Basketball - the battle is being won to get back to former glory days

When one speaks of Kilkenny basketball, most observations are made from a relative perspective, and really that is not a fair or balanced way to draw conclusions. What we are interested in talking about is the present state of the game in the county.

When one speaks of Kilkenny basketball, most observations are made from a relative perspective, and really that is not a fair or balanced way to draw conclusions. What we are interested in talking about is the present state of the game in the county.

Whilst the former halcyon days of Kilkenny basketball were gilded with great achievement, titles, personalities and national acclaim, presently, there is precious little common ground to be shared between the men and even ladies of then and now. In the distant past Kilkenny basketball was synonymous with success at the national level, when the late, great Paddy Ryan was ‘Mr Basketball’ in Kilkenny.

But those days have gone, confined to the epilogue pages of memory books.

We got to talking to the people, the storm troopers of Kilkenny basketball, in the here and now. Seamus Walsh from High Rath in Callan is chairman of the game in these parts, while his wife, Teresa is secretary, and their daughter Natalie, is a national referee.

Canice Kelly, also a long-established national feferee of great reputation, is the vice-chairman. Joe Byrne from Castlecomer is the Schools Development Officer, and he is trying hard to get a Schools League up and running.

Now basketball, or at least the reorganised game, has changed quite dramatically over the past 10 years or so. Time was when there were enough teams in Kilkenny county to have a County Championship. There were at least four teams in the City, plus teams in Castlecomer, Thomastown, Urlingford and Freshford. Everybody wanted to play the game.

Interest whetted

The interest was whetted by watching the old black and white films of the enthralling Harlem Globetrotters, an all-black New York basketball team who played exhibition matches all over the world. As a young lad I was gob smacked by their antics on the court, and truth be known, I was astonished to see an all-black team playing a game from a country that still professed the merits of racial segregation.

Counties like Tipperary, Waterford and Wexford had their own County Championships too, but the game went into rapid decline there. Many teams then aligned themselves with Kilkenny, which still prospered. But then the Kilkenny game went into freefall.

Like the nine green bottles standing on the wall......then there were but a few.

Basketball must survive. Everyone interested knew that it was facing choppy waters, and tough decisions were needed by brave people. The scenario was not too little different in other quarters.

The basketball people were forced to re-draw the lines. Counties were coupled into Regional units. Kilkenny, Waterford, Wexford, Carlow and Tipperary were ring-fenced as the South East Division.

Management Committees were deemed necessary, and were formulated.

The people named above man the occupations as stated, with other officers coming from other counties.

What is the state of the basketball activity in Kilkenny?

“At adult levels, we have a game that is probably more social than seriously competitive,” answered the chairman. “As in other sports, you will have players to whom basketball is the absolute limit of their sporting activity. Then you have the people to whom winning, or losing are comfortable bed partners.

“Now having said that we have an excellent ladies basketball team down in Thomastown, and those girls are very much focussed on their game. In fairness though, it would have to be put on record that our Basketball Stars programme is excellent, and the work being done in that under-age levels is phenomenal,” the chairpman added.

“The state of the game in Kilkenny is symptomatic of what is happening on a national level,” said national referee and vice-chairman, Canice Kelly. “For instance, Ireland has no senior international team competing, even though we have some excellent youth players.

“Of course Cork is still strong, and there is a very vibrant section in Dublin. Kerry, Mayo and Galway have waned a good bit too, so really the popularity of the game is in a lull zone presently.”

Good girls team

The secretary, Teresa would be an avid admirer of the girls teams in the county.

“We have a terrific ladies team in Thomastown (Berkely), and they have won the second Division for the past two seasons,” she pointed out. “Wouldn’t Teresa Ann Murphy love to be around now, God rest her soul. They are now competing in the First Division, and while they are not burning the bushes, metaphorically speaking, they are doing great work. There is also an excellent ladies team in the City, St Patrick’s, and their enthusiasm is infectious.”

Canice explained the evolution of the Team Left Bank Kilkenny scenario, who compete at national level.

“A few years ago, St Patrick’s and Club Amber combined to compete in the National League competition,” he told us. “They compete in Division one of the National League, and also in the South East League. They are the top team in Division one presently. Their major opposition is presented by the Waterford, or The Sharks, which is an all-Lithuanian team, and a very welcome addition to our League.

“Not only have they brought a different dimension to the game, but they have brought a colourful support as well”.

We travelled the road of Development, and the nurturing of youngsters enthusiasm, and as an addendum the coaching of the same youngsters. We wondered what programmes, if any, were in place for such development.

“Our biggest problems really,” said Teresa, “is that we just cannot get to the kids early enough. We need to have an input from six years of age onwards really, but that is a rather difficult ambition. For instance, there never has, and probably never will be, a basketball team in St Kieran’s College.

“That is understandable in a sense, given the reputation and history of the college from a GAA perspective. But I would say that all youngsters cannot be great hurlers, and given that only a very limited number can get on to teams, I feel that our game might just suit their sporting energies if it was introduced into the schools. I am not singling out St Kieran’s on this issue. The same scenario applies in many other first and second level schools.”

Big problem

The big problem then is when the Kilkenny youngsters play their Waterford counterparts, who would have had plenty of school coaching, the incessant defeats by big margins is a huge deterrent to continuing in the sport.

“We must try and get some basketballing influence into the schools,” Teresa insisted.

“It’s a minority sport and our people are continually battling for the hearts and minds of the youngsters, who don’t see the stardust in basketball that is so obvious in games like hurling, soccer and so on,” was Canice’s opinion.

All agreed that their game must be sold to the mammies and daddies.

“Like other sports who claim that they are running a child-minding service (parents just drop off and pick up), we have to make big efforts to convince parents that maybe they should linger and watch Johnny or Mary playing the game. That might just pay a rich dividend,” said Seamus.

All agreed that there was a plethora of reasons why the demise of the once famed Kilkenny basketball concept happened. Former stars gave little or nothing back; a false sense that the good times never end; laziness on the part of some, for reasons stated; the decline of the game at national level and the resultant fall away in interest.

“I feel that we are turning that around now,” Seamus insisted. “We have a superb group of working coaches and footsoldiers working with our kids from under-8 up to under-16. We are putting a lot of effort into skills development, coaches development and clinics.”

Who are these magnificently valuable people?

Well served

“We have Wayne Edwards, Lucy Ryan, Frank Garven, Martin Prenderville, Sylvia O’Rourke and Nicola Walsh to name but a few. They are doing Trojan work every Thursday and Friday in the Watershed every week. Then we have under-8 up to 14s’ every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and the seniors,” said Canice.

Tell us about the facilities.

“We are so well served with magnificent facilities,” Teresa said when she took up the story. “We would have to say that O’Loughlin Gaels have been so generous to basketball for a very long time. It is the home of Kilkenny basketball.”

“When you compare the facilities of now with what the likes of Lukey Connery, Noel Scanlon, Phil Brennan and others had to use (outdoors in the Waterbarracks), there is no contest,” said Canice. “That time I grew up playing basketball ten hours a day in the Waterbarracks. Like the handball in the Closh, you could hardly get a game.

“We had great lads in my time like Brendan Tyrrell, Mikey, Seamus and Thomas Reade, Noel Casey and Anthony Leahy. Then across the river you had Robert Emmetts with Noel Scanlon, Seamus Treahy. A small spin up the road you had Loughboy and the Village lads with great players too.

“I well remember the likes of Mickie Walsh and Georgie Leahy playing. In the three parishes we had St Canice’s, St Mary’s and St Patrick’s and strangely enough, John’s had little or no basketball. But in the other three it was absolutely buzzing, and the rivalry was great. It was probably their second game after hurling, it was that popular. They were all so natural at all sports,” smiled Canice as the memories came flooding back.

Our discussion took us down the road of sponsorships, memberships, fixtures, administration and such.

The club endeavours to keep costs for players to a minimum. Fifty Euro gets you in, but there are other costings for practice facilities (indoor arenas do not come cheap), affiliations to Basketball Ireland.

Not much financial help

Are they getting any assistance from BI, we wondered?

“There is certainly no cash assistance,” the chairman assured. “But we get other kind of help apropos coaching and so on. We are self funding, and we had a terrific night at the dogs in Kilkenny a few weeks ago. That helped. But it is an on-going struggle.”

Is Kilkenny basketball solvent?

“We are very careful with our funds. We are prudent. We need to be. Our treasurer, Ken Glynn from Portlaoise is a very frugal man, and keeps our financial ship on an even keel,” smiled Canice Kelly.

The organising of the fixtures is a daunting task, but Mick Evans, the Development Officer from Waterford has managed to get the entire fixture list for the next three months completed and forwarded to every club in the South East.

It was enlightening talking to the basketball people, whose enthusiasm, dedication and passion for their game is paramount.

They talk of their Stars, on whose slender young shoulders the future of the once great Kilkenny basketball ethos now rests.

They are thrilled that one of their young stars, Colm Prenderville has made the Irish under-16 panel. It is a big step for the youngster, but if breeding has any involvement in his sporting future, he has little to worry about.

His mum was one of the most dedicated, most competitive camogie players this or any other county has ever had. We speak, of course, about the much honoured Deirdre Malone.

The apple does not fall too far from the tree!