IT has become a ritual for some basketball fans to discuss on social media who were the best Americans ever to play basketball in this country?
Opinion naturally varies but one American player who was highly rated by his fellow players seldom gets the praise he deserves from the loyal keyboard warriors.
Enter the former Demons/North Mon/Burgerland Neptune player Bob Stephens who was a serious talent during the golden era of basketball. Back in 1981, Bob arrived on Ireland shores and his record with his College Drexel University is one to be very proud of.
Bob known as 'Sweeper' back in the States was one of the best big men ever to play in Drexel as he was the team's MVP in the four years he played.
He was the first Drexel player ever to grab 300 or more rebounds in each of his four seasons and the school’s all-time leader in blocked shots and it’s a fact that no player is within 100 of his 404 career rejections.
As a sophomore Stephens ranked fourth in the nation with 14.8 rebounds as a senior and he concluded his career with 1,316 rebounds which tops the school's record.
On top of that, he became the first player to accumulate 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in a college career and received an Honourable Mention as an All American for three years.
So how did a player of that pedigree end up playing in Ireland?
“In 1981 I was in Germany to replace an American who was hurt and by the time I got there three weeks later he had recovered,” said Bob Stephens.
Stephens added: “My agent told me to just hang out until he found a team for me and after the second week he called me to tell me there was a team in Ireland who wanted me to guest in a tournament in Dublin.”
Bob had to think long and hard about the Irish venture as he didn’t know too much about the country but an intervention by his college friend and roommate Ed Finn told him his parents had visited there the previous year and were very impressed.
My first thought was do they play basketball in Ireland?
“To be honest I wasn’t that excited about going to Ireland but my agent told me if I didn’t like it I could come back to Germany after the tournament.”
The rest is history Bob played as a guest player with Blue Demons and his love for Cork and Ireland began in earnest.
Indeed when Bob looked back on his Irish and Cork journey he was rather emotional as he reflected on the golden age of Irish basketball.
“I have so many great memories with the atmosphere in the Parochial Hall and the Neptune Stadium but it was the people in Cork that made me spend nine years of his life on Leeside.”
He helped Blue Demons, then Team Britvic, win the Federation Cup in 1983, the first and only Irish club to do so. That win stands out for Bob.
“We beat Solripe of Scotland in the final and with my fellow American Tony Hafley we were shocked when we arrived back into Cork Airport on Sunday night with many fans assembled to give us a great welcome.
“In that season I was coached by the late Peter Coughlan who passed away in 2018 and I was saddened to learn of his death as he was a gentleman in every sense of the word who truly understood basketball.”
Bob was named Super League Player of Year in 1985 as he moved from Demons to the North Mon and once again playing with fellow American Lennie McMillan they made a bold to win the title.
Bob partnered with many quality Americans during his time in Ireland.
“I would say Ray Smith, Lennie McMillan and Tony Hafley in no certain order.”
Looking at the Americans he played against he was slow in responding with such quality in the country.
“It’s a question that I don’t like answering as the majority of Americans were talented and when you look at Ray Smith, Jasper McElroy, Bruce ‘Soup’ Campbell and Kelvin Troy to name a few. You knew what you had to bring your A game to the table to guard these guys.”
When Bob returned to the States in 1990 he was an assistant coach at Drexel University for two years but a move to Atlanta saw him coach his sons Quinton and Jonathon through AAU basketball.
Bob married Anna Thomas in 1983 at Wilton and his best man was his best friend and former teammate Joe Coughlan, a wedding attended by many of the Blue Demons club and they were blessed with four children.
Daughters Kimberly and Nicole were both born in Cork and are proud of their Irish heritage.
Both were 6’2’ and Nicole played basketball ball in high school with Kimberly with both getting scholarships to Savannah State University.
“Jonathan was a good high school player and had as much talent as Quinton but was 6’3. Jonathan graduated from the university in 2019.
“Quinton was a highly recruited Division 1 player as he played at Georgia Tech in the ACC the best conference in college basketball where he was team captain for two seasons.
“Quinton played his first year as a professional in Italy on a Euro cup team helping them win Italian cup championship and in his second year, he played in Spain.
“He had an incredible season leading his team in scoring in which he was second in three-point shooting percentage 45% before getting injured last season."
Bob currently lives in Lilburn Georgia and has three grandchildren, Camron, Sydney and Chase working as facilities manager for a non-profit recycling company.
On a final note, Bob indicated that his dream would be a return to Cork for a catch-up with old friends.
“That’s my goal as Cork will always have a place close to my heart as the friendliness and warmth of the people is something that makes the city a very special one.”
As for his playing attributes, he was a phenomenal rebounder and block shot merchant, and a thorough gentleman both on and off the court.
Thanks for the memories Bob!