IF he had his way, he’d be better known as a player than a coach.
Given Daniel O’Sullivan is just 26 years of age that’s pretty reasonable.
And considering his brilliance as a teenager powering an underdog Ballincollig team to within seven seconds of National Cup glory all the more understandable.
He still plays of course, carefully managing his body through the season with Ballincollig’s Division 1 team, but coaching consumes him. He’s player-coach to the club’s senior side that are counting down to the semi-final of the National Cup on Sunday, and also oversees their gifted U16 outfit. Last year that group swept all before them and O’Sullivan was recognised with the National Underage Coach of the Year award.
Dial back to 2008 and while O’Sullivan had been cruelly beaten in a second consecutive National Cup decider, his future seemed certain to involve making big plays, nailing pressure shots and competing at a high level. He opted to go down that route after the Leaving Cert, heading to Gran Canaria, to a basketball academy that would give him the best chance of a decent scholarship in the United States.
Then – when he was weighing up another year in Spain with a view to convincing a top-level school to take a chance on a Rebel – his cruciate snapped. With it his American dream.
O’Sullivan’s not looking for sympathy because he couldn’t be happier with his lot, teaching in Ballincollig Community School and at the heart of a club he believes can develop into a national force in time, but he acknowledges how badly it affected him.
“I was so gutted over that my rehab was shocking. I was looking at the States and college scholarships so to me just coming back to Ireland to play SuperLeague (where he’d join Demons and win trophies as a squad player) was just shite. Now of course I realise how wrong I was, but I was only 19 years of age. It was a huge blow because I had been making huge progress. No one over here got to see the level I was at because I was immature and so distraught I never got close to getting back to that.” Undoubtedly the pain of losing that U18 Cup title contributed to his frustration and lack of application in recovering from the cruciate. And 2008 is still raw, a defeat that is driving O’Sullivan in his development one of Cork’s best up and coming coaches in any sport.
“A couple of things went against us. We weren’t the biggest of teams and our big players got in foul trouble and their big man killed us. He’d a double-double in points and rebounds by half-time.
“We still threw it away, a point up with seven seconds to go. I could give you a play-by-play about what happened, who was on the court, their five, our five, how they got the shot off.
“It was that one game, we won the Billy Kelly, the national tournament for our age, it was just unfortunate. We got caught the one day that matters the most.
“It’s sore because it’s huge for a club like Ballincollig and it had been the goal for three years, to get to that, in front in a national final to prove how good we were. Our team wasn’t the best in terms of individual talent but we had a great bond, there was never an argument, lads did the dirty work, we ticked all the boxes you needed as a team.”
Francis O’Sullivan remains the figurehead of Ballincollig Basketball Club and it was his nous as a coach, grá for the game, and dedication that moulded the young team, which was spearheaded by Daniel and Francis’ son Ciarán.
His influence is certainly being felt in Daniel’s more holistic approach to coaching, where sharing the ball and being flexible as a team is seen as vital to developing rounded players.
“I remember when we were U11s we used to get our asses kicked, just hammered. What we were playing against were Demons kids who had grown up with a basketball in their hand. Then in the U13 championship final we lost on the buzzer and two years on again we were beating them by 30. Virtually the same players, so it was quite dramatic. We did get Jamie Twohig in, a big guy, he went to Coláiste Choilm and joined us as a First Year, but overall it was the same group.
“Francis was that good a coach. The scoring generally fell on myself and Ciarán. I used to bring the ball up, but there wasn’t a focus on one guy being the point guard and running the team. I wasn’t a pass-first point guard anyway, I liked to drive to the basket. We were interchangeable and that helped us.” There was an interesting dynamic in the squad, where despite Ciarán and Daniel’s status as the go-to scorers and Emmet Murphy’s skills playmaking, there was no extravagance in their approach or attitude.
“Emmet, Ciarán and Seanie (Goggin) lived in the same estate, you had me and my younger brother Neil. We weren’t your typical alpha males, we were a quieter group. I can see it now with my U16s now. They’re so quick with their tongue, a different generation, a different type of player, loads of talent obviously.” Daniel draws from those years in his dealings with the U16s and the Ballincollig senior men’s team, though he cites American Roy Orellana, who was at the helm in Gran Canaria and excelled at skills development, as an inspiration too.
Upon his return from Spain, O’Sullivan spent a few frustrating years – in terms of minutes on court, if not trophies – with UCC Demons, where Paul Kelleher and Colin O’Reilly were in charge.
“So much of my coaching comes back to Francis’ approach to the skills but my coach in the academy showed me how the game should be played at the highest level. I learned a huge amount from Colin O’Reilly too, his will to win and mentality, he was at a pro level. My beliefs on how to use tactics do come from Francis and Gran Canaria. Paul Kelleher’s training was excellent. He was a young coach in a high-pressure environment, but in terms of our three sessions a week they were excellent.
“As a coach, you have to be relentless in terms of your standards. From the start of training to your scrimmage at the end. You’re relentless in doing the right thing, over and over. You develop the good habits through every minute you’re together.
“The way we approach it (with the Ballincollig U16s), our style and whole purpose, is equal opportunity offence, which gives equal opportunity to develop. We won the All-Ireland by 30 points but we spread it around. We played Demons at the start of this season and they have two players who are in the top six or seven in the country, but we still tried to play off the cuff where you’re not just relying on the same guys to score all the time.
“Obviously in the last few plays of the game you’re going to certain players, but you’re trying to let them make their own decisions. I remember playing against Neptune underage when Richie O’Brien was the best player in the country and they were flat, with Jason Williamson standing on the baseline and he ended up becoming nearly 6’ 2” and a serious basketballer. You need everyone expressing themselves, learning from mistakes, even at U15s and U16s. Beyond that we’ll see, but players change and develop at different rates, that’s not a cliché.”
Daniel is in the unique position of coaching two of his younger siblings, Neil with the men’s side and Luke at U16. Even if he can be that bit harsher on his brothers, these are exciting times for Ballincollig.
“At the moment the club is in a phenomenal position. It’s never been stronger.
“We’re in a position now where we can start thinking about a team at a national level. Our Division 1 has lads who had to leave before to play at a higher level, like Brendan Kiely, Sean Murray and Sean Lynch. Nicky Bohane is there with me and you couldn’t do player-coach without someone on the bench. We’ve Shane Mooney and Cathal as well and they’ve turned what was a team of five or six players in the Division 2 league into three teams with the bones of 50 adult males lining out for the club without including the U20s.
“It’s a case now of bringing through talented players who won’t need to leave, apart from those good enough to go abroad. There’s a bit of work to get to that, but we have to be ambitious.”