The name Jermaine Turner will be familiar to most TCC readers. There’s a decent chance if you’ve ever played in the Superleague that he’s dunked on you, or sent your layup into the stands (or the wall, we are talking about the Superleague after all!). Well into his fourth decade, Turner seems to have lost none of the electric athleticism which has been a hallmark of his game since he arrived on these shores whilst developing a strong and consistent jump shot. He offers a triple-threat offensively, able to find a man out of a double team just as easily as he can blow by a defender or nail a jumper. Jermaine Turner has been a nightmare for defenders in the Superleague for a number of seasons.
Turner grew up in Queens, New York and attended NCAA Division II Dowling College where he averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds a game before embarking on a professional career which, while taking in stops in Switzerland and Spain, has been punctuated with several stints in the Superleague where he has starred for teams up and down the country.
In his own words:
I ended up there just by chance. After college where in my senior season I averaged 20 and 10, I was invited to a free agent camp in Utah. This was a camp where college seniors who are under the radar go and try to continue their careers. I was befriended by a gentleman named Bob Wood, who was a former owner of a BBL team. He told me that he would keep me in mind if a team contacted him about players. Later that summer I received a call from Robbie Peers, coach from the Chester Jets at the time. He told me that he would sign me if his first choice falls through, Loren Meyer, a former NBA player. Loren did sign with them, Robbie called to tell that if he hears of any team who needs a player he would recommend me. On Septemter 10th 2000, I got a call from Frankie O’Loane. He asked if I had a passport, and that when I do get one, get on the first plane. I landed here on September 18th 2000. Best decision ever.
Jermaine Turner has been arguably the greatest modern Superleague player. Perhaps one could make a case for any number of temporary imports – Belfast fans will eulogise about the skills of RaMell Ross or Kevin Ratzsch for example – but for consistent excellence over a number of seasons, there are few who can touch Jermaine Turner. He features prominently in Rus Bradburd’s “Paddy on the Hardwood” as the one guy that the Tralee Tigers wanted back in Bradburd’s first season with the club…almost a decade ago…and he was still good enough to win the EuroBasket MVP in 2011 as well as player of the month awards last season.
Not bad for a guy who is the same age as Steve Nash; and let’s not forget that Nash has played all of his games on NBA hardwood which is practically a memory-foam mattress when compared with some of the floors you see in the Superleague. Jordanstown’s concrete tiles? The Queen’s PEC and its rubber on concrete? UCD’s floor? A handful of games on these floors and your knees will feel like they’ve had a fifteen year NBA career, too.
Turner fondly remembers his battle with Bradburd and points out:
if you read the book, Paddy on The Hardwood, he did not want to bring me back for my second season in Tralee, thus prompting me to plot my revenge, which I got by defeating them twice that season. That was a crossroad in my life, from almost being out of basketball to meeting my future wife. Yeah definitely my most enjoyable time here in Ireland.
As Jermaine points out, this was the season when he met his wife, Leesa, part of the Grennell clan who have been integral to basketball in Dublin for a number of years. From this point on, he had very real ties to Ireland. I think the first time I saw Jermaine Turner play was for St Vincent’s (now DCU Saints) against Star of the Sea. Over the years, he has been the topic of many conversations I have had with friends about the Superleague. Usually, a version of the following phrase is uttered: “why would any team not just sign Jermaine Turner? I mean he’s already here and he’s a known quantity.”
It is baffling that a player of his quality has been allowed to leave any Superleague team. Of course, as Turner points out, had he not departed Irish shores, temporarily as it happened, he would never have enjoyed what he describes as his most enjoyable experience away from Ireland: winning the Swiss title with Vacallo in 2004-2005.
Twelve years after he first landed in Ireland, it is deeply troubling for anyone with the well-being of Irish basketball at heart to note that the 2012-2013 season has begun with Jermaine Turner watching from the stands.
Turner’s most recent stop was in his adopted home of Dublin, where he lives with his wife Leesa and two children, all of whom are Irish, with northside powerhouse Killester, now coached by Belfast’s own Darren O’Neill (who is surely enjoying the drive to Dublin a lot more than he did when coach of UCD back in the days when a drive to Dublin took one through the charming town of Newry). Killester had lost a number of leading players prior to O’Neill taking charge, but Turner was instrumental in maintaining the club’s challenge in both cup and league competitions last season.
The reason that Killester have begun this season without their talisman is because Turner has decided to take on Basketball Ireland’s Superleague and its regulation which dictates that he must compete as a foreign player.
Cards on the table: Just over a year ago, I began a job at University College Dublin and tried to join the Superleague team there. Unfortunately for me, a couple of seasons ago, Basketball Ireland and the management board which oversees the Superleague decided that people could not play in the league unless they had been living in Ireland for a year, with the exception of the Americans (like Jermaine) who almost always end up being the import on Superleague teams. UCD Marian were unable to get my paperwork in before the first game of the season. Consequently, I spent the year training with the side and attending games, occasionally assisting coach Fran Ryan when needed. Now one could argue that perhaps that is the fault of UCD; an equally valid viewpoint would be that the reality of basketball in Ireland does not necessitate such a regulation.
I’m not one to blow my own trumpet, it’s been four full years since my career peaked with my stint at the Scottish Rocks in the BBL (and the grand total of an hour’s playing time I had that season…), but I’d like to think that I still have sufficient skills to at least help a team in the Superleague. Marian’s import, Donnie Stith, started the season strongly but was really a three man forced to play the five because he was the tallest player on the team; a fate which befalls many imports to both Ireland and the UK.
My path was, however, obstructed by this preposterous implication that my being in Dublin was somehow a deliberate ploy on the part of UCD Marian to boost their challenge for the 2011-2012 season and that I had to produce paperwork which would only suggest, not prove, otherwise. Among the paperwork I supplied was a rental agreement; a document which actually has no legal standing under British law.
There is some logic lurking in the shadows behind this regulation – there was a fear that teams with the financial means could simply ship in a top quality import for one or two games and win a trophy on the back of said mercenary. Okay, be that as it may, what good reason was there that I, a former Superleague player who was so obviously in Dublin for work, had to produce anything justifying my residency when I was both in Dublin and ready to be registered at the start of the season? Would it not be obvious to the ruling body what this hypothetical team was doing?
What this regulation, and by extension Basketball Ireland, fails to account for is the harsh reality of the economic of modern Irish basketball: namely that no team, with the possible exception of the Cork sides, has anything like enough money to bring in a temporary player, or what one might term a “ringer”. Clubs often stick with utterly mediocre Americans because they can’t afford to replace them. They are not about to bring in someone for three games at the end of the season to win a prize which would be ultimately meaningless when put alongside the miniscule prize fund that it offered and the cost of air travel, accommodation, and wages for said ringer.
The most obvious solution to me would be to simply prevent clubs from signing any new players, other than in the case of an emergency or highly irregular circumstances, after the start of the season. Clubs could still replace their import/American if he didn’t work out, but all other players would be set with their club from the first round of games. Or even, at a stretch, simply allow players to prove their credentials as legitimate economic migrants – and let’s face it, there aren’t a ton of those coming into Ireland at the moment.
The problems facing Jermaine Turner, a guy who has served Irish basketball with far more style than I could ever hope to, are rather different and certainly longer-standing. Belfast fans may recall the lamentations of local hero, but English-born, Scott Summersgill, who ran into the perception that a guy who had never been paid a penny to play basketball in Belfast was somehow denying opportunities to locally-reared players and was therefore prohibited from playing in the national basketball league as a domestic player.
Despite being the proud owner of an Irish passport, Turner is still considered as an American under Basketball Ireland and Superleague regulations. This prompts another, perhaps more troubling question: Why on earth would Basketball Ireland prevent the best players in Ireland from playing in the top league?
[Check out one of TCC’s first ever highlight videos featuring a dominant performance from Turner (No. 31) including a nice dunk on Star’s Michael McKillop at the 2.20 mark]
By anyone’s reckoning, Jermaine Turner and Scott Summersgill would rank among the top players to have played in the Superleague over the past fifteen years, yet both have found themselves on the wrong end of another less-than-logical Basketball Ireland Men’s Superleague decree. Despite the two of them having accumulated over a decade each living in Ireland (or Northern Ireland in Scott’s case) each, neither is allowed to compete in Basketball Ireland competitions as an Irishman. Both men are married to Irish women and both have Irish children. Both men spend the vast majority of their time in Ireland, although Turner’s professional career has taken him further afield.
Let me explain this further. If such a thing as the Irish national basketball team still existed (another subject for another article, but let me just say here – COME ON!), Jermaine Turner could play for it. Just as Justen Naughton did the season after he had played for Star of the Sea as an import. For an organisation to say “okay, you’re Irish enough for our government to grant you a passport, and therefore Irish enough for FIBA – you know FIBA? The guys who, like, yanno, run basketball across the entire planet? – therefore Irish enough to play for our national team, but no, you’re not Irish enough to play in our domestic league as an Irishman” betrays hopelessly contorted logic.
If the plan for the Superleague was to bring up a new generation of outstanding Irish players who all played domestically, then why on earth were they blocking off spots in the national side which were being taken by (increasingly aged) Americans? Would it not have been better to give national team caps to guys like the Westbrooks brothers, Phil Taylor, Kieran O’Brien, Kevin Foley, Paul Cummins, or our own Stephen Dawson (although I know Dawsy is secretly a proud Brit) than to continue to contest European competitions with guys like Naughton, Marty Conlon or even Jay Larranaga, who it must be emphasised served the team with great honour over a number of years?
The problem is that, regarding the Superleague, Basketball Ireland seem to find themselves caught between their visions of a top professional league and that of a high-standard developmental league where Irish players can flourish. They have ended up with neither.
What has happened, however, is that the general standard of the Superleague has plummeted. Even when I first arrived in Belfast in 2004, Star of the Sea could attract crowds of a couple of hundred people to see their three imports (although Scott Summersgill often assumed the role of the third import) perform. Granted Star also had Irish players of the highest quality around in Adrian Fulton and Gareth Maguire, but one could scarcely argue that the relative quality of the current crop is significantly worse. Now teams have one import, a player who is now required to carry his team each and every week, and, in the main, four Irish players on the floor. These four Irish players perform in front of crowds which frequently fail to exceed (occasionally the correct word here is “reach”) double figures. Consequently what happens is the import arrives, realises what he has gotten himself into within the space of about three weeks, and eventually lowers his performances from “as hard as he can” to “as hard as he has to”.
A well-travelled professional, Jermaine Turner himself notes:
I’ll say the league has been sliding since the 03/04 season. The league had 18 teams when I landed here in 2000, now there are 8. People forget how tough this league was, going to Waterford was a pain in the you know what, Sligo was a difficult trip, Killarney was no picnic, these places are the epitome of Irish basketball. Tough, hardnosed, not willing to back down and sometimes not pretty to watch but always willing to compete. I mean to see the likes of these teams along with Tralee, Ballina, Hoops, and Star not in the league is sad. Basketball is on life support.
Turner questions the logic behind the decision to take away the Bosman player and the second non-European import, or “American”. In doing so, he makes the very reasonable point that:
If they wanted to improve the Irish players then they should be fighting for time against the best available talent. They should not be GIVEN court time, they should EARN it. Let’s look at the Olympics, in ’92 when the US sent the dream team to compete, they destroyed everyone, people were saying “it’s not fair” and that the states would never lose. Fast forward eight years later and the States won bronze: the gap closed in eight years. Now that’s not because countries decided to exclude Americans from their domestic leagues, they encouraged it. That made their homegrown players better, now we have Spain pushing the Americans everytime they meet, Lithuania the same. If you look in these countries the amount of foreign players is not limited.
The drop in standard has not gone un-noticed elsewhere. Having Ireland on your resume does not necessarily impress coaches in other international leagues. It is no coincidence that very few professionals manage an additional professional contract after their season in Ireland is complete. Of last season’s professionals, a quick internet search suggests that the following are still plying their trade professionally:
Shawn Atupem (UCC): Finland; Ron Thompson (Neptune): Germany; Owen McNally (UCD, 3 games): UK; Robert Taylor (Limerick): Limerick.
So four guys who played as imports in the Superleague are listed as having jobs for this season. Granted, I didn’t do a whole lot of research into this, so would happily stand corrected, but given that Thompson was cut before the end of the season (and indeed already had an impressive resume of European experience before arriving in Ireland) and McNally is really a Bosman who impressed when filling in for Donnie Stith at UCD, we only really see Shawn Atupem advancing his career based on a season in Ireland. Even in the years I’ve been part of Irish basketball, the Superleague has been a credible place to start one’s career; Kevin Ratzsch proves as much, now starring for the Sydney Kings in the Australian National League – for what it’s worth Syracuse star Jonny Flynn just landed with the Melbourne Tigers. There is of course the fact that where Ratzsch clearly had a strong work ethic and the will to succeed, others simply just have not, but it does not help that they are playing in a league where they are not pushed. Indeed, who among us would not take it easy if we only had to work six hours a week (with a generous estimate of 2 hour training sessions twice a week, plus a two hour game)?
Legendary trash-talker Mike Calo is another who has fallen victim to these “foreign player” regulations. Say what you will about Calo (never forgetting that two players under his tutelage now appear for NCAA teams – Keelan Cairns and Paul Dick and neither of them played in the Superleague), but you would struggle to convince many that his skills would not have been welcome on one of the Belfast Superleague sides of the last seven years, particularly as a rotational player who did not take up an import slot because he was (a) working in Ireland and (b) married to an Irish lass.
Now Calo has no such problems appearing for Belfast Star in the Basketball Northern Ireland league. Why is it that the northern body should see no problems allowing Calo, who does not hold an Irish or British passport, to play in its league – where he is clearly, at worst, an above average player who raises the standard of play – and yet the national body won’t allow his countryman Jermaine Turner, who has been in Ireland for much longer and has almost identical ties to the country in addition to owning a passport, to play in its top league, the league which Star had to vacate this past summer? Calo himself considers:
Basketball would be better in Ireland if the best players are allowed to play regardless of where they are from. If you live there, you should be allowed.
I would just like to make it very clear that I don’t believe there is any deliberate malevolence on the part of Basketball Ireland here. I honestly believe that what regulations there are in place were set with entirely good intentions in mind. My major problem is that the governing body has been too content with the status quo and has failed to preempt the changing dynamics of Irish basketball, not to mention the changing dynamics of Ireland as a country. It seems to have done away with the “Irish educated” rule, where teams had to ensure that at all times it played three players who had gone through the Irish education system, otherwise it does not seem possible to me that the Dublin Inter team (otherwise known as Ballon) would have been able to compete in the Superleague this season.
The Ballon side of last season, which played in the National League was composed almost entirely of Lithuanians, all economic migrants to Ireland in recent years. This fact betrays another interesting discrepancy: why have the top level so extensively restricted and not the lower tiers where local players are far more likely to be found? This regulation seems almost geared towards the ultimate usurping of the Superleague by the National League.
An argument could be made that these regulations are in place to save clubs from themselves. We should not be ignorant of the troubles endured by the more professional British Basketball League across the Irish Sea. The storied Chester Jets franchise seems likely to fold; the Everton, now Mersey, Tigers are in utter disarray; a consistent London side has eluded the league for going on a decade. Basketball may be a popular sport in both Ireland and the UK, but the reality is that professional leagues in either country need effective and ruthlessly efficient management.
I personally see two potential solutions to these problems.
One could argue that there is no good reason why Basketball Ireland should not just let everyone who wants to play in the Superleague play. If clubs like UCC Demons (who have already replaced their American this season) want to bring in five professionals, then great. Basketball in Cork will thrive. Young Cork players will reap the benefits of playing with far better players. Okay UCC or Neptune might win everything for a couple of seasons, but if monied parties involved in other clubs across the island want to compete with them, they’ll have to put their money where their mouths are (and let’s not pretend that clubs lack at least a couple of very wealthy and well connected individuals involved at organisational level). What do sponsors want to see: forty people in a high school gym watching a bunch of short Irish guys miss layups (okay, I exaggerate), or the very best Irish players alongside the best available imports playing the highest level of basketball it is reasonable to expect on an island of 7 million people?
Furthermore, reinvigorating the Superleague would improve the National League, a highly credible competition when I played with Queens in 2004 and 2005, as well as local league basketball. I say this from experience: players only get better by playing against better players. If you can improve, you will. If you can’t, well, at least you tried.
Alternatively, have no professional players and make the league open to anyone who wants to play, like the Scottish national league. That way clubs are entirely dependent on local and locally-based talent. Clubs could still, of course, bring in Americans, but they would need to be employed – possibly as coaches – on a significantly part-time or full-time basis. Of course this will benefit the city clubs and the clubs connected with universities who have access to a larger pool of players, but given the strong ties between the GAA and basketball (personified in Kerry and former Tralee Tiger Kieran Donaghy), would there not be room, or at least the potential, for a reasonable-sized basketball club in every county?
Under this model, Jermaine Turner could play for Killester, just as could Puff Summers, another American with familial ties to Ireland. Of course, Summers might have preferred to stay in Connacht to play for one of the sides there where he has excelled in recent seasons.
What currently exists is effectively austerity professional basketball and no-one is winning.
It’s not like the league has been particularly competitive in recent years anyway. Anyone care to recall how many games the University of Ulster franchise won in its brief Superleague tenure, despite having both American and top Irish players on its roster? The DCU Saints were among the strongest sides in the league last season with precisely no American imports. Instead they played with a crop of Irish talent alongside Latvian Martins Provizors (with his unmistakeable tattoo down his arm) and Mike Trimmer, the veteran American who has been a fixture in the various versions of the club for a number of years.
Turner offers a similar solution, extending beyond the elimination of the rule which precludes him from competing as a domestic player:
[Eliminate] the other rule where you have to have 3 Irish players on the floor at anytime. Look, the best players should play, if he is Irish, so be it. I just don’t agree with having 3 Irish players being given court time when it is not earned. Look at the level of play in this league, you have guys on the court now that wouldn’t even play D1 had the rules not changed. Hurts the game, any game when you have rules restricting good play. If you want to develop Irish talent why not make D1 Irish only, like a minor league system, where they can hone their skills by practising with Superleague teams or in some cases playing both.
These are not the words of a guy who is looking for an easy ride. These are the words of a guy who so clearly has thought about how basketball in Ireland could be improved using the resources which are currently available. These exact principles could also be applied if clubs became better off and therefore able to bring in additional imports.
In the interests of fairness, we approached Basketball Ireland and offered them the opportunity to put across their side of the story in this article. At the time of publication, they have yet to respond. Our offer remains open to them, should they wish to do so.
I would like to take this opportunity to hitch my wagon firmly to Jermaine Turner’s case and wish him every success. I’m sure many reading this post have, at one time or another, felt in some way aggrieved by something that the governing body has done or decided. Well, nobody ever changed anything bumping their gums at a training session, or excising their demons on a messageboard (incidentally, what happened to the streetballireland messageboard? That used to be great) or, dare I say it, a blog. Sometimes, real change is only made possible when someone makes a stand.
If Basketball Ireland can move beyond what legislation that potentially ranges from the simply counter-intuitive and counter-productive to the potentially self-destructive, it might yet be able to save the Superleague and with it, Irish basketball. If, however, it decides to continue to cut off its nose to spite its face…well at least we’ll always have the GAA…
We’ll leave the last word to Jermaine:
Ah my favorite opponent is not a person but a city. Cork. I mean playing in Cork against Blue Demons and Neptune is what I live for. Going into a hostile environment with the fans yelling all sort of obscenities at you is what brings out the best in me. I love playing there, as the enemy of course!! And I will not be foolish and say just one teammate is my favourite so I will give a roll call. John Tehan, Pat Glover, Paddy Kelly, Peder Madsen, Dave Donnelly, Emmet Donnelly, Damien Sealy just to name a few.
Thanks to Puff Summers for his help on this piece.