Ballymena) matched him score-for-score soon after.
By the time Houlihan stepped up to the rack near the end of the first round, there was only one player left to shoot and it seemed that the two Final berths might already be secured. As Houlihan found her rhythm, the crowd found their allegiances to their own club favourites severely tested. As she approached the final rack with a chance to beat the boys, a heightened sense of anticipation came over the crowd as everyone willed her on towards the final. Houlihan may have missed out on the Golden Ball but she can feel proud at having won over some 300 fans and surely inspired all those girls watching to feel that they can match even the best of the boys.
The final of the shootout brought together the two inseparable shooters from the first round – McDonald and Surginas. After rock-paper-scissors was introduced as something of a theme for the day, Surginas shot first and set McDonald a target of 12. When the Ballymena guard drilled all five balls from the first the rack, the crowd erupted in approval; and if they sensed that McDonald would race ahead to victory, they were right. A score of 18 outdid not just his opponent but his own previous total and clinched the win.
Throughout the day, the crowd had the chance to get actively involved in the big occasion in a number of ways, the most exciting of which being the half-court shot competition. Three lucky fans whose ticket number was drawn at random went excruciatingly close to going home with £200 cash, hitting the rim from the half-court line.
After the shootout, TCC’s panel of VIP judges took their seats for the Slam Dunk Contest, not entirely sure what might lie ahead. Thomas Kane (BBC Sport) and Nick Kuiper (Belfast Giants) joined basketball’s Conor Lilly, Mark O’Neill and Javan Dupree to assess whether or not N.Ireland’s high flyers could really pull it off.
They needn’t have worried; the dunk contest raised the roof. Or rather, David Durkan raised the roof.
Every single competitor deserves the highest of praise for what they achieved with their dunks (Daryl Dowey and Audrius Cesonis spring to mind, personally) but no-one will deny that the day belonged to 5’10” teenager from Lisburn Basketball Club.
Durkan earned high marks in the earlier rounds of the competition and his windmill effort, which would have been the talk of any other contest, was the first to elicit several 10s. However, it could not have been scripted any better than for Durkan to have the final dunk of the final round.
As he lined up not one but two of his friends and teammates underneath the basket, the crowd seemed to find it hard to believe what he was contemplating. Here was 5’10” teenager. There were two of them in the way. TCC host Tony McGaharan went forward to intervene; to give Durkin’s helpers a lifeline, a chance to change their minds. But they knew what many didn’t believe. They knew what those of us who had seen Durkan’s 360o dunk earlier in the season were starting to think possible.
The crowd were almost all on their feet in anticipation. Javan Dupree, still not fully believing it was possible, rose from his judge’s chair and moved to the centre court for a better view. Durkan took two dribbles, exploded over the helpless bystanders and slammed it home one-handed. Against a wall of noise, senior All-Star players (including those who’ve seen it all) spilled from the Belfast bench and mobbed the young Durkan, while the judges tossed their scoring cards in the air as if 10 weren’t enough. This contest was over.
He may have other memorable moments in his basketball career, but none more so than this. David Durkan. Enough said.
Oh, yeah, kids…still think you’ll never be able to dunk?
The All-Star exhibition game soon followed and was played in the most commendable spirit. Both sides were committed and both genuinely wanted to win the game. Players of this quality don’t like losing, no matter when and where they play, and both teams played an attacking game that led them to over a hundred points and gave the spectators their money’s worth.
In truth, while some tough individual defence crept into the game towards the end, it was never going to be a day for going on the defensive. NI sought to build their offence from the inside out, trying to get the ball in the hands of Bastakys and Murray, and both men put up duly impressive tallies of points. McDonald and Danys also caught the eye offensively for the NI All-Stars starting five.
For Belfast, Shazier looked as good as he has consistently all season and the occasion must have been particularly enjoyable for him as he ends his first season in Northern Ireland basketball. In addition to the quality of their starting line-up, Belfast were also able to call upon the Super League talents of Stephen Dawson and Scott Summersgill from Belfast Star.
Both Star players had good games but it was Summersgill whose eye-catching offensive skills drew most admiration from the crowd – the younger fans in particular. Time and again the veteran guard set up his man and as soon as the defender made the mistake of facing him up square-on, Summersgill was gone.
It must be pointed out that there were simply too many good performances and too much quality on show to mention everyone (in this one particular article – a full match report would be needed to do justice to game) and, in light of that fact, it is no small praise to say that one player deserves the last word. The 2012 ESPN NI All-Star Game’s Most Valuable Player – Girts Celms.
Celms, of the Down Tropics, had been one of the best players of the regular season and, taking that form into the All-Star Game, was simply outstanding on Sunday. He shot from outside, put his teammates in advantageous positions where they could shine, and found his own way repeatedly to the basket to make scores that pleased the crowd and helped his side to one point 106-105 victory.
The tension and spectacle on such a close game was greatly helped by the performance of the three-man refereeing team of John Hegarty, Paul Bullock and Brendan Mason who encouraged the game to flow, overlooked minor infractions and enjoyed a great rapport with the players. They called the game exactly as it should have been called and deserve gratitude for their part in an entertaining game.
I should finish by pointing out, perhaps, that they were ably assisted by one Tony McGaharan who had to intervene late in the fourth quarter to settle a disputed call between refs. He might have imposed his own will as event organiser but he had a much fairer solution … rock-paper-scissors.
Will the first ever NI All-Star Game be remembered as the one decided on rock-paper-scissors referee’s call? Or will it be remembered as the year of Durkan? Maybe it’ll be Shazier’s year, or Girts Celms first MVP award of many?
Hey, maybe you’ll spend your twilight reminiscing about Big Ted and those amazing cookies…
Whatever your favourite moments from the ESPN NI All-Star Event, I’m guessing it’s a day that none of us who were there will soon forget.