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'I think in three years' time, there will be an Irish player in the NBA'

Journalist and author Emmet Ryan on touring Europe for his new book, Irish basketball’s great hope Aidan Harris Igiehon and more.

Dubliner Aidan Harris Igiehon has been tipped as a future NBA star.
Dubliner Aidan Harris Igiehon has been tipped as a future NBA star.

IRISH BASKETBALL APPEARS to be in a relatively healthy place right now.

A few tough years amid the recession badly hurt the sport in this country. In 2010, with Basketball Ireland €1.2 million in debt, the country’s national basketball teams were deactivated, even prompting some big players to quit as a result of the lack of a pathway to international level.

Since then, Irish basketball has been recovering slowly but surely. The senior teams have been reactivated, while a number of highly promising players, such as Aidan Harris Igiehon, have started to emerge.

In his new book ‘I Like it Loud,’ Business Post journalist Emmet Ryan delves into the world of European basketball, while bringing an Irish slant to proceedings.

He travels to countries such as Spain, where the sport is much loved, as well as smaller places like Kerry, in the process exploring basketball’s rise in popularity there.

The book mixes thorough basketball analysis and fascinating stories from the sport with amusing personal anecdotes from his exhaustive European voyage.

Ryan recently caught up with The42 to chat about the book…

What prompted you to write the book?

I’d written a couple of GAA books before. The first was when I wasn’t in journalism. I had a three-and-a-half-year gap working in the real world, as I call it, and it was a good way to keep focused and stuff.

The second one I was finishing as I returned full-time, but at the same time as me finishing that book, because I clearly am a masochist, I took over Ball in Europe, from a guy who was leaving Europe basically.

I’d been covering the European scene for a while. When I was a kid about 11 or 12, Sky took all the football away. I was your typical late primary school kid, I wanted to watch whatever sport was on TV. Channel 4: the NFL and the NBA, I ended up playing American football many years later. I got into it because it was big, glamorous fellas bashing each other, I didn’t realise how horrifically damaging it was on the brain at the time. 

With basketball, I never had a chance to play, but I got into it. It wasn’t just the sport. The sport was cool, but it was the whole culture around it. The hip-hop, the style, the fashion, everything about it just emanated awesome. And this is when Michael Jordan was at his peak.

So I stayed interested in it but there wasn’t much of it on TV apart from the highlights on Channel 4 and Eurosport had it for the European Championships one year — ’97. I remember Saša Đorđević made this incredible Buzzer beater against Croatia to put what was then Yugoslavia into the quarters. It basically kept them alive and they ended up winning the thing. I thought, this is feckin’ awesome and I got quite into the European stuff.

I didn’t cover it for a few years then. But I was always watching the NBA when I could. When I freelanced it was quite easy to, because I could manage the hours.

I’d always been into the European stuff and that was always on at more palatable hours, so I started watching it again and I really got to appreciate the different styles of it.

When I was still in my old job, I went over to my first EuroLeague game purely as a fan. It was in London. It’s best described as a disaster for the organisation but great for me. London was a failure for the event, because in the UK and Ireland too, basketball is very much the NBA and everything else is a long way back. Explaining it to people is a bit challenging, whereas on the continent, it’s this bigger thing.

I’ve been travelling around a bit — Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Turkey, Serbia, Israel, lovely spots. I’ve done on-site a couple of features each time.

I had the itch to write a book and I will write another GAA one eventually. But basketball is the main thing I’m covering outside of tech at the moment. If I was going to write a book on anything, it’d be either tech, beer or basketball.

I can do a tech book any time, I can do a beer book pretty much any time, but this is a good time to do basketball because there’s a surge in Ireland as well at the moment and I’ve got all these connections around Europe. I thought: what if I use a year to arc a lot of stories that aren’t just from that year basically? 

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What was the biggest challenge of writing it?

Honestly, managing it with my day job. The reason I hadn’t written a book in six years was because I’d been employed in the Business Post for six years. I really like it there, but as any full-time journalist will know, the hours are so disjointed.

Knowing when you’re going to have time to focus and write, and with a book, you need that — it’s a real challenge. So being able to work it around my schedule, especially as we’ve gone through a lot of changes in the paper this year.

So people ask me how I manage to do all the stuff I do — it really helps when you’re single and child-free. It’s bad for every other part of your life, but for writing, it’s great.

Also, the support I was getting from guys around the continent and around the Irish scene, waiting for it to come. It was my Christmas message for the website. A load of people were saying ‘great stuff’. They knew with me it would be very conversational in style. It wouldn’t be about one specific thing. It would be trying to get a general feel of what the different cultural aspects are.

It’s not just about the game on the court, it’s about these cities, which vary from your huge ones like Madrid, where it’s all part of the Real Madrid organisation to tiny places like Killorglin, which is 2,199 people famously on the census. Being able to give those two very different stories is kind of cool.

sean-flood Sean Flood is considered one of Irish basketball's brightest prospects. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

How does Irish basketball compare to the rest of the European landscape at the moment?

We’re coming up. What you will see here is serious drama. Our men’s league has been the most competitive league in Europe for the last three seasons. That’s not an exaggeration by any stretch.

No league in Europe has been as close for deciding the title three seasons in a row, especially two seasons ago when UCD Marian had to beat Killester in a one-game play-off. Part of that is to do with the structure of the league but part of it is competitive balance.

The quality certainly isn’t great, because we don’t have money, but you see guys going to the States: Sean Flood, Sean Jenkins, Aidan Harris Igiehon is the one most people know. He’s got serious NBA ambitions. I think he will be in the NBA. 

Jordan Blount is missing this year through injury but he’ll be back next year. When he finishes in college, I think he’ll get a good job in Europe. I know some scouts see him as a EuroLeague player eventually. He’ll probably start off at a lower level, because most kids coming from college do, but I think Jordan will make it to EuroLeague, which is the second-best league in basketball. So when you’ve got that level of talent, the men’s side is promising.

The women’s side is amazing. We’ve qualified two teams to A divisions in the last three years, which has never happened previously in Irish basketball. Claire Melia is on her first year at St Joe’s in Philadelphia, already winning awards, putting up silly numbers. 

We’ve got so many players coming through. Oddly, rugby’s been the biggest problem, because so many players are going off to play international rugby — Lindsay Peat, Aoife McDermott and Louise Galvin.

I wouldn’t say it’s quite lost, but it’s a mostly lost generation of players. We hadn’t got the senior teams for a while and there was no avenue. Louise a couple of years ago said that was a clear thing in her decision that helped her choose rugby. And obviously she was a great footballer too for Kerry, played in All-Ireland finals. Lindsay as well is playing for Dublin, she’s just stupidly good at sports. 

But because they’ve also been coaching a lot, they’ve been able to inspire the generation that’s coming through. We’re getting all these players that are coming through and at the 2029 Women’s EuroBasket, which is only the best 16 teams in Europe and we’ve never come close to qualifying a team before, I firmly believe we’ll be at that. If you can keep the players healthy, because obviously injuries are a factor, I think we qualify.

With the men’s, if it was 2031 it would probably be better, but it’s 2033. In 2029, it’s a bigger tournament with 24 teams, it might even expand to 32 by then — I think it’s doable, but not as likely.

The women’s, even though it’s a smaller tournament, I would be surprised if we don’t qualify. 

Do you think we’ll see an Irish player in the NBA soon?

I think in three years’ time, there will be an Irish player in the NBA. Aidan’s going to do his freshman year in Louisville. There’s a slim chance he goes out after his freshman year.

I think realistically he’ll do his sophomore year in college. He’ll be a proper heavy minutes player then. And also his IQ — he currently plays centre, which is the tallest position on the court. He sees himself as going to the second tallest — the four. He sees why and he’s been adjusting his game to that. 

He’s a Clondalkin lad who got into the sport because of his mate, who was Lithuanian Irish. Aidan was a soccer player when he was 13. They needed an extra player for the first team [in basketball] and so got him to come along.

Considering how he got into the sport and then he ballooned in height, I’ve zero doubt Aidan will be an NBA player. I hope to be in Brooklyn the day his name is called in the draft. I will book the time off work and find a way to get a press pass.

I want to see the first Irishman called in the draft. Pat Burke obviously played in the NBA but wasn’t drafted as such. 

It’s not just the natural talent, it’s the focus. If you meet the guy, he realised the sport could get him an education, a career and if he’s really good it could get him to a professional level.

At the time of this interview, Louisville are the number-one ranked team in the United States. No Irish player has ever been on a college team ranked number one in the US prior to the other day, when they announced it.

So he’s already made history and he played in the game where they secured the number one ranking. He didn’t play much, because the coach is keeping the young guys off the court this time of year, which is very normal at Louisville, especially with the coach they have.

This year’s more about development — I’ve been talking to a few journalists over there about development for Aidan and how he’s adjusting to the college game, having been ‘the guy’ in school, he’s among a bunch of guys who have been ‘the guy’.

I think he was the 23rd-ranked player in the US going into his class, he’s a serious basketball player and I think he’s going to be in the NBA in the next two or three years maximum.

He will finish his degree, because his mother will ensure he does that. But he’ll be finishing in the summer between seasons. And I’m definitely going to be there the night when he makes his NBA debut.

I get emotional about Luka Dončić doing what he’s doing in the NBA purely as a fellow European. Aidan would be another level for me.

kieran-donaghy Better known as a Kerry GAA star, Kieran Donaghy has played a major role in basketball's rise in popularity in the county. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

You went to Kerry for the book. Would it be fair to say basketball there has undergone a resurgence of late?

I’ve been using basketball as a comparison with the League of Ireland. One Kerry team wouldn’t work, you need two, because there needs to be the local rivalry. They always had basketball in Kerry, but they started trying to go national again. 

I’ve said it and Kieran Donaghy will never accept the credit, but it’s so much down to him, it’s unreal. He’s the energising force.

I know certain people will have certain views on Kieran. Kieran is a lovely man. His time and all that [is commendable], but also, he is such a focused guy. He is looking at the next way he can help people all the time. He focuses his energy in so many positive ways and what he’s done for making it a part of the weekend is unbelievable.

They get 1000 people into every game. That’s not been seen since the ’80s in Ireland. The crowd there is lit. You’ve got to be there over an hour before the game to be certain of getting a place to sit down.

The game before they won the title, the queues started outside the arena three hours before the opening. They weren’t opening for another 90 minutes, but people wanted to be front of the door to make sure they got their seat. 

It’s more than basketball. They’re making it about the town. They’ve got all the sponsors onboard. Prior to doing that, Killorglin had a good youth team, so thought: ‘We can do something then.’

They had to get creative. They had a carpenter who made sure the stand didn’t cost the full price. It’s assembled and reassembled every game. It’s a 90-minute process. The whole village is involved and it’s a gorgeous place.

I remember describing the three towns to people. I was in Killarney as well, which has also gotten onboard. They’ve got a lovely sports centre already, so they didn’t have to do any building, but they’ve got the town really activated.

Tralee is where you go with your mates on holiday, Killorglin is where you go with your other half on holiday, Killarney will cater for whatever holiday you want and will make sure you have a good one. 

But to see the passion they have down there [is impressive]. When I was waiting for the bus to go on to Killorglin from Killarney, one of the Killarney players found me outside the Nike store at the bus stop. He goes: ‘Sorry about that game last night.’ Not because Killarney lost, but he felt it wasn’t entertaining enough. 

He’s thinking about the night-out part. He was upset they’d lost, but he’d gotten over that, and he thought we hadn’t got as fun a game as he thought I deserved as a person coming out to watch. That’s the attitude you want. Obviously you want the guys committed to win it, which they definitely are, but they always say if they’re trying to get the town behind you, it’s got to be part of the night out.

It was all back to Scott’s in the town and all the players heading out and everyone having a good night. Obviously, it’s still very family friendly, but Tralee have the whole thing where it’s entertainment for a full hour before the game starts. Their whole thing is get the crowd going, but also make it feel like they’re not just here to watch fellas play basketball. That’s the main reason they’re here, but they’re getting a night out of it.

The Americans have known that for years. After the book was done, I was at a college game in the University of San Franscisco, a small private school. You’d swear it was a big deal, because they were going out of their way to make sure it felt like an event. 

Everyone gives out about the way the Americans have all the advertising and sponsorship in sport, but that’s a by-product of the entertainment side. You’re competing for entertainment money when you’re in sports.  You’re not just competing with other sports. If you’re in London, the West End is as much a rival as a football or rugby team.

puff-summers-celebrates-at-full-time Templeogue BC's Puff Summers pictured during a game earlier this year. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

On a broader note, are you optimistic about the future of Irish basketball?

Oh yeah, well they got the legacy debts paid off. They know how to work to the max within their means so they don’t overstretch themselves to a point that’s unmanageable. Obviously, in every sport as much as you can, activate your volunteer base. The more you do that, the more you can deal with it.

A mate of mine was thinking the other day: ‘Should we do an all-star game in Irish basketball?’ No one’s going to go to an all-star Irish basketball game [in certain places]. If you put it in Belfast or Dublin, it’s not going to matter, even some places in Cork and Cork’s mad for basketball. You put it in Tralee or Killarney, people will come along for the craic, just for the party. You look at ways to make people involved.

What Basketball Ireland have done with streaming so many games, it’s great for two things — one for giving back to your own community, because so many people have emigrated over the years. I know when UCD won the title a couple of years ago in the men’s, a brother of one of the players was watching in Nairobi. 

But also for the non-Irish who come here to play. For their fans to be able to watch online, so many players when you ask them about that go: ‘It’s so great that our families can see us playing.’ We’ve got that extra connection. It isn’t just a Skype call or an email. They can actually see them doing a thing.

And it means they’re going to go back to where they play basketball and say nice things, even if they’re only going over to visit. It’s going to encourage more people to play here, which is great. 

Obviously, I’d prefer if we changed our rules around imports. The American limitation — the big problem is not it being one player on a court at a time, that’s for men and two for women. That’s not great, but the bigger problem is there’s no way to naturalise.

So you’ve got Puff Summers, who is in his mid 30s, has been living in Ireland since he finished college in Davidson. Puff, I’m pretty certain, is an Irish citizen. He’s eligible to play basketball for Ireland internationally. He has contributed so much to sport here, but will never count as an Irish player on any roster he plays in.

Jermaine Turner retired at 42, apart from three years, played almost his entire career in Ireland — same issue. Jerome Westbrooks, who has now got grandkids, had to stop playing in division one, because they got another American. Married to an Irishwoman with two sons who won the cup last year and two years’ prior [respectively], and are playing together this year at Killester — he never got to be considered Irish. This to me is insane.

I get that you want to reduce teams loading up, but there has to be some pathway for someone to be eventually considered Irish.

To me, once you’ve hit your fifth season and that to me is long, how on earth could you be considered to not be contributing to the sport? Because all these guys are coaching as well.

I know I’m listing off men, because typically, we’d see the men hang around a lot longer than the women. Often, you get a higher calibre of female play in the US — obviously we’ve had some amazing Americans play here over the years and they typically find jobs in Europe after their season in Ireland. 

Meagan Hoffman has been here forever. And she’s done so much for the sport here and will never be considered Irish, even though she is in the eyes of the state and every other capacity. She could theoretically play internationally for Ireland and in the eyes of FIBA, the governing body globally, she is considered Irish, but in the eyes of our own league’s rules, she’s not. So that’s what I would change, because also, it’s a sign of respect to the person that they’ve contributed to the sport.

This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

‘I like it loud: A basketball tour through Europe’ by Emmet Ryan is available to buy here and  and you can also follow him on Twitter @ballineurope.

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Paul Fennessy

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