Our newest member of The Courtside Collective, Puff Summers, offers up his thoughts on the state of Irish basketball. This is the first in a series of posts around the theme of Irish Basketball. Be sure to revisit our page for other opinions from Irish basketball people from across the country.
I’ve been in this country since September 2007, and I came here as a young (dumb) American, unknowing of any kind of Irish basketball history. All I saw Ireland as was a stepping stone to a better, more higher paying gig. I didn’t understand the importance of the Cup or how precious it is to really be a part of a club. I just wanted to get my stats, collect my euros, and keep it moving, like most Americans come to Europe to do. And if I had just played that one season with Ballina and moved to some other country, I would have missed a chance to be a part of something that has become incredibly important in my life.
That year, I met my incredible wife (shout out to Lynda Summers!), whom with I would have a beautiful daughter, and from there Ireland was home, even though I still went away a few times to play in other countries. This was home. So all the “stuff that the Americans didn’t care about” in terms of basketball development and state of the game in this country became major concerns for me 1) because I am 100% a hoop fanatic and I need every place I’m living in to be that way as well and 2) because even if my daughter grows up hating basketball, I want her to have the OPPORTUNITY to play at a high level and for it not to be weird to aspire to that, if she should choose to do so. So maybe my obsession with players getting better in this country is a tad bit selfish, but it’s selfish for good reasons, and everything I try to bring to the game with Why Not Me? Hoops is genuine.
With all that said, I recently read an article featuring UCD’s Conor Meany, and in it he mentioned two pretty dynamic young Irish Point Guards, Kyle Hosford and Roy Downey. It made me think a little bit about where the Irish game has come since I’ve come into the country. Honestly, the standard of the Superleague (Premier League) has probably dropped because the number of professionals has dropped from 3 to 1, but only because most teams seem to focus too much on making that one professional the focal point of everything. When I came into the league, yes the professionals led the league in most statistical categories, but every professional came into the country to be a part of a team, to play a role, instead of just throwing them the ball and saying “GO”. Part of the reason that was possible, obviously, was because there were other pros on the court as well, so defences couldn’t just set out to stop one guy. It was better basketball because one American didn’t have the entire bullseye on him. It makes a difference I think. Also, it was SOOOO much easier living here with another American I could talk to, workout with, and just chill with—it made the Americans more comfortable here, which probably allowed them to play better—that’s just an opinion though. Skillwise, I don’t think there have ever been as many skilled, young Irish players. They are better than generations past. They can do more. They read pick and rolls better, they are more athletic, they can really shoot the ball (and I say that with no disrespect of any generations past. I love watching old tapes or clips of Irish games). The game has obviously changed, but I think the skill level of these players is growing all the time. Maybe they’re not as adept to reading the game (yet) as the top Irish players of the past, but they will get there. I genuinely believe they will anyway.
Back to Hosford and Downey as I mentioned earlier. How has Ireland produced two quick, athletic, do it all point guards? Well, when I came in the league, almost every team had an American point guard. Guess who young Roy Downey and Kyle Hosford got to watch every week going to Neptune and Demons games? Dynamic, quick, do it all American point guards. Is that a coincidence? Does no one else think they were forming their games from watching these guys? When I knew that I’d be staying in Ireland, I always said to myself that I’d be doing my job if, in 10 years, the teams I had played on wouldn’t need American point guards…that I would hopefully be able to help the guards I played with to be able to take the reins themselves. I obviously had nothing to do with any of the great guards in the Superleague now, but I 100% feel that there was an American point guard influence on all of the standout point guards in the league, guys like Isaac Westbrooks (who obviously had a lot of American influences besides guys that came into the country!), Scott Kinevane who played under Jonathan Reed at Hoops, Barry Drumm who was playing with Heath Sitton at UCD and so on. When I came here, Jonny Grennell was probably the only Irish point guard in the league, and I still think he’s the best point guard I’ve played against in Ireland. He controlled the game, was great defensively, got everyone involved. I loved watching him play, even though he didn’t stuff the stat sheets. And he grew up watching and playing under American guards—and it’s no fluke that he is a GREAT coach now. That’s where the game has suffered I think. Practices had to be more competitive with more pros. I know if all the Americans are as loud and competitive and talk as much s*%* as I do in practice, then having MORE of those guys and letting them play on different teams obviously raises the level of intensity.
I look at Demons dominating at the moment, and then I read about all the things they’re saying in the papers…about how competitive practices are, about how much each guy pushes the next, and it makes sense to me—they seem to practice as if they’re all professionals. They’re obviously deep, but Colin O’Reilly, a pro himself, has instilled in them the concept of getting better everyday and the importance of pushing each other to get better everyday, which I think is missing sometimes with some teams, and something that I think one professional can’t really be responsible for initiating. That’s where I think the one American rule hurts the league. Last year, I watched Killester and Mike Bonaparte, who I think has been one of the best imports to come in the country since I’ve been here anyway. He didn’t dominate the ball and try to do everything himself. He trusted his teammates, let the ball move, and Killester won the league. I know Mike, and know that he talked younger guys through things in practice and taught them things he had learned, which he’s probably also doing down in Neptune this year as well. I don’t think it was a coincidence, either, that they were coached by a guy (Jonny Grennell) who knew how to get the most of each practice, and a point guard (Isaac Westbrooks) who had played professionally, and a lot of other guys (Kieran O’Brien, Al Casey, John Behan, Mike Westbrooks, etc) who had played in eras with more professionals. None of it is a coincidence.
I’ve worked with a lot of young players over the last 4 or 5 years here, and at all of my camps you can literally see how much kids in Ireland want to improve. They want to be pushed, they want to learn, they f****** love this game! And so many of them eat up knowledge. I don’t know if Ireland was always like that, if the spirit of the game, from top to bottom was so hungry. That’s what pushes me going forward, because I want to see kids exceed what Irish players have done in generations past. I don’t want our guys to have to go to England to play at a higher standard. I want American colleges to see our u16s and u18s playing here and know that they’re playing at a high level and that they’d be able to contribute over there as well. And it all trickles down. Pros come in and help top Irish players better. Top Irish players become guys that younger guys look up to, and they, in turn, become better, and the cycle continues. I’ve heard so many Irish guys say that Americans now aren’t as good as they were in years past. And maybe that’s right, but, to me, our Irish players have improved, so the Americans may not stand out as much, which is a tribute to the work being done by our Irish players and the development our coaches have been doing with our players. Before I think Ireland was a place where Americans came in and knew they would dominate. I want it to be a place where Americans know they have to come in and work their asses off to be a part of something special. The teams at the top of the league seem to have figured this out. Guys like Isaac Gordon and Lehman Colbert and Jermaine Turner (and I say those guys because I just know personally a little about their work ethic) make this league better and are also made better by our players here.
People saying that Irish basketball is dying or that it has gone back are fools. And I’ll say that to anyone’s face.
Hoops here is on the rise, and we have a great influx of young players who are going to take it to new levels. I also read an article on Basketball Ireland with Joey Boylan, and they asked Joey what his goals were with his Irish u18s team this year going to the Europeans. And Joey’s response was simply “To get promoted to the A Division.” I read that and got HYPED. We’re not building players to go into the Europeans just to compete or for the experience. We are (or we damn well should be) building players to help put tiny little ol’ Ireland on the basketball map. It’s a process, and it’s not going to happen overnight, but from what I’ve seen in the last 8 years, we’ll get there. I just hope that clubs continue to rinse the professionals they get in for all the knowledge they have. Every little bit helps, and, honestly, as much as these players are here to make money to play basketball, I’ve learned that they’re here just as much to help spread what they’ve learned to our younger generations. Notice I said “our.” I’m still 100% American, but I’m also 100% committed to making the game matter here. We may never get back to the Golden Age of the 1980s, but when I get texts saying that Neil Baynes got an And 1 dunk or see pictures of Irish point guards hanging off the rim, I’m pretty sure we’re preparing for some kind of new age.