Earlier this year, Basketball Ireland placed an advert on their website, seeking a coach to lead a squad at the Sino-European Men’s Basketball Championships to be held in Kunshan, Jaingsu Province in China in mid-July. Crucially, although the post was voluntary, the cost of the trip was covered by the Chinese Basketball Association.
I say “crucially” because, as none of us are unaware, a lack of funds cost Ireland it’s senior men’s basketball team back in 2010 after a moderately successful Eurobasket 2009 qualifying campaign where the team beat Luxembourg and lost to Slovakia (narrowly), Sweden and Georgia (more convincingly). Ireland’s last international triumph in the men’s game came at the 1994 European Promotion Cup (the junior women won the same trophy in 1997).
The gig went to Cork Demon Colin O’Reilly, one of Irish basketball’s standout players over the past decade and the scorer of 25 last time Ireland secured an international victory, and he was assisted on the trip by Puff Summers, Mark Scannell and James Weldon. O’Reilly duly set about an intensive training camp as he sought to get his players up to the necessary speed they would require to compete with the teams sent by Italy, Russia and the hosts nation, China.
The Irish squad, in the form of a “select” team that enabled DCU’s Latvian big man Martins Provizors to participate, and perhaps allows the governing body to maintain some ideological distance from the restoration of a full national team, was largely selected from the National League. Joining Provizors were O’Reilly, initially pencilled in as a player-coach but ultimately sidelined by injury, his fellow Demons of his brother Niall, Kyle Hosford, Shane Coughlan, and Ciaran O’Sullivan, UCD’s Conor Meany and Dan James, Neptune’s Roy Downey, long-time national team player Conor Grance, now of Templeogue, Swords Thunder’s Kevin Lacey along with two northerners in the form of Belfast Star’s ex-Ivy Leaguer Keelan Cairns and EVL Limburg standout Paul Dick.
UCD guard Conor Meany, in an exclusive interview with TCC, commented:
It was a fun experience playing with the best the league has to offer. I had only played with Dan [James] before so getting to play with a lot of the guys we play against each year was cool.The scrimmages and practices over the last 3 months were so competitive so it was really good to constantly push each other to a higher standard.
In their first game, against the Italian under-23 side, Ireland struggled to maintain contact with their opponents for the full four quarters, drifting out to a 70-42 defeat. The team was led by Paul Dick’s 12 points, with Provizors, Grace, Hosford, Cairns and Downey also contributing. Meany noted that “he opposition in China was tough. The Italians although being a relatively young team were all pros and played really nice basketball. It was a bit of a shock to the system for us and they really punished us for a couple of small mistakes.”
It wouldn’t get much easier in the second game, though this time the Irish fought through against a Russian team to achieve a narrow victory. Here, they were led by the guard play of Paul Dick (20 points) and Dan James (15 off the bench), with Kyle Hosford and Provizors providing scoring support. Conor Meany commented that “The Russian team were good and had a couple of really nice players. It was great to see Irish players going head to head with them and being able to close out the game.”
Minus their best player for the final game against perhaps the strongest team, Ireland struggled. Paul Dick suffered from foot and hip injuries that sidelined him against the Chinese, promoting Meany to the starting lineup.
The Chinese, featuring Yi Jianlian and Liu Wei, among with other long-tenured members of the 14th ranked team in world basketball, came through 82-46. Meany, who matched up with Yi for a few plays during the game, reflected on the game:
The Chinese experience was brilliant. We struggled to deal with their size and lost by more than we deserved to. Overall the big difference I felt was that other teams had much more length than we see here so you had less time to make decisions and every mistake you made was punished at that level. We definitely have guys who can compete at that level though.
Coach Puff Summers, assisting O’Reilly on the trip, reflected:
China was unbelievable for me. The whole process of us going to China was unbelievable. I saw guys commit themselves to getting in shape, working on. Their games in a. Country that usually uses the off-season as a time to drink and play Gaelic football. I needed to see it from a personal standpoint, because it legitimised what I’m trying to preach with Why Not Me? hoops–that if you’re willing to push yourself you can achieve things no one would have imagined. And yes, that sounds corny, but to quote my main man (and legend),Mark Scannell, “Who the f*** beats Russia???”
Summers noted the change of pace he experienced being on the coaching staff for this trip, but considers the experience to have been a positive one:
it was rewarding to watch guys figure things out and watch us slowly all buy in to the fact that we played a style of basketball that would allow us to be successful if we were disciplined and all did our individual jobs well. Seeing us consistently get open shots vs the fourteenth ranked team in the world (China) meant something. The fact that we missed so many open ones had to do with our non-professional status (amateurs obviously aren’t as crisp and can’t get up as many shots as full professionals), the fact that we hadn’t played in a international competition before which made the pace of games harder to adjust to, and the fact that those “open” looks really meant a guy running at you hard. In Ireland, an open shot means no one is within like 10 feet of you. So, the tournament was important because it defined the standard to which we want to play. It gave us an idea of how many bad habits we have to shed in our domestic league in order to really improve. And I think that will stand to the guys who went on the trip. I think those 12 guys will be better this coming season, and I think the guys who were on the outside looking in on that team will raise their standards to show that they, too, should have/could have been considered.
The senior men received a further boost when it was announced that a “Hibernia Basketball” team, effectively another National League select, would be allowed to compete in the second tier FIBA competition which launches this upcoming season. Click here for details. Surely a contender for the team, should the cards fall in place, Conor Meany commented that:
Yeah the Hibernia team is an exciting development and great to see some new ideas for progressing the game here. The more opportunities guys have to play against top level talent the more the game will hopefully progress here. It also gives more incentive to younger guys to continue to push themselves to try and play top level basketball. Hopefully when the team plays in the arena the whole basketball community can come out and support them.
The China trip was important for Irish basketball and the development of the Hibernia team is another encouraging step in the right direction. Almost an entire generation of Irish hooper has seen the national team pass them by. Those who were not American enough to make the teams of the 00’s now find themselves in their early 30’s with, in most cases, demanding work schedules that limit their participation with their club sides. These developments, provided they are capitalized upon, can ensure that the current crop of guys in the 20’s (and, yes, a few of the older heads still pounding the floors in the Premier League) will not miss out like their predecessors.
All in all, a good couple of weeks for Irish hoops!