Puff Summers has played with several Irish teams, enjoying three fine seasons with Team Left Bank Kilkenny
For Puff Summers it is a job, hobby, passion and vocation all rolled into one, this basketball crusade of which he is a part.
He is, in a loose sort of way, a descendent from the ‘golden era’ of Irish basketball that began in the late seventies when league teams, in a bid to glam-up the game, were entitled to recruit two professional players from overseas.
Summers was too young to be part of that early train. His journey in Ireland began in 2007.
He first arrived here via the British Basketball League where he played for a season with Kingsland Fury (Norwich) after taking the big step and leaving home in Virginia near Washington in the US.
Long since he has attained Irish citizenship, and Stoneyford, County Kilkenny, is home for him, his wife Linda (the former Miss Moore from Mayo) and daughters, Kaitlyn (11) and Kennedy (3).
Now he helps spread the basketball gospel, working as assistant coach with the Irish senior squad and with children in schools throughout the area, including Kilkenny CBS primary, Kilkenny School Project, Burnchurch and Stoneyford national schools, while he also runs academies in Kilkenny and Dublin.
That is the day job. In the evening he is coaching director to the Kilkenny Stars girls squad, and he plays with Templeogue.
What’s with the name Puff, was the obvious first question. Well, there is a bit of a story to it as it turned out.
“Lawrence is my birth name,” Puff explained with a hearty laugh.
When he was born he had chubby cheeks. His mother immediately called him Puff. The name stuck. Still, he reckoned he could shed the misnomer when he went to college.
But there it was on the door of his room when he arrived at Davidson College: ‘Puff Summers’.
“I said that’s it, my name forever,” he laughed again as we set out on our chat and journey through his career and life that has seen him play basketball with seven Irish clubs, mainly in the Super League.
Currently he is a professional on the books of Templeogue in Dublin, in his fourth season to be exact. He has played with Belfast Star, Limerick Eagles, Moycullen from Galway, Killester Dublin and Merry Monks from Ballina in the top league, while he enjoyed three fine seasons with Team Left Bank Kilkenny in the national league too.
He is the owner of the locally based Why Not Me? Hoops sports company. The name was inspired by an old mentor, and the aim is to be inclusive while fostering, honing skills, encouraging, adding enjoyment to a game that has given Puff his livelihood.
His simple catch all message is that people should never give up, never stop believing.
“Believe, be determined and make things happen for yourself,” was the way he described the force which drives him and is the company belief.
“We see people doing extraordinary things every day,” Puff continues. “You look at things that happen that are not supposed to happen and you say why can’t I be one of these people who beats the norm and does something spectacular in my life?”
Achievement doesn’t have to relate to climbing a mountain or anything like that, we prompted?
“No, no, not at all,” he insisted. “Little things can involve achievement too. I grew up in a household where my mom smoked cigarettes. We can all have mental fortitude. If we want to quit something or do something different with our lives, we can. We can wake up one day and say I am not going to do this anymore, or I will do this today.
“That is what is extraordinary about human beings. We have the ability to change our life.”
Apparently it is a family thing. His wife runs a gymnastics club in Kilkenny. It is called: Why Not Me? Gymnastics.
Puff Summers was one of 12 young men who won basketball scholarships together to Davidson College, a private liberal arts college in North Carolina, where, in his own words, “he majored in economics and minored in basketball”.
He was a nifty American football player too, and he received scholarship offers. He was strong in the weights room and impressed football coaches with his all round attitude, but basketball was it for him.
Yet, standing far from giant size at 5’ 9” he said he “managed to sneak my way in and carve a niche for myself” in a game which has a natural preference for tall players.
He plays point guard - they specialise in certain skills and their primary job is to facilitate scoring opportunities for the team - and his longevity has buried the theory of many an early years coach who felt he was too small to survive in the game.
“That is what attracts me to a lot of the players I work with now,” Puff said. “I overcame the negativity and I had a 15 year professional career. Those coaches were naysayers.”
He will be 37 this year. When he looked back it was with a sense of amusement and pride.
“I had it fully in my mind that I was going to retire from playing by the age of 31,” he said when he took up the story. “I got involved with the Irish senior team so I had to start practicing with the squad. At the age of 31 I said: ‘Hold on, I still have something left in the tank’. So here I am six or seven years on and I am still going. I feel great. My body feels as good as when I was 24 or 25.”
The future was bright for the game in Ireland, he reckoned. There was a batch of Irish players on scholarship right across the US and if they could all be brought together as a team, Ireland would be well off.
There were prospects all over. He has been working with two sisters from Castlecomer, Lucy and Ava Coogan, members of the Kilkenny Stars club.
“You nurture the love youngsters have first of all,” Summer insisted. “Then you give them challenges and say here is the benchmark I want you to reach. Once they reach that they can then become more hungry, more passionate to go further.
With Lucy and Ava, especially, I have had to keep raising the benchmark because they keep meeting the targets I set them.
“With them I haven’t done anything. I have helped steer them along, but they are the ones who put in all the work. When I see things like that and parents tell me I am helping build the confidence of children it means more to me than any cup or championship I have ever won.”
Some parents can be over enthusiastic to the point of being pushy with their gifted children. In such instances he has been known to spell out his strong beliefs to parents.
At the same time he lets the children know he is not proud of them exclusively because of their accomplishments. He understands and appreciates hard-work and effort.
“That is not what makes or breaks our relationship, how successful the children are,” he continued. “What excites me more is if a player doesn’t make the team or doesn’t win the championship, if they bounce back the next day. The texts I get ‘when can I get back to the gym, when can we get going again’ are what I am most proud of.
“When I see the passion I love it,” he assured.
The motive for him throughout was to see how good he could become at the game, how far he could travel the road. The journey of exploration continues. He described himself as a gym rat and basketball nerd, someone who sees every play as a potential opportunity to learn.
“You can get something out of any game, even an under-12 game between two teams at a very low level,” Puff felt. “There could be something to be learned even there.”