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Dublin: -2°C Saturday 17 April 2021

American dream retold in documentary on Irish basketball's glory days

We Got Game, a documentary looking back at the American stars who made Irish basketball sexy in the 1980s, debuts tonight on Setanta Ireland.

Dude: Jasper McElroy in action for Blue Demons in the 1980s.
Dude: Jasper McElroy in action for Blue Demons in the 1980s.

BASKETBALL HASN’T BEEN the hottest sporting ticket for some years now but with a sell-out crowd due in the National Basketball Arena, tonight’s SuperLeague Cup finals can claim top billing.

LeBron James and the Miami Heat it ain’t but once upon a time, full houses were the norm in the Irish game. For those who care to remember, the crowds in Tallaght tonight will be a throwback to that halcyon heyday when basketball was the sexiest show in town and halls and gyms around the country were quite literally packed to the rafters.

Those were the days when Neptune ruled all, locked in rivalry with their city rivals Demons. They were kings of the boards when they won three national cups in the space of five years, but tonight the Cork giants will have to upset defending men’s champions UL Eagles if they are to scratch a 21-year itch and reclaim the cup for the first time since 1992.

Neptune’s glorious treble coincided with the final fling of an era in which their legendary American star Terry Strickland, along with the imported talents of Jasper McElroy, Ray Smith, Kelvin Troy, Mario Elie and Deora Marsh, became household names and propelled the sport into its prime.

“There was something otherworldly about them,” says journalist Kieran Shannon, author of Hanging from the Rafters and one of the team behind We Got Game, a new documentary on this golden age which airs tonight on Setanta Sports.

YouTube Credit: setantasportsireland

It focuses on those larger-than-life characters who, having played their way into the top percentile of America’s competitive college ranks, narrowly missed out on their dream NBA deal and began to look elsewhere for places where they could get paid for playing the sport they love. Elie, who played with Killester in Dublin, eventually returned home where he won three NBA rings with the Houston Rockets and the San Antonio Spurs; Dave Hopla braved Belfast during the time of the Troubles and is now one of world’s top shooting coaches with superstar names like Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony on his CV.

Others, like Marsh, could never leave their second home; he still lives in Ballina, County Mayo with his wife and family.

“We maybe weren’t aware of how close they were to the big time,” Shannon recalls. “I remember overhearing the odd time where someone would say ‘these guys weren’t good enough in America, they’re rejects.’ But when you consider the talent pool, that’s like saying Jamie Heaslip is a reject because he’s not in a World XV.

We maybe underappreciated it to an extent but at the same time, there was hero worship as well.

These American imports were not only the poster boys but the drivers of a period of unprecedented popularity for Irish basketball. Scheduling the documentary’s debut to immediately follow live coverage of tonight’s two finals — UL Huskies play Team Montenotte Hotel in the women’s decider — should ensure a captive TV audience but will most likely provoke another round of hand-wringing for some.

The legendary Deora Marsh in action.

The freakish bubble popped after a majority of clubs voted to reduce the number of Americans to one per team from the 1988/1989 season onwards. The crowds and the sponsors quickly disappeared too. Much like League of Ireland soccer looking longingly over its shoulder at a glorious past, many involved in the modern game — including current Basketball Ireland chief executive Bernard O’Byrne — see no signs of a legacy left over from the glory days.

Shannon disagrees and points to Mark Keenan and Mark Scannell, the coaches on opposite sides of tonight’s men’s final, as evidence to the contrary.

“They were kids that didn’t necessarily grow up in basketball backgrounds. Where they came from, they were kids themselves who grew up idolising players from that era, like the Jaspers.

Basketball itself could have done a lot more with the legacy from the 80s but that’s not the fault of the 80s. I remember [former Ireland coach] Joey Boylan a few years ago saying that the 80s left a legacy and that a lot of the people who now coach it and play it and have a passion for it were children of the 80s. The legacy was mishandled but that’s not to say it had no legacy.

Basketball in this country will never reach those heights again; now Ireland doesn’t even have a men or women’s senior national team following the decision to disband them in 2009 due to financial difficulties.

But the 80s boom is a warped yardstick. Far from despondent, Shannon sees pointers that there has been a mini-revival of late. For starters the decision to move the national semi-finals weekend back to Neptune Stadium, originally proposed in 2010 to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the arena’s opening, was a resounding success.

The two great rivals of yesteryear, Neptune and Demons, played out an inter-city derby in front of a packed crowd and the weekend has remained a calendar staple since.

“It took a Neptune-Demons rivalry,” Shannon says. “The momentum that you have now — that the cup has been revamped — that’s part of the legacy of the 80s.”

Those on planet Neptune need no reminder of their epic past nor of their long wait for another cup. Tonight they take their shot again.

Nivea Women’s SuperLeague Cup Final

  • UL Huskies v Team Montenotte Hotel Cork (6.45pm)

Nivea for Men’s SuperLeague Cup Final

  • UL Eagles v Bord Gáis Neptune (8.45pm)

Both finals will be broadcast live this evening on Setanta Ireland. We Got Game, directed by Garry Keane and produced by Motive Television, screens immediately afterwards at 10.30pm on Setanta Ireland.

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Niall Kelly

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