'The circle of life' - Big day for three generations of Fultons as ever-rising Star chase history

Adrian is head coach, Danny is in the backroom team and 16-year-old sensation CJ will be on the court.

TODAY IS A big day for Belfast’s Star of the Sea.

And it’s a particularly special one for a certain family.

Belfast Star haven’t been in a National Cup semi-final since 2003 when Adrian Fulton played and his father Danny coached. Now, in 2019, Adrian is head coach, his son CJ is a prodigiously talented — and key — player and Danny is in the backroom team.

fultons CJ, Danny, Adrian: It's a special one for the Fulton family.

“So I believe, so I’ve been told,” Adrian smiles, when clarification is sought over the fact that his side haven’t been in the Cup since 2003. The memories of that day aren’t exactly the happiest.

“Can I say that there were three calls in the last 30 seconds, and they were all wrong and all against us? Can I say that?” he asks The42. Of course he can.

“The video evidence on that one would suggest that we were very unfortunate. That’s a painful one. I remember Christopher, the kid, as a baby. CJ as a baby and Jackie [his wife] being there. Sitting on the bench at the end going, ‘We should have won that’.

“That was a tough one.”

To rectify that hurt and heartbreak, to right the wrongs of that day but this time from a different perspective would be understandably pleasing for Fulton, a former Irish international in his first year as head coach at Star.

“That would be really cool actually,” he lets his mind wander for a minute. “But listen, we’re not getting ahead of ourselves. Obviously we’re very pleased, looking forward to it. 

“It certainly would be great to rewrite history. I was never able to win the Cup with Star so that would certainly be nice to help win as a coach. It’s going to be a huge challenge this weekend. We know UCD are going to be up for it but we very much are too.

“We’ve played them this year already, they’re very good and we have a lot of respect for them. We certainly want to go down to Cork and seize the moment.”

He adds: “If we had won it before there’d be less pressure. They’re excited, they’re certainly not afraid of it though. We want to go and do it.”

af Star head coach Adrian Fulton. Source: Sportsfile.

Going back 20 years, Star reached exhilarating highs, winning back-to-back Super League titles under Danny. They landed the championships in 1998 and 1999 with Adrian and his now-assistant coach Javan Dupree both key elements of one of the best sides in Irish basketball history.

The memories are few and far between now, hazier than before, but a few things jump out. Fulton remembers Star’s first outing in a Cup semi-final, a heavy defeat to Neptune in Cork but just going, ‘Wow’ afterwards considering the level of intensity and the talent on show.

“That’s certainly one memory that sticks out. Unfortunately, most of the other memories are pretty agonising,” he laughs, but there’s still that raw pain evident.

“Close defeats. We were in four finals, probably two we deserved to lose, one we should have won and one we could have won. Most of those are tough memories.”

No matter how much you win or how much success you have, you still remember the defeats which hurt; and often more vividly. There was no shortage of good times, both with the club and in the green shirt, on and off the court, and it’s fair to say that basketball has been a constant for, and given so much to, Fulton.

With his father, “a legend of Irish basketball,” as he says himself, a PE teacher and a sport enthusiast, there was no way it was passing him by. He pretty much grew up with a ball in hand, as did his two brothers and sister. Rows over broken ornaments and what not were frequent, as they are in any house balls are allowed into. 

It’s the same with his own family now. Fulton’s wife, Jackie, and his kids are all involved. Jackie was a show jumper who now works in the fitness industry and her father was a high-level footballer with Donegal. The Fulton teenage daughters, Jenna and Katie, are both really into gymnastics and play basketball.

And then there’s Christopher, or CJ.

cj MVP: CJ Fulton. Source: Sportsfile.

CJ hit the headlines in January 2018 as he scored a record 47 points — including 15 three-pointers — to steer St Malachy’s College to All-Ireland glory at the age of 15. 

His father Adrian, a PE teacher in the same school, knew from fairly early on that CJ had something about him, and the fact that he’s gone from strength to strength since and the 16-year-old has taken it all in his stride is promising.

“He had an unbelievable 2018,” he continues, “if 2019 could be in that same vein it would be fantastic. I knew it was coming but I didn’t think I’d be coaching him for another year or two.”

Working brilliantly under Darren O’Neill in the underage ranks, CJ has since made the premature jump to Super League whilst still a key player with the U18s. The plan this year was to bleed a group of U18s through to the senior ranks, mainly just by training one night a-week; a way to develop and encourage them hands-on.

For CJ though, that all snowballed pretty quickly.

“We knew that CJ would be one of that number of players but we never thought that he would do what he’s doing,” the proud father beams.

“It was really down to the fact that Aidan and Conor Quinn both got injured. We brought him to a pre-season tournament, thinking that we’d give him a few minutes as cover. He did really well and it just went from there.

“We thought, ‘Right ok, he can give us the minutes’ but we never expected him to be doing what he’s doing. He’s done really well to be fair to him.”

He’s been catching the eye and lighting up the league week on week. The physicality was a worry given the fact that he’s still only 16, as was the workload: his U18 commitments means back-to-back games most weekends and training pretty much every night.

Sam Walsh with Christopher Fulton 23/1/2018 CJ playing at the Subway All-Ireland Schools Cup Finals last year. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“We have to try and take care of him as best we can. He’s trying to practice with both teams which is very difficult. It’s been a challenge but he’s certainly enjoying it.

“He really has a great head on his shoulders in terms of his understanding of the game. Physicality, he’s not there yet, he has a long way to go there. There’s development but he’s able to make up for that at the minute with his skill set and his understanding of the game.”

What about going between that father-son relationship and player-coach one? Parking one for a while and focusing on the other, how does that work?

“Doesn’t happen,” Fulton grins. “I live with him, I know where he’s at. It’s not always rosy in the garden, you know.

“Particularly if you lose it’s a tough stretch, it’s a tough week. No, listen, it’s good, he’s enjoying it. That’s the advantage I have: I lived with my Dad for so long and that’s the way it was. It’s all go. It’s tough too.”

His mind wanders for a minute as he thinks of a film he watched a few nights ago. Invincible, an NFL number based on the story of Vince Papale. There’s a line in it, he says, something along the lines of “I’ll sleep in December after the season”.

Fulton resonates: “I woke up at whatever it was, five o’clock the other morning and over breakfast Jackie said to me, ‘Are you going to get any sleep through the season?’ and I said to her, ‘I’ll sleep in April.’

“Listen, I know that’s not just me. That’s every coach in the league. You’re just going 24/7.  I have huge respect for anyone who coaches in the Super League. It is very, very tough, whether you’re at the top of the league or the bottom of the league. The preparation, the amount of time that people invest is incredible.”

Adrian Fulton talks to his side during a time out 23/1/2018 Adrian talking to his St Malachy's side during a time-out. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

It’s in from school after a full day of work, with some coaching thrown in there, get the dinner in as quick as he possibly can and then off to training for the night.

“Trying to do two jobs,” he intervenes, “and you have to throw in a wee bit of parenting!”

Fitting that whilst on this phone call, he’s doing just that. He’s on taxi duty while chatting away, doing 101 things at once; thank God for Bluetooth car kits. Two kids dropped home, one to bring to badminton.

“I’m very lucky to have a very understanding and terrific wife in Jackie,” he continues. “I suppose she saw with her Dad, she’s been there already so she understands.”

As had he with his own. “That’s the whole circle of life, I suppose. It’s great.”

Of late, he’s coached alongside his Dad — he was assistant to him for two years too — but his days playing under Danny were probably his fondest. They were great, he smiles.

“It was really enjoyable, I loved playing for my Dad. DF is a legend of Irish basketball, he’s a character. I think as parents get older they kind of lose that filter. He tells you exactly how it is at the moment.

“I don’t know if it was a little bit sugar-coated back in the day. If I played well he’d tell me in the house that I played well. Not in front of people, he’d like to keep it a bit more discreet. If I didn’t play well, he wasn’t afraid to tell me either!”

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And surely that’s the same for CJ?

“Oh yes I’m afraid, he has to earn it,” he says. “Absolutely. I expect high standards, I really do expect high standards from him too.

“If I threw the ball at somebody I’d have felt he made the mistake but my Dad would go at me. I’d be like, ‘He made the mistake,’ but he’d say, ‘Well, you should have known that he’d make the mistake.’

Adrian Fulton Star of the Sea 28/1/96 Fulton lining out for Star in 1996. Source: Allsport/INPHO

“You gave him the ball in the wrong place at the wrong time,’ and I’m going, ‘Well, he was wide open’. But, no. There’s definitely a bit of my Dad in me as well. If Christopher did something daft, I’m on him. He’s like, ‘Well, listen….’ I’m like, ‘No.’”

He labelled his Dad as one, but surely Adrian could also be considered a legend of Irish basketball. By many, he’s considered probably the greatest basketball player to ever come out of Northern Ireland.

“I’m not that old, don’t be telling me that now! I’m way too young to be a legend of Irish basketball,” he laughs, but kindly accepts the praise, his modesty shining through.

“I mean, yeah, I had my moments. I was very, very fortunate. I played senior international for 12 years, played in four World Student Games, played all over the world under great coaches and with a lot of guys who played in the NBA and professional in Europe, against guys who played in the NBA.

“I was very, very lucky… very, very lucky. I can’t complain.”

As his son and his side take to the court at the Mardyke Arena against UCD later today [4pm] — the U18s play on Sunday too — Fulton will be envious of them watching on. He’d love to be playing. There’s nothing like playing, as they all say.

He’ll be glowing with pride too, of course. While club chairman Bill McCotter pushed for the recruitment of professionals from overseas before the season started to bolster the squad, many of the youngsters have come through the St Malachy’s and Star Of The Sea club programmes.

With many nurtured by Fulton himself, he remembers bringing them to an U11 tournament down in Cork and here they are seven, eight years later, competing for a National senior title on Leeside.

It’s satisfying, but that’s what coaching is all about. It’s giving back and passing on.

“It’s like, ‘Why are you doing it?’ Well, it was done for me. All the guys I know that are coaching are all doing the same thing. So many people gave up so much time for us. It only feels right that we should do that as well.”

Adrian Fulton and Cory McGee DIGITAL On the run in 2003. Source: INPHO

He echoes his words that he’d love to be on the court later, with some bit of control but realises that he has to give all of that responsibility to his players. It can be frustrating but he trusts them, plus he has two great men on the bench with him.

Javan and Danny, the dream team. The experience there is huge, and obviously helps Adrian as a coach as well as his players.

His father is keeping more than well, and is loving basketball — and keeping his son on his toes — as much as ever.

“He’ll ring me and say, ‘Right, I’ll send you an email.’ He couldn’t text me, no. Mum will text me, ‘Your Daddy says read your emails….’ Advice about games, practice, do this, do that, OK? He’s normally pretty direct — it’s just, ‘Do this, right ok.’”

It’s in the blood.

Win, lose or draw though, this is going to be a pretty special family occasion.

“Absolutely,” he agrees, but then that competitive streak shows. “Hopefully it’ll be a good weekend — it’ll be great if we win! That’s the big thing.”

And by God, Adrian Fulton would sleep a happy man in April then.

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