O'Sullivan ensures that Cork basketball is nursing the greenshoots of underage promise

O'Sullivan ensures that Cork basketball is nursing the greenshoots of underage promise
UCC Demons'  Ciaran O'Sullivan in action against Killester's Alan Casey. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Éamonn Murphy talks to basketball development officer Ciarán O'Sullivan about nurturing talent and building strong clubs on Leeside...

BASKETBALL is more than just a sport for Ciarán O’Sullivan.

Hooped dreams are weaved completely through his life: work, rest and play. 

He’s won a fistful of medals for Demons in the SuperLeague alongside his younger brother Adrian, having come through the underage production line in Ballincollig.

He’s employed by Basketball Ireland and the Cork County Board as a development officer on Leeside, based in the Cork Sports Partnership offices, while his partner Claire Rockall is a fellow Irish international and one of the leading lights for four-in-a-row National Cup winners Glanmire.

There’s no getting away from basketball but he wouldn’t have it any other way. 

In his household growing up it was a religion, his parents Francis and Grace excelled at all levels of the game and helped develop the Ballincollig club into the force it is now, with the men’s team entering Division 1 of the National League next season.

O’Sullivan’s priorities, off the court with Demons, are at the grassroots. 

He’s been working on the ground now for three and a half years, introducing basketball to primary schools where it was never played before, strengthening existing clubs outside of the powerhouses like Demons and Neptune. Next up the ‘Greenshoots’ initiative, a player pathway towards county and international set-ups for nine and 10-year-old girl and boys which runs across six-weekly sessions this summer. 

Each club can send up to five players to the programme until the limit of 30 boys and 30 girls is reached.

“Phase one was getting into the primary schools. Introducing basketball and running cluster blitzes. I’ve gone to areas where there wasn’t basketball in north Cork and west Cork, just so they experience the sport. 

"Now the emphasis is on a club-school link, in places like Mallow and Youghal, so players can sample basketball in school but have somewhere to go if they want to pursue it further.” 

It should be an easy sell in Ireland, a sport where games are never rained off and caters for both sexes equally, but basketball is realistically a minority pursuit on these shores.

“An indoor sport in Ireland for boys and girls should work but there’s fierce competition. We lose players and we lose coaches, maybe because there’s more money in GAA, and glamour. 

"It’s not just GAA, soccer is huge in Ireland and rugby is too, something you don’t have in most of the rest of Europe.

“Basketball Ireland will be debt-free at the end of the year and the international programme is back, so Bernard O’Byrne has done a great job. That international side of basketball is a big selling point for us against other sports so we can get stronger.” 

O’Sullivan does feel there’s a wide interest in the sport now, helped by the accessibility of NBA highlights and clips online.

Steph Curry. Picture: Thearon W Henderson/Getty Images
Steph Curry. Picture: Thearon W Henderson/Getty Images

“The NBA has taken off because clips are easy to access and most sports fans will know the top players in Steph Curry and LeBron. Steph Curry is human because he’s 6’ 3” and his game is based on skill, it’s attainable. LeBron is a freak. I grew up watching Kobe and Allen Iverson, but we’d all the videos of Jordan, ‘Air Time’, ‘Above the Rim’, we worse those tapes out.

“Highlights now are easier to see than ever and if that brings more kids into the game here then we’re benefitting. The rivalry between the Warriors and the Cavs is great too, third year in a row in the NBA finals and one win apiece so far. With the best of seven series there can’t be any argument with the winners, you’ve to beat a team four times. 

"It might not have the romance of the FA Cup, or championship in GAA, but it’s fairer.” 

What hasn’t helped hoops in Cork is the fact the derby aspect is gone at the elite level. 

Demons had a poor season in the top flight of the SuperLeague, while Neptune are in Division 1 – along with Fr Mathew’s and from here on Ballincollig. 

Demons-Neptune was always the glamour game.

“Both clubs have suffered, the gates are down, and Cork basketball has suffered, because there’s less spotlight on basketball without the derbies.” 

Coming down the tracks Neptune should have a quality senior outfit, on the back of outstanding displays in the National Cup at U18 and U20, but the core of the team, like Adam Drummond, Seán Jenkins and the Heaphys, will try their luck with collegiate programmes in the US.

“It’s a dilemma for Irish basketball because you’re developing players and if they’re too good you’re losing them… that’s in all sports with a professional element. 

"Even the GAA now has the Aussie Rules factor. If you take Glanmire, they lost the likes of Orla O’Reilly and Jessica Scannell, but again if your panel is big enough you can move on without them and hope it’s attractive that they’ll play for you again if they do come back.

“Any player who can get out and experience trying to be a professional should take it. Once they stay grounded there won’t be an issue if it doesn’t work out.” 

Like the Harty Cup when Cork hurling was at its peak or the Corn Uí Mhuirí for Kerry football, education and basketball go hand-in-hand. 

The secondary school scene adds another layer to player development.

“If you’re playing in secondary schools you can have up to 20 extra games. I benefited from it when I was in Coláiste Choilm. The likes of Skibbereen, Youghal and Bantry will have most, if not all, of their kids in the one school, which helps them. 

"There’s a day-to-day point of contact with the coaches in school, which you don’t get in the club. That’s actually helped Neptune’s current U20s because they’re all playing in Pres, with Seánie Murphy, the Mon AG, with Paul Kelleher, or Coláiste Choilm, with Francis (O’Sullivan).” 

O’Sullivan explains there are unsung heroes throughout the county who are nurturing the game outside of the hot spots in the city. 

His remit is to give them all the support they need.

“Basketball has a history in a lot of places like Bantry, Skibb, Carrigaline and Mallow. Fr Mathew’s numbers have dropped a small bit but they are still catering for a big playing base around Douglas and fielding teams at all ages. Cobh were very strong when I was younger and had fierce competitive teams. 

Ciarán O'Sullivan with the Cobh basketballers who enjoyed a development squad session last season.
Ciarán O'Sullivan with the Cobh basketballers who enjoyed a development squad session last season.

"They’re working hard to get back to that again. Demons and Neptune will always be the strongest in terms of winning trophies at the younger ages because that’s their tradition coming through. 

"Ballincollig have a huge draw, from the CUH all the way out to Macroom. The likes of Damien Cahalane, the Cork hurler, and John Egan, whose is playing soccer in England, played a bit with Ballincollig. 

"You even get lads from Bandon and Kinsale these days.” 

Brothers Fabian and Philip Schmitz at the Shooting Stars camp in Ballincollig. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Brothers Fabian and Philip Schmitz at the Shooting Stars camp in Ballincollig. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

They are two towns where a basketball club could work and avenues are currently being explored to do just that. 

With O’Sullivan’s assistance Fermoy and Mitchelstown now have expanding clubs in the Avondhu region.

“Áine McKenna (the Glanmire star) is teaching in Kinsale and they have a brand new community hall and the interest is there, but getting an infrastructure for a club requires massive effort from locals. 

"It’s not enough just to have teachers willing to give a bit of time. You need people driving the club. 

"We’re looking at a girls’ club in Bandon. They have the facilities and there is an interest from players, because Mark Scannell (the Glanmire and Irish coach) was involved with the school team and they had success. 

"You need the coaches and people behind the scenes. Volunteers can get scared away from the technical side of coaching basketball, because as you go up the ages that become more important.

“Damien, who runs the hall down in Fermoy, just wanted it be busy and the club came from that. I went down, ran primary school blitzes and now there are 60 members, an U14 team, a Division 2 team. Mitchelstown has been a similar case.” 

The club in Youghal predates O’Sullivan’s appointment as a development officer, but they are now set to get international recognition through U14 ace Cillian O’Connell, whose parents Stephen and Emma are to the fore down east.

“They’re a real success story because they’ve grown massively over five years, a brand new club, based in a facility in the new school, and now Cillian is set to represent Ireland internationally. They’ve good numbers and fierce enthusiasm.” 

Cork U14 Development Squad captain Cillian O'Connell, from Cobh, receiving the cup from Theresa Walsh after winning the area board competition last Easter.
Cork U14 Development Squad captain Cillian O'Connell, from Cobh, receiving the cup from Theresa Walsh after winning the area board competition last Easter.

On the other side of the coin, Skibbereen is long established, but on an equally solid footing.

“Skibbereen have done great work over the years and they’ve the second largest membership in the county outside of Ballincollig, 220 members. 

"Both those clubs have male and female members and it’s a sport where there isn’t the same difference between the sexes in how it’s played.

“Steve Redmond, the other water swimmer is coaching, and his wife Anne is the chairwoman. 

"Their kids are playing but they’re fabulous people, they’ve really done a nice job and they’re real go-getters. 

"He’s renowned as one of the best open-water swimmers, nothing phases him, and the club is thriving.” 

His home-town club Ballincollig has flourished to the degree where they were accepted into the National League last month. 

They regularly challenge for the top honours at underage.

“Ballincollig would have a laissez-faire attitude at U10 and U11, but we’ve still won the last two U14 All-Irelands and Emmet O’Shea was the only player who crossed over the two panels. There are some exceptional talents and Fabian Schmitz, who moved from Germany, is transcendent, who would excel whatever sport he played, but strong panels have to be the aim.

“It’s important not to take shortcuts. The plan should be that everyone plays and gets as many touches as possible. 

"In basketball not everyone can carry the ball up the court, there is a guard role, but developing decision-makers and helping players acquire a varied skill-set comes from sharing the ball. 

"The tactical side of the game can follow when all the basics are established. Players need confidence when they’re handling the ball.” 

O’Sullivan uses the European model as one all clubs in Cork and Ireland overall could follow.

“If you take Spain, which is the biggest basketball country outside of the NBA in terms of the league’s profile, they have non-competitive games before U14. 

"You’re not allowed play zone defence, which is like banning sweepers in hurling or blanket defence in football, for underage. Winning at all costs is alien to them for younger players, you’d be ostracised if you took that approach.” 

It's a lesson that all sports could heed.

LeBron James at full tilt. Picture: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
LeBron James at full tilt. Picture: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

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