Youth development, quality coaches, and Americans are all priorities for the growth of the Irish game, says Ciaran Mac Evilly. This is the second opinion piece in our series, “Irish Basketball: Just One Perspective”.
I’m delighted to have been asked to contribute something to The Courtside Collective. It’s great to see the enthusiasm this generation has in the sport and read the various inside stories and perspectives people have on the direction it’s going. Puff’s article was a great read, I agree with all he has to say and we are lucky to have individuals in this country with his experience, vision and work ethic. It would be great if all the people running the sport in Ireland had his belief and positivity.
I suppose I’ll continue on from what Puff had to say while offering the perspective of someone who grew up playing the sport in this country and has probably been involved in every conceivable aspect at some time or another, except senior men’s international. At the moment I am coaching basketball full time. I coach in primary schools, camps, colleges, underage club and national league.
Like Puff, I am very interested in the area of player development. I see the talent in the primary schools and it frustrates me as to how few of them go on to be top players. There are a multitude of reasons why; from competition of other sports through to the pressures of school and (sadly) to alcohol. But there are far more reasons why they should stay the course and reach their potential in basketball. This is what we, as a sport, need to be focussing on!
We need to give these talented youngsters a clear vision and path to achieving greatness in their sport. Basketball has given me so much over the years; the joys of making my first Dublin team; the pride of making Irish underage teams; the dream of going to play in America drove me to work on my game and taught me about hard work; being on RTE in National Cup finals when I was still in school was magical, and the Varsities are an experience that’s hard to describe!
I was lucky though. I was in the right place at the right time. I was in a school and club which afforded me solid coaching right the way through that led into a Superleague team which had 5 professionals at the time. I had a clear path to achieving my full potential in the sport. The rest was up to me and how hard I worked (obviously not very hard!). I feel that by not providing this opportunity to every aspiring young player, we are letting them down. And, by “we”, I mean the Irish basketball community as a whole and I suppose the buck ultimately stops with Basketball Ireland.
The reason my school and club were so successful was definitely down to the tireless work of one man- the legendary Gerry O’Brien. He churned out players in the local primary school and sent them up to Colaiste Eanna, where many went on to win the national title year in, year out. Gerry has retired now and Colaiste Eanna hasn’t won an All-Ireland since.
This example is probably a familiar story to many of the successful schools and clubs in Ireland, where the work of one or two pioneers giving their time selflessly created generations of excellent players. What is so crazy to me is why no one has copped on as to how simple it is… Put good coaches in the primary schools, produce players with the basic skills and then follow through in secondary and clubs with knowledgeable coaches, who can bring them on further. Now you know where I’m coming from, I can start getting to my main points.
As I mentioned, my main area of interest is player development. I look at what we could be doing to increase the standard of play in this country. Take my Eanna team as an example. I want us to win and to do this we need good players. Good players don’t guarantee you’ll win but you need good players to at least have a chance. So, how do I get good players? I can make them (youth development) or I can bring them in from the outside (Americans). My Plan is: do both! Seems simple, right? So, why isn’t this approach being used on a national level? Where is the national plan for youth development? Why is there only one American allowed in the National Leagues? For the remainder of this article, I will focus on why the issues of youth development and professional players are vital to the development of the game in this country.
One strong trend I have encountered, while coaching youth basketball, is that if a kid hasn’t got a certain skill set by a certain age (let’s say around 12 years old) then he/she will probably never be a top player. Many of us will be familiar with the example above of the one coach in an area producing hundreds of players over a prolonged period. No doubt these coaches knew the importance of and had the ability (and patience!) to teach the footwork for a lay-up to kids as young as 7.
An early start with a good coach is so vital and, as it is such an obvious thing, it makes me mad when people are scratching their heads wondering, “how can we make irish players better?” when they are not investing in primary school players.
We need better youth coaches!
Basketball Ireland needs to be training and employing quality coaches to go into primary schools and teach the kids the basics. I don’t care how much it costs; figure out a way to make it pay for itself! There’s no point having top coaches on Irish national teams when you are doing nothing about the quality of the pool of players you are selecting from. We are letting talent slip through our fingers.
I’m sure every Irish player reading this has at one time or another had a coach who probably wasn’t very knowledgeable on the game of basketball! I have seen secondary school teams being coached by teachers who needed basic things explained to them by the players. I have had coaches at the mens level in this country who really really didn’t know a lot about the game. These coaches had talented teams who lost because the coach couldn’t read the game; didn’t understand the offences or defences they were trying to put in. These coaches didn’t even know what ‘hedging on a screen’ meant etc. etc.
One year I played Superleague, we had one quick hit offence for the whole year for man and zone! It got to the point, where I wanted to compete so badly, I became a coach of my own team just so I could put a basic structure in. I had a hilarious time my first year player coaching with Eanna D1 Dublin. It became clear to me early on that most of them had never had a proper coach at the mens level before. I was coaching players my own age and older who were shocked to learn about options on offences and how to set and play ball screens. We were doing drills one day and one player famously told me he “doesn’t do left hand lay-ups.” We all had a laugh but he was serious. It goes to show that he never had a coach to drill home the basics when he was younger. And what happened the following year? We won everything! Almost all of the excellent coaches I have had have been American. Now, before the uproar, I know there are plenty of good Irish coaches but this is just my experience and it brings me neatly to my next topic.
For crying out loud, undo the restriction on Americans and foreign players in the top league.
Puff gave a host of valid reasons, so I’ve no need to repeat them all but I can give some of my own insights. When I joined Notre Dame, we had 5 pro’s. Practice was amazing; so competitive and it made our Irish guys better. I know a lot of people will say, “But we want to see Irish guys playing”. Then let them play National League until they’re good enough to compete at the top level! That’s what lower leagues are for. We should make it a real achievement for Irish players to become a contributor in the Premier League of Ireland. If I wasn’t good enough to get court time ahead of Lenny McMillan when he was 40 and I was 19, then that’s our fault… not the Americans! Some teams will say, “But we can’t afford two Americans”. Then let them go into National League until they figure out a way to make their club more professional. This notoriously Irish mentality, or approach, of settling for mediocrity and amateurism has to stop. I have seen the league from the end of the ’90s, where it was really heating up; 16 teams in the Superleague; weekly televised games; great quality Americans… to the lows of a couple of years back; 8 teams, 1 American per team, and I know which was better. I know there are financial reasons but we can’t settle for this. We have to always be aiming to take our sport to new heights.
Irish players will improve as a result of playing with better competition [Editor: Can’t argue with that, surely]. So many of todays good players matured while watching their American players getting extra shots up or lifting weights whenever they could; that work ethic rubs off on kids! Plus these pro’s can be utilised to coach our kids and pass on their knowledge, thus helping the game develop at grass roots level.
In conclusion, I understand there are a million different reasons why basketball has declined in recent times.
I know there is real competition from other sports but that doesn’t mean you give up and say, “Ah well, we can’t compete with GAA”
Competition means you have to compete harder to get what you want. We need an organisation running this sport that strives to get better no matter what and not be happy with where we are. Having said that, there is great work being done by Basketball Ireland and by the clubs, schools, colleges, and coaches all across this country and I know that what I’m saying isn’t easily achieved. But I feel emphasis should be placed on a co-ordinated youth recruitment and development plan, involving access to regular quality coaching combined with as professional a top league as possible. Once you have this in place, the rest will follow. Who knows, in 10 or 15 years time, Ireland could be as successful as Iceland on the international stage with Irish developed players. Iceland is a country with 300,000 people and has just qualified for the finals of Eurobasket 2015! I know I’m not coming up with any specific ideas on how to do this (I might if BI actually gave me a job!). I’m merely pointing my finger at what I think we should focus on if we want to make a long term improvement to the game in this country.
If you are interested in contributing to this series, or have an opinion piece you’d like to share, go ahead and reach out to us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ciaran grew up playing with Notre Dame club and Colaiste Eanna school. In 2000, he was voted Irish Schools Player of the Year. Ciaran went to prep school in Berkshire, Massachusetts, and also a Juco in South Carolina. He is currently playing and coaching Eanna’s National League team.