Irish basketball is ready for lift-off but only with proper government funding

Irish basketball is ready for lift-off but only with proper government funding
David Varma in action for Neptune U18s against UCD Marian. Picture: Larry Cummins

BASKETBALL in Ireland is booming.

There's a vibrant national league and the country's international teams are regularly punching above their weight in the world's most popular sport behind soccer, while participation underage has exploded. A host of young guns, including Cork's Seán Jenkins, Jordan Blount, Conor and Darragh O'Sullivan, are making a mark in the college game Stateside. Northsider Edel Thornton returned after four impressive seasons in Connecticut.

Jordan Blount in action for Ireland. Picture: Larry Cummins
Jordan Blount in action for Ireland. Picture: Larry Cummins

While getting to rip it up in the NBA with LeBron James and Steph Curry isn't a realistic goal, there's a pathway for talented Irish ballers to prove their worth at an elite level. Many more will follow their steps on the hardwood.

As CEO Bernard O'Byrne explains "membership has grown by 65% in the last six years. That's principally young kids coming into the game."

Jamie Cotter and Sean Barrett, in action during the Shooting Stars basketball camp. Picture: David Keane.
Jamie Cotter and Sean Barrett, in action during the Shooting Stars basketball camp. Picture: David Keane.

Yet what is firmly a minority sport on these shores is hugely underfunded. Basketball Ireland has paid a heavy price for previous financial issues, not on the scale of the FAI but enough to see government money pulled.

In the build-up to the election, O'Byrne, a former FAI chief himself, came out all guns blazing, revealing he couldn't even get a meeting with ex-Minister of Sport Shane Ross despite 18 months of trying.

"The reaction from our own basketball community was great," he explained on a recent visit to Tradehouse Central Ballincollig where he presented the Cork club with the Division 1 title. "They're fully behind it and it's important not to be going off on your own tangent. Politically we have been contacted by those behind the scenes who are willing to talk to us when everything settles down and we've a new Minister for Sport.

"There was a lot of positive coverage and that was unsolicited, nobody contacted me about that. It's a story about fairness, about recognising just how big basketball is. We're not banging tables looking for the sun, moon and the stars. We feel we've a case to get better support because of what we're providing.

"It's not just about what we've done in recent years it's about what we can do in the coming years."

For a country where an outdoor game in mid-June, let alone the endless winter from October through to March, can leave you soaked to the bone, an indoor sport like basketball should be massively appealing to parents. To grow outside of hotbeds like Cork city, Galway and Kerry, and to marry the volume of players in secondary schools teams with clubs, it needs proper investment from the government.

"We absolutely tick so many boxes. Inclusion is one, where we have kids from other backgrounds, many Eastern European where basketball is their number one sport.

Emma Taylor, Ava O'Mahony, Conor O'Sullivan, Eabha Nagle, Donagh Merritt, Anna O'Brien, Kayla O'Mahoney, Emma O'Sullivan and Sophie O'Keeffe, from Mallow, at the Shooting Stars camp, Ballincollig. Picture: David Keane.
Emma Taylor, Ava O'Mahony, Conor O'Sullivan, Eabha Nagle, Donagh Merritt, Anna O'Brien, Kayla O'Mahoney, Emma O'Sullivan and Sophie O'Keeffe, from Mallow, at the Shooting Stars camp, Ballincollig. Picture: David Keane.

"Gender balance is another, we're 50-50 between males and females. Our coaching standards have improved and we've homogenised our approach so that there's joined up thinking between the various age groups.

"We're developing an 'Irish way' of playing, which a number of coaches are contributing to, which will maximise the type of basketballer we have. Ireland needs its own blueprint.

"We've twice got promoted to A sections in FIBA, which reflects that."

O'Bryne argues that once a neutral comes to see a high-tempo basketball game they understand the appeal. Basketball Ireland and the clubs themselves have done terrific work promoting the best scores on social media.

"Once we get people along to games and they see the drama up close, many of them are hooked. The cup finals this year offered that, most of the games were very tight and we have a snake queue around our car park to get into the senior men's final.

"The colour across the weekend, especially at Templeogue-Éanna, was fantastic. Our VIP guests from FIBA compared it to an American college game."

Cork has a rich tradition of basketball.

Neptune's Roy Downey drives past DCU Saints' Marcus Black. Picture: David Keane
Neptune's Roy Downey drives past DCU Saints' Marcus Black. Picture: David Keane

On the court in recent years, Roy Downey, Kyle Hosford, Ger Noonan, Ciarán and Adrian O'Sullivan, Shane Coughlan, the O'Reilly brothers Niall and Colin and more, have been a joy to watch. Likewise Amy Waters, Thornton, Danielle O'Reilly, Jessica Scannell and adopted Corkonians like Áine McKenna, Claire Rockall, Niamh and Gráinne Dwyer.

Off the court, Paul Kelleher oversees the Irish U18 men's team, while Mark Scannell is the former senior women's coach and Francis O'Sullivan spreads the basketball gospel far and wide.

Gráinne Dwyer, Claire Rockall and Casey Grace with Paul Kelleher at The Mardyke Arena. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Gráinne Dwyer, Claire Rockall and Casey Grace with Paul Kelleher at The Mardyke Arena. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

"Our development officer down here Ciarán O'Sullivan has helped expand our reach in terms of clubs for underage and also the profile. Ballincollig are a prime example of that where they've brought the wider community around them, their numbers are huge at all ages and their senior team has brought new faces to games in terms of support."

In the women's league, Glanmire, Brunell and Fr Mathew's are in the top flight, while Ballincollig's promotion sees them join Neptune in the men's premier tier. Fr Mathew's are in Division 1 with Blue Demons likely to join them after a one-year hiatus.

"When we were looking at bringing Fr Mathew's and Ballincollig into the national league we got some push back as we were told it would dilute the standard in Cork. We ignored that. It's the opposite as there are more Cork players than ever at the top.

"Demons will hopefully come back into the league and Neptune are competitive in the Super League. Demons have given so much to basketball through the years you don't want to see them off the national scene.

"Clubs must plan for succession. Even if you've an excellent senior team, you must keep producing young players."

The Neptune U12 squad at the All-Star Basketball Easter Camp last year. Picture: Denis Minihane.
The Neptune U12 squad at the All-Star Basketball Easter Camp last year. Picture: Denis Minihane.

It says a lot about basketball's low profile that the most famous Irish player remains Kieran Donaghy, the Kerry GAA legend battling to lift the Super League with Tralee Warriors.

"It's not a cliche to say that throughout the country there are local heroes who don't have the profile of Kieran Donaghy but they're driving the sport in their areas. We have it in Donegal, where they're trying to buy an old factory to turn into a home venue, Ballincollig are obviously hoping to secure a hall in the medium term and Fr Mathew's have a great arena.

"There's a huge history in Mayo and you'd be hoping Ballina could return and I know Liam McHale is doing great work in the schools there. Around Meath, Cavan, Louth, there's a huge history of basketball and again at schools and underage level you can see that they're coming. Carlow are another example."

One criticism of the modern league is there are too many overseas imports. Only one American is allowed on the court but teams can load up with Europeans.

"I don't think the league should over-legislate for that. Clubs like Ballincollig know if they have six or seven Europeans in their 12 they'll lose the connection with their community. The regulations are just about right I think.

"We have a forum every year where the clubs can suggest rules. Nearly every year having two Americans is spoken about but it hasn't gone to a vote in the last few years."

Gifted American Shrita Parker of Ambassador UCC Glanmire in action against Adella Randle El of Pyrobel Killester. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Gifted American Shrita Parker of Ambassador UCC Glanmire in action against Adella Randle El of Pyrobel Killester. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Whenever a government is formed, the Basketball Ireland figurehead is confident the authority have firm plans in place to get more access to courts for clubs and offset the cost weighing heavily on players and clubs.

"The facilities are there. Access to them is an issue and the cost is prohibitive. We want access to schools facilities after 4pm, which is a real problem in Dublin. The tax payers built all these excellent facilities and we have to be using them to get kids active outside of schools hours.

"We're moving towards partnerships for six Centres of Excellence throughout the country, in conjunction with universities and third-level institutes. That would benefit our elite and local teams. They would be basketball hubs and we're fairly advanced on that."

He concedes the expense of being an international, particularly for parents, is prohibitive.

Bernard O'Byrne, CEO Basketball Ireland, presented international caps to Tradehouse Central Ballincollig players Ciarán O'Sullivan and Andrew O'Connor. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Bernard O'Byrne, CEO Basketball Ireland, presented international caps to Tradehouse Central Ballincollig players Ciarán O'Sullivan and Andrew O'Connor. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

"Our bill is between €300,000 and €350,000 to prepare teams and send them to competitions. Only 30% comes from Basketball Ireland and the rest comes from fundraising, sponsorship and the parents. That's abhorrent to me but the alternative is no international programme.

"We need an 80-20 model, where only 20% comes from parents, which is reasonable. We start with bigger squads before tournaments, which exposes a large number of players to high-level training that they bring back to their clubs even if they don't make the final squads of 12.

"We'd be looking for €350,000 to put into international basketball because being out of the scene ruined a lot of careers. That was regrettable."

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