When you think Northern Ireland and sports, if you ever think about Northern Irish sports, you’re first thought probably isn’t basketball. Nor should it be. Globally, Rory McElroy, Darren Clarke, and Graham McDowell are the nation’s most famous sporting exports, three of the finest golfers in the world. For the culturally Irish, there are the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) sports like hurling (an insane mash-up of lacrosse and rugby?) and Gaelic football, which are huge. Football (soccer) is big in both communities, even if the Rangers v. Celtic rivalry is still a bit touchy. In the local papers, tennis, rugby, boxing, and lawn bowling all receive coverage. Basketball? Nowhere to be seen. The occasional outdoor courts I do see are inevitably dilapidated, and sit forlornly, empty and unused.
So you can excuse me for thinking that if I somehow did find my way into a basketball game this summer in Northern Ireland, I’d be one of the best players on the court? As a former high school varsity starter, standing 6’4” and weighing nearly 14 stone, I’d have to be up there. Nobody in Belfast plays basketball. Right?
Before we get to that, there’s the not so insignificant challenging of actually finding a game. I wasn’t exaggerating about the paucity of basketball courts in Northern Ireland. No gym I’ve seen has them, and in a nation so wholly unenthused about basketball I was unlikely to stumble into a pickup game.
It would’ve been much easier for me to find some soccer, but I was in a basketball kind of mood before I left the States, and something about the idea of playing what would be such a niche sport was appealing. So before I headed to Belfast I took a few shots in the dark. A quick Google search for “Belfast Basketball” yielded a few different local clubs, and I decided to try and make contact with a few.
Thankfully, and shockingly, one of them decided to respond. A couple days before I arrived, I received an email from Breda Dick, a director for the Lisburn Basketball Club, asking me about my playing and coaching experience. Coincidentally her son Paul was playing basketball at a university a few hours from my hometown, and after a few correspondences it was arranged that I’d meet her on a Tuesday after work to come coach a clinic. Afterwards, her son Paul had organized some pick-up ball.
I met Breda at the Finaghy train station, in between Lisburn and Belfast, on my way home from work one night. I didn’t know what to expect—but the welcome was better than anything I could ever have anticipated. Breda picked me up at the station and took me back to her house, where I got to eat dinner with her family. Incredibly, five of the seven members had played for the Irish national basketball team at some point. After the meal, we headed over to De La Salle College for the clinic.
As the newcomer, I expected just to assist Paul, who’d been spending the summer coaching youth clinics. Instead, after a brief warm-up session, he sent 14 kids my way and told me to get to work.
It was a beginner’s clinic, and Paul had said not many of the kids were experienced players. So I started with the most basic drill I could think of; lay up lines. It was—difficult. Coming from an area where almost everyone had played basketball, or at least seen the sport, I guess I underestimated just how difficult the sport can be for an absolute newcomer. I planned on starting with the basics; layups, dribbling, passing. Instead, I had to take it even farther back; I needed to just get the kids used to having a basketball in their hands.
After my initial hesitancy I got caught up in the enthusiasm of the kids. The skills needed work, but all the kids (a mix of boys and girls aged 6-12) had a passion for the sport, or at least had some steam they needed to blow off. Most of the night was spent corralling wayward players and convincing a particularly intransigent boy that you could not in fact run with the ball. Regardless, I quickly realized my mission wasn’t teaching basketball; it was instilling some understanding and love for the game. Beyond that, it was incredible to interact with Northern Irish kids in a new setting. Whatever fun they had was matched by my own.
As the kids were shuffling out, a group of more experienced basketball players began to make their way into the gym. Appearance wise, they would have fit right in at Wilson Gym. And as the players started to loosen up, I immediately noticed two things; the deadeye accuracy everyone seemed to shoot with, and the number of t-shirts with “Irish National Team” on them.
The game got started though, and all of a sudden it was just basketball. I forgot the fact that I was in Belfast, that the lane was a trapezoid and not a rectangle, and that I couldn’t understand my teammates. Although I was a bit rusty—a couple weeks had passed since my last session at Duke—I worked through the early nerves and settled into the game, hitting the first shot I took (a corner three, right in front of photographer/professor Robin Kirk), and then had a nice spin move through the lane for a lefty layup. The biggest difference between my run here in Belfast and your average pickup game at Duke was the style of play. Because most of the people I played with had played together before, there was far more off the ball movement than I was used to. It almost felt like a soccer game, the way people were cutting, and after about twenty minutes, I was wiped.
Luckily, the Tuesday basketball sessions continued for another couple weeks. They were a great way to interact with the Northern Irish community and continue doing something that I really love. Was I one of the best players on the court? For the lack of Irish prominence on the global basketball stage, the talent assembled in the gym was incredibly impressive. So no. I held my own, but scattered amongst the group was a 6’10” forward headed to play at the University of Pennsylvania, a couple D2 players, and a bunch of youth national team players. Regardless, the competition and the craic were well worth it. Thanks to Breda and Paul for giving me the opportunity! And thanks to Robin for taking video and pictures!