AFTER 13 years involved with Irish basketball teams at every level, Paul Kelleher still gets a thrill from testing his coaching nous in the international arena.
Ireland are far from a basketball superpower, more Peter Parker than Spiderman, which makes the job all the more difficult yet satisfying too.
“I still get the biggest buzz in coaching from it. The hustle and bustle, the travel, knowing that you’re taking on top coaches, working with the best talent in Ireland but still trying to get them to match players who are even bit, scouting, getting game tape ready, I love every minute of it.”
Next summer the Ireland U18s make the journey to Romania for European Championships with a squad that includes Cork trio Eli Lenihan (Neptune), Demons’ David Lehane and Andrew O’Connor from Ballincollig.
Two of the other exciting prospects are Paul Kelly, the Moycullen point guard who doubled up as a midfielder with the Galway minor footballers, and CJ Fulton – the son of Belfast legend Adrian Fulton and scorer of a Steph Curry-esque 15 three-pointers in a schools match.
Maximising the players’ potential against highly-organised European sides in the B stream, especially with Ireland making the step up from C, is demanding but hugely satisfying.
“We have a curfew of 11pm with our teams and at midnight we put the scouting report under the players’ doors and the next day there’s a game-tape ready. You’ve to be at your best 12 hours a day, 10 days in a row.
“People would wonder how you have the energy but when I was working in the States in summers at college I could work 14-hour days, week-in, week-out with no days off. That was tough. Coaching is a passion so there’s no comparison.”
The game is in a healthy state right now through a combination of a motivated crew at Basketball Ireland, the network of volunteers underage and a vibrant club scene nationally.
Basketball can’t compete with soccer, rugby and GAA as a mainstream sport but considering the paltry funding is punching above its weight.
“I’m involved for 13 years and we’ve had up years and we’ve had down years. We’ve had years where we got blown out. I was on the sideline when we lost 128-49 to Slovenia. Plenty of coaches have brought down to reality when they’ve got involved with Ireland teams.
“We lost 96-52 to a Slovenia team a few years ago when we had Sean Jenkins and Adam Drummond [the Neptune pair now following their dream Stateside] on board and Slovenia could have had Luka Doncic but he was tied up with the senior team. We can all see what Doncic is doing now in the NBA.”
At just 19 Doncic has seamlessly made the transition from Real Madrid to being a rookie sensation with the Dallas Mavs. The only Irish-born player to ever make a dent in the NBA was Pat Burke, whose family moved from Tullamore to Cleveland aged three, who played for the Orlando Magic and the Phoenix Suns.
There are a handful of Irish players who could follow Burke’s footsteps, not least northsider and ex-Neptune forward Jordan Blount, enjoying his best season in college yet with UIC, Dubliner John Carroll at Hartford and the ‘Irish Hulk’ Aidan Harris Igiehon, headed to Louisville in September. Neptune alumni Drummond and Jenkins are in high school stateside aiming for Division 1 college ball, Conor O’Sullivan recently moved to the US and his brother Darragh along with Cian Heaphy are certain to make the same switch.
It will be worth tracking Demons duo James Beckhom – the son of Cork’s first American import in the ‘80s David – and Gaelcholáiste Mhuire AG student David Lehane as well. Beckhom, like Blount, came out of school in his teens to attend a European academy.
Basketball Ireland are keen to see their ‘Green Shoots’ flourish, with a revamped academy approach and initiatives like the NBA junior link-up which targets sixth class kids. Yet 37-year-old Kelleher concedes there is still some distance to travel to match a country like Slovenia.
“I look at countries where the population base and geographical size is comparable. Finland, Slovenia and so on. How can we match those countries?
“They are now a sustained ‘A’ nation because their coaching is better and their academy structure is brilliant. Slovenia’s U16 coaches are full-time and run the academies in all the regions. They have nine regions and the international coaches are a first point of contact.
“Slovenia are the country I always try to watch at tournaments, even if we’re not playing. Their fluency, their intent, their commitment...”
“I remember meeting a group of parents before we headed across for a tournament and the first thing I told them was ‘your sons aren’t good enough, we’re not ready right now and there is huge work to be done’.
“I just wanted to give everyone a taste of reality. It’s not that their sons aren’t good players, they wouldn’t be in Ireland squads if they weren’t, but the challenge is enormous.”
The northside native would love to say Ireland are close to having an NBA player of their own but simply doesn’t know
“The international programmes are feeding back into improving the SuperLeague. From when the likes of Ciarán O’Sullivan, Conor Meany and Dan James were U18 we then had a lull where we had no Irish teams past the age of 16. That created a gap in terms of players who know what it takes to go to the next level.
“As long as we have U18s and U20s teams, for men and women, the games in Ireland will be worth watching at club level. Of course, we’d love to see some of the prospects who are in America making a leap into the professional game but that is incredibly difficult.”
There is a new breed of young basketball enthusiast who can go beyond a Curry versus Lebron James debate and argue the merits of Doncic or Trae Young as NBA Rookie of the Year.
“Right now players are exposed to stuff we just couldn’t access. They can look at plays on YouTube and not just NBA, European stuff, college ball and it broadens players’ horizons, even if sometimes it makes coaching harder. YouTube compilations don’t focus too much on the off-the-ball effort that really wins games.
“The academies have opened up now, with 25 players per region at the U14 level, it keeps the net wide and it’s a numbers game. That will benefit us in time but we’ll have a few disappointing years, that’s reality.
“It’s difficult for parents because they can be trying to be positive for their son or daughter individually but it might not help them become better players in a team context.”
Kelleher inherited a grá for the game from his parents, Thomas and Mary, with his father a hardy operator on the hardwood in his own playing days. He pulled on the North Mon singlet as a boy and enjoyed some success until a harrowing loss as a 15-year-old sent him towards the coaching route.
“We lost an U15 final, Kevin Reddy, myself, Willy O’Flynn, Martin O’Sullivan and Tom O’Sullivan was the core of our team. We hadn’t lost a game in four years but then we went down to Limerick for a tournament. We beat Killester, who had Paddy Kelly, in the group stages, buried them, and we were 23 points up on them in the final at half-time.
“I was fouled out, Mark was fouled out and Thomas O’Sullivan was fouled out. My brother Barry was there but he was very raw at the time, same with Ian Murphy and Alan Sheedy. We were one up and they went ahead and then Kevin Reddy missed a lay-up on the buzzer to win it for us.”
The defeat stung in a way he’d never felt before and he opted out.
“I was a decent player but I didn’t get into the rough and tumble of it enough. I was a natural shooter alright. There were some serious basketballers the year ahead of me, Tim O’Halloran, Pat Dorgan, Gareth Dorgan, Mickey Higgins, I wouldn’t have been getting in ahead of those lads.”
His brother Barry, a year younger, did keep playing and ended up in the US.
“Barry was the hardest worker of us. He didn’t make the Ireland U16 team and then got onto the U18s a year young. He got to play Division 3 in the States and he’s been there ever since. The rotary system set him up with a place to stay and since college he has his own company, Red-Shamrock Renovations.”
It was the youngest of the Kelleher boys who ignited Paul’s coaching career. James came into the St Aidan’s Secondary School when Paul was in fifth year and while there had never been a boys’ team in the school, there were 11 enthusiastic first years eager to compete.
“I went to Martina Dineen to ask her about a team. She’s actually still teaching up there and she’s James’ son’s English teacher.
“Martina said she didn’t have the time to coach them after school but she agreed to stay on so I could do it. That was the start of it.”
At just 17 years of age, he’d decided that coaching was his future.
“I remember going in home to tell my parents that I wanted to coach for a living. I was turned away from parents telling them, nearly embarrassed to be saying it, but that was exactly what I wanted.
“We got to a C final, in the Parochial Hall, and I went in a full suit to the game. I was taking it very seriously. My brother had fallen over and injured his wrists so I didn’t play him. My mother killed me. That was the point I realised I had a persona that would help for coaching!
“We lost by six and to be fair if my brother had been fit we’d have probably won.”
Mark Smith, the deputy principal in the AG, brought him to my first ever coaching clinic for schools up in Portlaoise and when he went to Tralee to study it tied in neatly with the thriving scene over the border, driven by Jimmy Diggins – who Roger Kelleher put Paul in touch with.
On home turf he took over a Demons side.
“Daniel Thompson, Craig Duggan, Shane Buckley and those lads were in that team. For five years I was up and down, in Tralee from Monday to Friday and Norma Thompson would pick me up off the train on a Friday and bring me up to the Parochial Hall to coach.”
The American influence wasn’t far away. While reading up on the likes of John Wooden, Pat Riley and Phil Jackson, he had Pat Price come in at the helm in Demons and Rus Bradburd, who got on famously with Kieran Donaghy and Mícheál Quirke, in Tralee.
“Demons had three teams in the National Cup so Pat asked me to help out with the minor team. I went from being a liaison to being a coach’s assistant.
“In Rus’ last year he asked me to stay down in Tralee but I ended up staying with Demons, club loyalties. Rus was the best of the Americans I reckon, though Doug Leichner was superb as well and Pat opened a door in Demons.”
That apprenticeship was enough to earn Kelleher a three-year term at head coach with Demons, a season with the Glanmire women’s outfit, a couple of years over UL Eagles and his current role in charge of Neptune.
There have been enough life lessons to fill a book, especially with Demons, in a dressing room filled with big characters, like Shane Coughlan, Kyle Hosford, Carleton Cuff and Colin and Niall O’Reilly.
“Shane Coughlan had an incredible basketball brain but also just understands exactly what makes players tick. People might have thought I didn’t see eye to eye with Shane when I was at Demons but there was no one better to bounce ideas off.
“In the season we won the Champions Trophy, Shane played a huge in getting our season back on track and we went unbeaten in the run-in. There were a lot of ups and downs in that three years, winning the Southern Conference and the Champions Trophy, losing a cup final to Eagles and the cup semi-final to Neptune.”
The cup decider against Eagles still haunts him.
“Switching to zone in that game was the worst decision I’ve made in coaching. We went from four up at half-time to six down having gone zone for five of the first six possessions in the second half. We had already got back on top after an awful start and we should have stuck to man-on-man.
“We’d a 10-3 record against Neptune, we only lost once a year against them, and even in some of those losses we could have won: there was a 104-102 defeat when we’d been 17 up and momentum shifted after a few travels and a technical. It really does come down to little things.”
Kelleher can be a firecracker on the sideline – “I can be boisterous, I know that” – but believes he is now finding the balance behind fury and focus, when the players need a general and when they need to come up with a solution in the battlefield.
“One of the best things I learned was at Glanmire was you need to think ‘what do the players need right now?’ I have it on my coaching board now so I can see it all the time. There are periods of the game when they need you to be all over them. There are also key stages when you need to back off.
“As a coach you have to be aware about mixed messages. If you drilled in a certain approach in the week before a game and then have to shake it up and expect the players to just flick the switch, it doesn’t always work that way.”
In his spell with Glanmire he went from being on the brink of being axed after three losses at home on the spin to National Cup glory and halting UL’s drive for five.
“We’d lost to Killester. By a lot. I approached it with ‘performance profiling’, where you mark yourself out of 10 in various categories and the coach does the same and you look at the discrepancies.
“We’d a team meeting and I said, ‘if I asked you to write down three strengths for each of your team-mates you’d struggle to get past one. If it was weaknesses you’d fill the sheet’. Even if your team-mate only has one strength, you need to put them in a position on court where that strength matters to the team.
“I went through them for a shortcut but it turned our season. We won the cup, went on an unbeaten run and it ended up being a really positive experience. Maybe I could have stayed on but I wasn’t sure the challenge was there that I needed. I didn’t want to leave in a way but I still had that ambition of coaching full-time.”
After studying in Tralee there was a two-year sports psychology masters under Gerry Fitzpatrick’s tutelage in Waterford, a couple of years as a research assistant in UCC and then a H-Dip in UL to go down the path of teaching, working as a sub in Gaelcholáiste Mhuire.
“Now at 37 years old I got my first full-time job in Deerpark.”
To go coaching in the States he needed to gamble in his late ‘20s and, with the full backing of his now wife Laura, he came close to getting an apprenticeship with Bob McKillop at Steph Curry’s alma mater.
“It’s always the dream and it’s still in the back of my mind. I had an opportunity in 2009 to get to Davidson for a year volunteering. Family circumstances changed and that had to come first. Jim Fox did something similar and within six months the assistant coach quit and he got a job for 12 years.
“I like to head away every year to be around that scene but last summer Cora was born and next year we have the Euros again.”
Before joining Neptune, Kelleher relished his time in Limerick where he found veterans such as Rob Lynch and Matt Hall, now the Eagles coach, a joy to work with. At Neptune the challenge has been, after getting them back in the SuperLeague, blending their rookies with older pros like Gary Walsh, Roy Downey, Ger Noonan and Lehmon Colbert.
He’s aided by Kieran and Jim Leahy and Keith Daly in his backroom.
“We’re starting and finishing games with an average Irish age of just under 19, with Roy out injured lately. We can’t be expected to be world-beaters straight away. All these young lads are learning about tempo and the hardness needed from the likes of Gary Walsh and Ger Noonan. Lehmon is a pro. He might have missed hook shots at training during the week and he’ll be at our open session on a Friday concentrating on that.”
Though beaten in an overtime thriller away to Templeogue last time out their form has been encouraging recently and as well as the highly-rated Cian Heaphy and Darragh O’Sullivan, they’ve been getting big shifts from David Murray, Eoin Connolly and Adam Heaphy too. Some of their most promising showings weren’t even in the four games they won on the bounce.
“The nature of games now means you could be in a close game, down by five or six and end up losing by 20 because you change your approach to chase things. You give away too many free-throws, a few shots rim out, your lost-ball turnovers might leave you open up the middle. We saw in hurling this year, in the All-Ireland semi-finals and finals especially, momentum switches very quickly and there are huge scores put up.”
While many basketball fanatics on Leeside and beyond like to hark back to the halcyon days when the game packed out venues nationwide, Kelleher prefers to look to the future.
“The modern Irish basketball player is generally very fit, very self-aware, very disciplined. I know everyone loves looking back on the golden era. Nostalgia sells in all areas of life but the standard of Irish player now is extremely high. They can do things the 1980s crew just couldn’t. That’s not being disrespectful it’s just being realistic.
“There is far more athleticism there now and if you go back to the ‘80s, the Americans were being paid the equivalent of €1,000 or more a week now. If we had that budget now the American imports would be better but there is no doubt the current Irish players are better. No doubt.”
They’ll test that theory next summer, where Ballincollig’s Ciarán O’Sullivan – who Kelleher was coached previously with Ireland and Demons – among his staff.
“Ciarán offers great insight from the players’ perspective. I didn’t play at a high level but he did and that does matter. I always include someone like that in the Ireland set-up.
“I’ve had Eoin Chubb in before, Dan James, that calibre of player who can relate to them when there’s real stress and the pressure is on. I’d have been more closed in my younger days, more concerned about making an impression and proving myself now I’m better at delegating.”
One of the most underrated elements of coaching.