In a week when the plight of the inter-county GAA player has been prominently described as “depressing”, any conversation with an Irish Premier League basketball player is worth starting with asking what that experience is like, writes Kieran Shannon.
Especially when it’s UCD Marian’s Conor Meany.
There’s hardly a more articulate or discerning player in the league than the 28-year-old. Here’s someone who has been the co-commentator on national TV for every cup final since the one he won in 2011, works in social media analytics for a living, whose current bedtime reading is Malcolm Gladwell and box-set viewing is the fifth season of The West Wing. If you are to follow one Irish basketball personality on Twitter, follow Meany.
On the court he’s also one of the league’s smartest players, and one of its best; last season he was among its top 10 scorers, averaging 16 points a game.
And this being his 10th year in the league, he’s also one of its veterans, even if the only silverware he has to show for it is that One-Moment-In-Time cup final win four years ago. So as one of its most experienced players, what is the experience like?
He grins explaining why he bears it.
“I think you have to love basketball and the competition of it. The cup itself is glitz and glamour as much as it can be for [Irish] basketball but the league in general can be a slog. You can go to a lot of places and there might not be a lot of people at it or even aware that it’s going on. That is difficult because we do put a huge amount of time into it without the payoff of regularly playing in front of thousands of people like a lot of the GAA players do.”
Another thing the GAA can guarantee is showers in its national stadium. Basketball can’t. Last Sunday, Marian were part of a league double-bill at the National Basketball Arena. Their game against Killester was streamed live and its highlights shown midweek on TG4, which for all the visible empty seats, gave the veneer of big-time sport. Reality would splash when the players returned to the dressing room.
“I saw last week the camogie and ladies football are forming a new players organisation and reports of players being out of pocket and no hot water after training or games down the country. I understand why that might seem like a big issue in the GAA, but a lot of those issues are the same that we’re faced with. In the [National Basketball] Arena last weekend there were no showers after the games. We just had to drive home and shower there. We were lucky it was in Dublin.
“That’s not uncommon. I’ve played in more than one gym this year where we haven’t had hot water. And that’s not to complain about it. It comes with playing in the league. And the reason I still play nationally rather than Dublin local league is that I like the competitive nature of it, that it’s the highest level I can play at. And the fact we haven’t had the success we’ve wanted over the last few years but aren’t a million miles away from achieving, that drives me too. There are a number of things I want to achieve before I finish up.”
Whenever he does stop playing, he’ll hardly quit the sport. He’s a lifer, just like his father before him. When Paul Meany left Marian College in the summer of ’69, he not only helped found Marian basketball club but would volunteer as treasurer to the national governing body. In the 80s he would serve as president of the sport and then step in as interim chief after the sport financially imploded in 2009.
Even Conor’s mother, appropriately named Marian, got roped in. She came up from Cork as a champion national swimmer but after meeting Paul in a Ballsbridge bar one night is now in her fifth decade as a table official. There was no escaping the game’s grip. And no other way Conor would have wanted it.
“As a club we used to all play out of St Michael’s College. I’d go down there first thing on a Saturday morning and not leave until after the national league team’s game that night. Even when the U13s would be playing I’d be shooting in between timeouts, then dash to the side with my ball.”
Now that wide-eyed kid is a hardened veteran but still sees stars in his eyes. There just isn’t as many of them as there could be or efforts to develop or promote them.
“We were actually talking about it at training the other night how for our first cup semi-final [in 2008] we played Tralee who had a European point guard, two Americans and then [Kieran] Donaghy and [Micheal] Quirke. Now we’re down to one professional per team. I do think the standard has slipped so I would certainly favour a relaxation of how we’re restricting certain players from playing. If someone like Puff Saunders who is married to an Irish girl and has an Irish passport, let him play as a non-professional. The argument has been the big clubs with spending power would then dominate. But I don’t think there’s that money around the country and sure Demons are dominating anyway.”
Certain developments about the league excite him. Even guards such as Demons’ Kyle Hosford are now able to slam it down. Mono or even McHale couldn’t do that. But Meany wonders how young talents such as Hosford can develop without the promise or pathway of a senior national team. The sport has to aspire for a return of a national team, plan for it, be ready for it.
“I think we have enough expertise within the Irish game that could help develop that talent. A lot of games are recorded now. I’d love if we had some kind of mentoring network where say [Neptune’s] Roy Downey’s game at the weekend was sent to someone like a Puff or an Adrian Fulton who’ve played the position and could go through it with him.”
There are other ways he feels basketball people could be helping basketball. More clubs streaming more games and providing more twitter updates. And Basketball Ireland consulting more with the players. It wouldn’t surprise him if a players’ body was formed.
“There is a frustration there that the league could be more player-friendly. Take the cup semi-final. Our whole team are taking time off work this Friday to go play a game in Cork at 7pm. I know [Cork and Limerick] people before were initially unhappy with the cup final being up here [in Dublin] on a Friday night but that was because of TV. There’s no TV this Friday. Okay, I’m sure it’ll still make a great night but it’s just assumed that we can get off work. It’s things like that which makes players who are good enough to be playing in our league ultimately decide it’s not worth the hassle.”
For a lifer like Meany though, it is. Four years ago he was there when Marian shocked Killester in the cup final. And so were his parents amidst the sea of Marian blue behind the team’s bench. They could sense a shock and history was in the air and the team duly sensed and fed off that too to deliver the club its first major trophy since 1978.
“Afterwards I almost felt a sense of relief. To deliver something for people like Mum and Dad for coming down every Saturday night, Dad on the [MC] microphone and Mum on the table. Those are the moments you cherish.”
And try to recreate. Take it he’ll be there in Cork tonight. It’s the cup. It’s his sport.
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Original article in Irish Examiner here.