James Weldon was recently in the states taking a tour of top college programmes and speaking to some legendary coaches and he kindly agreed to write this guest article for us. Also make sure and check out his interview on our latest Podcast here.
In a small gift shop in Bloomington , home of the Hoosiers and the Little 500 bike race, a distinguished old gentleman wearing an IU polo shirt greeted me warmly somehow sensing that I was not from these here parts. ‘ Where y’all from?, he enquired as his eyes scanned not only my Botty O Callaghan’s finest Kerry GAA hat but my jacket too. “Ireland,” I volunteered, but clearly he was intrigued by something as he looked intently at the “We are Basketball” logo. It’s FIBA.. the governing body …. world basketball ….the badge, I attempted to explain. Unimpressed he looked me straight in the eye and drawled ‘’ Y’all can have your Eurostep back!” All that was left to do was pay the man, smile politely and move on – perhaps this wasn’t the time to mention Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, the Ukrainian born star of the Kansas Jayhawks, who I had watched as he Eurostepped over the dreams of Kentucky the previous night in Rupp Arena. But East is East and West is West and when in Rome do as the romans.
January for an Irish basketball player/coach/fan, is the best of times or the worst of times depending on whether all roads lead to Taillight for the Cup weekend or not. KCYMS in Killorglin were not involved this year so I left them in the capable hands of the boot room coaching staff Charlie, Paudie and Kevin while I flew to Louisville for ten days of basketball therapy. After all who would turn down a crusade to the basketballing bible belt to meet hall of fame coaches, observe team practice and study them in the white heat of battle in fabled arenas. For many years Ireland has looked westward for basketball guidance and inspiration. ‘’Hanging from the Rafters’’ has chronicled in fascinating detail this great story. Increasingly , mainly due to our underage international teams competing on a yearly basis in FIBA competitions and the arrival of many european coaches to the land of saints and scholars we have been more exposed to the European (Eurostep?) methods and style of play. Indeed my first encounter with the future NBA Kansas prospect Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk was at the European u16 A competition in Kevi 2013 where as part of the FECC (Fiba Europe Coaching Certificate) I had to present a scouting workshop report to fellow participants on this player.
I was fortunate as well on this journey to meet and exchange ideas and thoughts with progressive and innovative coaches who, while not at the Division I NCAA top table yet, are running programmes that we in Ireland can benefit from studying. Like us they do not get the best athletes or have major financial backing but nevertheless push their players to excel and be the best they can be. Coach Scott Davenport of Bellarmine University who captured the NCAA D2 Championship is one such exemplar. A former assistant under Rick Pitino at Louisville he has championed individual player workouts and team shooting as pillars of his programme which prompted the NY Times to feature his college in an article “You are not the Knicks”. Scott also keeps a keen eye on FIBA “you guys are passing us out with coach development. All we do is play AAU all summer and not spend more time developing our coaches and players”. With his work ethic and basketball fundamentals it is no secret why his team are so highly ranked and have won a national title.
Speaking of ranked teams, coach Jeff Walz’s of Louisville women’s team that has reached a couple of Final Four in recent years kindly invited me to attend practice , sit in on a team meeting/video session with the players and coaches. Jeff recently attracted a lot of media attention when he questioned the current view that everyone should get a medal.’’ ..and it’s not just in basketball, it’s in life. Everybody thinks they should get a job. Everybody thinks they should get a good job. No, that’s not the way it works…if you finish fifth, you walk home with a nice trophy parents are happy” Sentiments many of us old schoolers might not disagree with. Watching coaches Calipari and Pitino conduct and orchestrate their pre game practices was inspirational. TV and game dvds cannot do justice to the speed , size and athletic ability of the players or the intensity and preparation of the coaches Coach Cal showed a curiosity about Irish basketball and enquired about my trip itinerary I thought it best to avoid any mention of a eurostep. Driving through the Indiana landscape in the tyre prints of Norman Dale, past billboards with messages about Jesus and Assembly Hall basketball reinforces that the American heartland – the home of basketball- still sets the pace, the standard and the excellence that the rest of the basketball world avidly strives to emulate and at times succeeds in improving on. It felt great going home though reinvigorated and enthused about the rest of the season awaiting in the Irish spring.