The big interview with Ger Heaphy: Tradition and growing up with a basketball in your hands make the game so strong on the northside

The big interview with Ger Heaphy: Tradition and growing up with a basketball in your hands make the game so strong on the northside
Ger Heaphy, former Neptune and North Mon player and his two sons Cian and Adam. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

IN HIS role as RTÉ analyst and all round contrarian, Eamonn Dunphy bemoans the demise of ‘street footballers’ whose natural talent was honed through endless hours kicking around on the road or up the green, he has players like Ger Heaphy in mind.

The northsider and unsung Leeside legend never favoured soccer — though no doubt he’d have been well able considering he hurled in the Harty Cup with North Mon and played Gaelic football for Cork as a teenager — but his basketball brilliance certainly came from the streets. He played the game as long as he can remember for the simple reason his uncles Walter, Thomas and Kieran McCarthy did.

It was that straightforward. Heaphy’s competitive edge, skills on the hardwood and sheer guts brought him to the pinnacle of Irish basketball with Neptune and North Mon in a golden era, but he always loved the sport. His uncles first took to the court for Iona, the Blarney Street primary school. Yet any training the McCarthys did paled in comparison to the fun they knocked out of games among themselves.

“My uncle Kieran is only four years older than me and he was more like my best friend. He used to call me number 13 because there were 12 kids in his family, six boys and six girls.

“I followed him everywhere. Hung around with him. He was watching Thomas and Walter playing basketball and I couldn’t wait to play. When I was six and seven I was just doing what they were. There was a hoop out on the road and Jesus, we just lived basketball.

“The likes of Seanie Murphy and John Cooney came from Iona club. Demons club actually came from Iona.

“The summers we had was a tournament up in Neptune, the old school on Cathedral Road. Then we had Iona and down the road was Deep Hall for Demons. We were going from one court to the other. It was like away games.

“We played against girls as well, the likes of Sandy Fitz (a basketball and camogie legend), (current Demons senior) Carleton Cuff’s mother, they were fabulous players. We’d some brilliant summer tournaments. It was incredible, we’d be there from dusk until dawn. What’s missing now is we don’t have outdoor courts.”

Former players David O'Leary and Ger Heaphy. Picture: Richard Mills.
Former players David O'Leary and Ger Heaphy. Picture: Richard Mills.

The just turned 50-year-old is adamant he didn’t push his two sons to follow his footsteps on the court. All the same it’s transpired that Cian, 18, doing his Leaving Cert and eyeing a college move to the States, and Adam, 20 and studying in CIT, are fine players in their own right, part of the new wave in Neptune that has tasted National Cup success in recent years and feature in this weekend’s U18, U20 and senior semi-final extravaganza across Neptune Stadium and the Parochial Hall.

However, living near Mayfield GAA and soccer pitches Adam and Cian were heavily involved in those clubs until their mid-teens, with Adam a goalie on the Cork football development squad up to U15.

They actually first trained in basketball with Blue Demons under the watchful eye of their uncle David Lehane, whose son David junior is also a serious prospect, before a switch to Neptune where Ger made his name.

In his view, unless you hone your imperfections and learn to express yourself away from structured training you’ll never progress as a player. He loves the fact Neptune, who won a cup treble last January with their U18, U20 and Division 1 men’s teams, having also collected the silverware at U18 and U20 in 2016, encourage exactly that.

“Neptune during the summer open up to their players, training, shooting around. Fellas have keys and the texts go around saying it’ll be open for a couple of hours and there’s a bit of the old school with the outdoor courts in that. You’ve all grades down there, National League, Division 1 and 2 players, U18. They need you to have five aside.

“Weaker lads come on naturally because they won’t come back if they’re not getting a bit of ball. You try and keep fellas there so it’s not four on five, which is no good. You can’t stop for three months and come back and take it up again and expect to progress.”

Ger Heaphy with the net out his back garden. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Ger Heaphy with the net out his back garden. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Without getting misty-eyed for a bygone era — or God forbid sounding like Dunphy — Heaphy argues you can’t beat the literal school of hard knocks. If he could do one thing to improve the standard of basketball in Ireland it would be to develop more outdoor courts.

“Jump out with a ball and play, an uneven surface, one basketball higher than the other… you’ve to adjust, your game and your shot and you can do it automatically then when it matters. You can move when someone tries to block you because you’re doing it against the elements outdoors.

“Basketball didn’t take off until the eighties and we started mimicking the Americans. The stuff we did ourselves was scrappy and honest but what we were coached for the most part was robotic.

“Very repetitive. On our own we did whatever we thought and it was natural development. When we were growing up we didn’t even have televisions!

“The court down in Iona was gravel and I often came home and I was picking stones out of my knees. Fellas bumping you and you’re hitting the ground or you’re diving on the ball.

“It’s something I’ve always said to my boys, be first down on the ball, but it’s hard to get into a player, you have to have that vigour and fight in you. That passion to win for your team is priceless.

Neptune's Cian and Adam Heaphy celebrate with their father Ger last year. Picture: INPHO/Gary Carr
Neptune's Cian and Adam Heaphy celebrate with their father Ger last year. Picture: INPHO/Gary Carr

“There’s a fella grew up with me, Paul McGrath. He was the most unorthodox basketball player you’d see in your life. He’d never do anything normal. The ball almost always ended up in the basket though. He just had his own way of doing it even though it was out of synch. He wouldn’t be a stereotype and that taught us so much.

“Why follow the same way as everyone else? You see fellas in the NBA with the ugliest shot you’d ever see but they’re getting $20 million a year because the ball ends up in the basket.”

While his own sons might not have the option of using outdoor courts very often, they do have the confines of the backyard in the family home. Only a third of the garden is paved so it’s a tight space. There are a couple of pillars jutting out and a clothesline running overhead, but the hoop overlooks it in the corner.

“I’ve left those there because they go for a jump shot and the line is in their way so they step back, it’s like someone coming at you, eventually you’re making the adjustment and doing it instinctively in the end. I often thought of digging into the back and making it bigger but the smaller the better.

“That’s all you need for your ball skills. I used the basket as the treat at the end. ‘You’ve done your drills and now you can do your few easy lay-ups’.”

Inevitably there was a broken living window – with Paul Baldwin of Direct Glass, another basketball man, fitting the replacement. Heaphy always favours sweating with a Spalding size seven between the palms over a set of dumbbells.

“When we grew up we weren’t allowed use dumbbells because you lose the weight of the ball. I played with Americans and they were hulks but they were the biggest wastes of time ever… They couldn’t even lay up the ball.

“Imagine lifting a thousand blocks a day and then going training. The basketball wouldn’t feel like anything in your hand. Everyone has their sweet spot but when your muscles are gone too strong you can’t adjust because you have no feel. Banging the ball rather than dribbling it. It’s bouncing way up, you’re shooting it too strong. Your feel is gone.”

In many ways a ‘natural’ player in any sport is a bit of a misnomer, they’re usually the hardest workers away from training, but Heaphy gets a real kick out of seeing basketballers following the tradition he did.

“(Neptune veteran) Gary Walsh’s daughter is great. I love watching her. Her dad is warming up on the sideline and she’s doing the same, copying him. It’s what makes basketball on the northside so strong.”

Of course Heaphy, who was involved alongside another Neptune icon Tom O’Sullivan in coaching his sons’ teams until the last two years, appreciates the importance of the right guidance. One of the major influences on his career was Pete Strickland, the Stateside-based current men’s Irish coach, who was in Cork in the 1980s.

“Pete Strickland is a great coach. I remember when I was on the U15 Irish team we’d a camp down in Dungarvan for a week. Everyone was in the gym and he called me out and I thought ‘oh no, he’s going to make a langer out of me now’.

“Anyway he stood up at the top of the key and he told me to defend him. I thought he’d burn me but he just kept putting it through his legs, around his back, so fast, so skillful but then he stopped. He said: ‘what did I do there?’ I said, ‘you went nowhere’.

“He said ‘exactly’. ‘It’s great to have these skills but change direction and go. Use it.’ Now you need ball control, you need to move fast with the ball, but it’s very simple if you can do all that at speed.

Boston icon Larry Bird. Picture: Scott Cunningham/ALLSPORT
Boston icon Larry Bird. Picture: Scott Cunningham/ALLSPORT

“If your defence is good, you can fast break, you can play with a bit of rhythm, you don’t mind a massive playbook. Larry Bird said it years ago, ‘basketball is a simple game made complicated by fools’. You can always use the other team’s weakness to your advantage. Find a mismatch, target him, if others help him out it frees up other players. Open up the play for your quick guards.

“As a player you’ve to use your team-mates, pop and go. Why do your moves have to be in a straight line? Why do they have to be small steps? Take two long steps, at angles – Euro steps they call them now, it’s just side-stepping – and you’re slowing down naturally then when you’re coming in to lay it up. Make it tricky. Left, right, finish off your weak hand until you don’t have a weak hand.”

Jasper McElroy about to score a basket for Blue Demons in 1986.
Jasper McElroy about to score a basket for Blue Demons in 1986.

If Heaphy got a grá for basketball on the streets, then it accelerated when he went to North Mon to attend secondary school.

“The likes of Kieran and Francis O’Sullivan, Mark Scannell, they were in the North Mon just before me so I was trying to break on to their team. They learned their trade up there and I was following their lead.”

Gary Walsh playing at U16 for North Mon back in 2002. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE
Gary Walsh playing at U16 for North Mon back in 2002. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

Sport and the positive influence of the Brothers in the old Mon ensured he completed his Leaving Cert, something he’s always grateful for. So too was the encouragement he got.

“I went down to pack the GAA up at one stage. I said to the Brother ‘look I’ve no boots, I can’t afford them, there are seven kids at home, and I’m embarrassed so I’ll step away from it’.

“I’d made this up like.

“He said: ‘what size are you?’ I said, ‘I’ve had hand-me-downs all my life, I’ll just forget about GAA’

“He told to go away and not be worrying about anything like that. I thought ‘great, I can concentrate on basketball now’. I used to have two gearbags every day going into school, one for GAA, one for basketball. I’d be training hurling and football after school every day from 2pm, taken out of school and up to the top fields, and then we’d basketball at 5pm, wipe off the muck and into the hall.

“A few days later in metalwork I was called into the office for a word. I went in, he handed me a pair of brand new size 11 boots. ‘You keep doing what you love and don’t worry about these, they’re a gift’. I’ll never forget that gesture.”

While he enjoyed GAA, basketball was his first and true love. It cost him a Harty Cup medal.

“I was on the Harty team and I played every single game including the semi-final. I got a call then to captain the Ireland U17 team in an international against France, Spain and England, in France, my first time on a plane. It was my number one sport, captain of Ireland, so of course I was going, but it was the same weekend as the Harty final.

“Now they won, but they brought up another fella as number 24 on the panel. He never played a minute all through it but he got my medal. It wasn’t his fault but it was wrong. I was told: ‘you picked your sport’. But I represented the school in an Ireland jersey. I was cut out of the history books afterwards. The 1985 winning team and I’m not included in the panel. That was wrong. Totally wrong.”

Ger Heaphy in action for Neptune against St Vincent's. Picture: Dan Linehan
Ger Heaphy in action for Neptune against St Vincent's. Picture: Dan Linehan

During this period, he took the advice of his uncle Thomas to switch from Iona to Neptune, where his career took flight.

“Tony O’Connell and Noelie Allen welcomed me with open arms. They needed a point guard. The likes of Paul Fitzgerald and Don Sullivan were there, grand big players and I blended right in.

“There was Paul Dunne, Martin Aherne, Dinny Bobs, great points guards around at the time, John McCarthy, Peter White, but Neptune didn’t have a prominent guard at the age.

“Brendan Flaherty was with Neptune but he was four years older than me. Tom Sull and boys as well were a bit older so I fell in nicely. The minute I went in I was chasing those two. ‘Watch your shirt tails lads I’m coming for ye…’ It made me want to drive on having talent ahead of me to look up to. A fabulous player you want to catch up with is a great motivator.

“Tom Sull was a two/three, a great shooter, a beautiful shot really, but he had great moves for making baskets in underneath before the three-point line came in. After that it was three points all the way. He had these orangutan arms to get up to the basket but three-pointers were his speciality.

“You have to make other players better players because it’s a team game. If you try and build the team completely around a couple of good lads, you can forget it. You’ll win nothing.

“Joe Healy was our defender to annoy the Americans. He stuck to them like a jockstrap. That was his role and there was no one better.”

The Neptune All-Stars: back: Denis Hennessey, Paul Kelly, Tom O'Sullivan, Terry Strickland, Ger Heaphy, John Houlihan; front: Jim Nugent, Gordon Fitzgerald and Alan Kelly. Picture: David Keane.
The Neptune All-Stars: back: Denis Hennessey, Paul Kelly, Tom O'Sullivan, Terry Strickland, Ger Heaphy, John Houlihan; front: Jim Nugent, Gordon Fitzgerald and Alan Kelly. Picture: David Keane.

In the modern game, and certainly at the pinnacle of the NBA where Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook and James Harden lead the scoring charts, point guards are now primary shooters but Heaphy was a more traditional backcourt operator. Certainly in his early days.

“There’s nothing sweeter than a pass when you pop it off, everyone is looking the other way and it ends up in the basket. Scoring never really bothered me though I did develop into more of a scorer, especially with the North Mon after.

“I remember a cup final with the Mon against Garvey’s of Tralee and the coach shouting in the time-out, ‘stand off Heaphy, stop him passing the ball’. So then I nailed a couple of threes, another time-out and the coach is shouting ‘will someone ever mark Heaphy and stop him shooting the ball!’ You have to play it as you see it. Some coaches are obsessed with running plays, everything is mapped out but in sport it can’t work like.”

Indeed one of the most memorable plays Heaphy was involved in saw him operate as a decoy.

“Demons were playing Vincent’s in Dublin to win the league but if they lost it was whoever won between ourselves and Killester in Neptune Stadium. The game was back and forth. We’d Kennedy and Ray Lawton, a weight freak, a hulk, but he couldn’t put the ball in the basket and always ended up fouled out.

“We were up two with six seconds to go but they hit a shot on the buzzer for OT. The ball was just about to be thrown up for the tip-off in extra time and there was an announcement made by Noelie Allen: ‘Blue Demons have lost to St Vincent’s so whoever wins this wins the league’. The place went nuts. It was packed, there were a couple of guys with drums from Killester in the corner. Mayhem.

“With two seconds to go the ref called a foul on Kendrick Perkins, which it wasn’t. Perkins scored the first one all net and all he needed to do was hop the second one off the ring. Instead he sunk it. All net.

“We’d ball back on a time-out. They were going berserk so you could barely hear. The play was a stack, with myself and Kennedy standing back to back and I was to push him one way and go the opposite to draw the defenders. I pushed him left he turned and threw the ball up into the air – it went in.

Gerald Kennedy, coaching Ballyfermot Bulls in 2011. Picture: Maura Hickey.
Gerald Kennedy, coaching Ballyfermot Bulls in 2011. Picture: Maura Hickey.

“The ref walked to the middle and said no score but the table officials called the refs in. The ball left his hand before the buzzer and it finished its flight for the basket. The ref had to walk back out and put the fingers up for a three-point score and we won the league in that one second.

“The heading afterwards was ’74 feet leap of joy for Neptune’. We won games on buzzers but this was the whole league on that one shot. Had Kenny Perkins deliberately missed the second free-throw the game was over! It was the most dramatic ending of any game in Neptune, and there were a lot.”

Even more dramatic though, was a falling out with Neptune coach Jim Nugent, his predecessor in the point guard role when his minutes dropped. He went from vital cog – an MVP in an underage final at 18 who then togged off and played with the seniors – in an admittedly brilliant and deep squad to backup.

What followed was a defection to North Mon, then the third Cork superpower alongside Neptune and Demons, that stunned the basketball community.

“They were off up to Ballina and I was down to work night shifts in Irish Steel and I told Jackie (Solan, Neptune’s larger than life backer) I couldn’t afford to be missing money and getting no game time.

“He met Jim and came back to me and said he’d sort out a taxi to bring me up on the Saturday morning 7am straight off the night shift – the team were going up Friday – and agreed it was always a court I did well in.

“After all that the game went into extra time and I never saw the court. Pat Lucey was coaching North Mon and I went to him and asked if there was any interest in me joining them.

“I headed down into Burgerland looking for Jackie. Brendan Flaherty was the manager for years, and he told me straight up ‘he’s hiding on you. He’s down in the Imperial’. If I didn’t get the transfer signed that day I couldn’t move and I’d have missed a whole season basically.

“I cornered Jackie and he said ‘Heaphy I don’t want to sign that, you’re too good a player’. I explained that all I wanted was to play basketball and I was cracking up, starting to doubt if I was any good. He took the form, ‘I’ll sign it because I know how much you love playing’.”

John McHale and Francis O'Sullivan hunt the ball in an exhibition match in 2008, watched by Mark Scannell and Kieran O'Sullivan. All former Mon players. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
John McHale and Francis O'Sullivan hunt the ball in an exhibition match in 2008, watched by Mark Scannell and Kieran O'Sullivan. All former Mon players. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Not that the North Mon contingent were too enamoured by his recruitment. John McHale, who incidentally is now the Evening Echo sports editor, was a one of the best players on the team, the leader and a vocal presence in the dressing room and in the months after Heaphy’s arrival he was the only panel member he didn’t invite to his wedding.

But, like anyone else who crosses Heaphy's path, it wasn't long until McHale and Heaphy became best friends, and remain so to this day.  It's hard for anyone not to love his character, his spirit, the madness and the fire in his belly. Heaphy makes a huge impression on those who get to know him.  He certainly made one on his new team, hitting over 40 points off the bench in his first game with the club and soon it became clear Heaphy was the missing ingredient the Mon were looking for to become contenders and eventually league and cup champions.

“I went down the next night to train with the Mon and McHale and the lads wouldn’t look at me. ‘That prick Heaphy is just using us, taking our minutes’ That’s what they were thinking.

“The (now) brother in law, Dave Lehane was there, only new to it. At a meeting to vote me in only Paul Murphy, Mono McCarthy and Alan Kelly, who’d left Neptune previously, backed me. They expected me to be gone at the end of the season. I ended up staying until the Mon had to fold. We were paying for our own bus and accommodation but the money still ran out.”

The Burgerland Neptune National Cup winning team of 1990. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
The Burgerland Neptune National Cup winning team of 1990. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Always back a northsider with a point to prove and Heaphy was certainly that when North Mon faced Demons a couple of days later. Introduced after 10 minutes when he wasn’t sure if he’d feature at all he let rip, blitzing them to the tune of 44 points.

“Lucey told me: ‘get out and do what you do best’. I got 44 points in 30 minutes. A man possessed. I outscored the four Americans and the relief was incredible.

“Four games later we played Neptune and Tom Sull was on me and I asked him ‘what’s going on? I thought I wasn’t good for ye’ and he said their team-talk had been about stopping me. It proved me right.

“I never had it out with Nugent. I know in Kieran Shannon’s book (‘Hanging from the Rafters’) he told Kieran I wasn’t playing because I wasn’t committed to training but that wasn’t right. I loved to train, I lived for basketball. If I missed a session for work I was shooting the next day and I took a lot of time off from work for basketball.”

Though it’s become a cliché to harp on about the halcyon days of Irish basketball, which Shannon captured so well in ‘Hanging from the Rafters’, Heaphy is as well placed to explain just how seismic the impact was when American imports first flooded into the league and what it was like to play with and against the best of them.

“I was queueing up like everyone else outside the Parochial Hall to see Deora Marsh and David Beckhom. They were massive men, black as the ace of spades, like nothing we’d ever seen before because there were no black people in the country not to mind in Ireland. You’d see six of them strolling down Patrick St like giants. They were brilliant, miles ahead of us, the athleticism, grace and skill. We were in awe. They were able to dunk the ball and we were like ‘you’re able to do that!’

“Our training was all figure eights, lay-ups and basic shooting drills. We saw these Americans spinning the ball, firing it off the backboard, we couldn’t wait to go off and try that stuff. It was like a circus for us – the new Harlem Globetrotters, and they actually came to Neptune in the ‘80s.

Terry Strickland with Kieran Shannon author of Hanging from the Rafters. Picture: Dan Linehan
Terry Strickland with Kieran Shannon author of Hanging from the Rafters. Picture: Dan Linehan

“Terry Strickland came in then. He was the Barry White of basketball. Suave. He had a beautiful grace, on and off the court. He dressed impeccably. Pure class. He was able to do a one-handed fake and we could only do it with two. He glided through the air. It sparked our imagination: ‘I don’t have to be robotic’.”

He’d have two others above them though.

"The best two Americans, and they happened to be in Cork, were Ray Smith and Jasper McElroy. Scoring, blocking, they had everything. NBA level. Smith was the last man cut and no one knew why. We were lucky basketball hadn’t gotten big in Europe and we were haunted that the first port of call was this teddy bear of an island. Jenkins was superb. If he had Duracell batteries he could have done anything.

“Kelvin Troy and Mario Ellie were incredible as well. I mean Ellie came here to learn to shoot better and ended up with two NBA rings. Going up against the two of them was some job. They could end up with 40 points each a night. Some of the Americans these days wouldn’t get a pick-up game in the states.

“Bob Stevens’ record still holds for blocks and rebounds in college. Gerald Kennedy the same.”

Burgerland's Ray Smith trying to get by Tim McCarthy, Team Britvic, in 1985.
Burgerland's Ray Smith trying to get by Tim McCarthy, Team Britvic, in 1985.

It wasn’t just about the brilliant players, Irish and American. There were wild nights too of course.

“Look we partied hard but that made us a better team. The whole team went out together. Connie Cotts was sponsoring us for a while so we went to The Bridge Inn, we’d the Watercourse, but we always drank together.

“You’re playing Demons, heading out after, and you didn’t want to be seeing them after in town slagging you off. Enemies on the court, buddies off it, but the pints tasted a lot sweeter when you’d won.”

The bond is different now as players are drawn from a variety of backgrounds.

“The comradery is unreal in its own way. I’ve often had eight lads here, from Dublin, Belfast, house full, with Cian and Adam involved in Irish team. The friendships are great but they don’t hold back then when they’re against each other.”

He saw it first hand at the funeral mass in Lisgoold for the late Liam Chandler, whose sudden passing caused shockwaves across Irish basketball last year.

“The whole Irish team were there. They came from Belfast, Sligo, Drogheda, Tralee, everywhere.”

Cian and Adam’s Irish careers have taken them across Europe but at a heavy cost. Not just in terms of Cian’s cruciate ligament injury which he’s currently recovering from, but also the financial burden placed on the families of teenage basketballers.

“The 12 players are funding themselves, plus the coach, assistant coach, manager and physio who are volunteering their services they don’t pay. For argument’s sake it’s 10 grand that’s between 12 sets of parents.

“How can you turn down the chance of being an Irish international for your sons? It’s great for the CV even outside of sport. Last summer Adam was in Macedonia and Cian was in Bulgaria.”

Ger and Alison Heaphy, with their two sons Adam and Cian. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Ger and Alison Heaphy, with their two sons Adam and Cian. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Pulling on the Irish singlet might be an honour, but education is prioritised in the Heaphy household.

“Myself and Alison have a rule in our house. If the school education drops there’s no basketball training or matches. We keep on eye on all the reports and I must say Coláiste an Phiarsaigh is an exceptional school. There’s brilliant support.”

A bit like the backing they give their two sons. Passion but without the LaVar Ball madness.

“You don’t want to be watching. It can be hard because you want to still be out there. You don’t want to be older with a steel knee. Alison said it to me one day: ‘I’m not your first love… your first love is basketball!’ I said, ‘I played basketball ever before I met you!’”

Neptune's Tom O'Sullivan, coach Ger Heaphy, assistant coach, Melin Opizt, manager, and John Murphy celebrate an U18 cup title. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Neptune's Tom O'Sullivan, coach Ger Heaphy, assistant coach, Melin Opizt, manager, and John Murphy celebrate an U18 cup title. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

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