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'Coach told me, 'You'll be playing with Kieran Donaghy. He's the LeBron James of Gaelic football''

American Trae Pemberton had two enjoyable years playing basketball alongside Donaghy with Tralee Warriors.

Kieran Donaghy and Cillian Brennan Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

WHEN KIERAN DONAGHY waged war on the Mayo full-back line in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final replay in Limerick, Irish rugby legend Paul O’Connell was in the Gaelic Grounds to watch the chaos unfold. 

As it happened, O’Connell found himself sitting alongside Kerry hero Eoin ‘Bomber’ Liston. An iconic full-forward in his own day, Liston naturally kept a close eye on Donaghy, who at 32-years-old was experiencing his second coming in the Kerry jersey. 

“Bomber Liston just told me ‘Donaghy is using his arse beautifully,’” O’Connell tweeted during the second-half.

Donaghy’s 6’5″ frame, soft hands and deceptive speed on the ground helped him become one of the most influential players of his generation.

But as Liston observed, one of Donaghy’s more underestimated qualities was his ability to hold off opponents with his backside. Donaghy’s ‘arse-work’ gave him enough space to catch deliveries inside or at least direct them towards a team-mate. 

It was a move he perfected on the basketball court. The sport once Donaghy’s first love and remains a huge part of his life. ”I’m a basketballer playing football,” he reflected this week. 

“It’s a role that there weren’t too many other fellas doing. It gave us a different option. There were times in my career when it worked very well but there were also times when it didn’t work.

“When it works, it’s good, and it’s an exciting brand of football. The people of Kerry have a real warmth with me because we were playing that way, there were high balls going in and I was managing to get my hands on a few of them.”

And now his days in the Kerry jersey are over, Donaghy won’t need to wait long to get his adrenaline fix of elite level sport. This weekend, he’ll lead his Garvey’s Tralee Warriors side into a two-day pre-season basketball tournament at Templeogue Basketball Club ahead of the new Super League campaign.

Donaghy played a big role in founding the Warriors club in 2015 as he juggled playing football with Kerry and Austin Stacks, family life and working with PST Sport. His influence was vital as two rival clubs in Tralee joined forces to bring Super League basketball back to the town.

Donaghy’s mission was to make their home ties not just a “game but a show”.

“We kill the lights for the player introductions and we turn on our lasers and spotlights and we’ve got the music blaring when the players come on,” he said in 2016.

The games at Tralee Sports Complex regularly draw crowds of 800 fans, which is roughly 4% of the town’s population. NBA-style walk-outs, pre-game music, a team mascot and a lively PA announcer added some glamour to the nights, but the main attraction was ‘Star’.

At least he was until a young American by the name of Trae Pemberton walked through the doors.

Kieran Donaghy takes free throw as Trae Pemberton watches on Kieran Donaghy takes free throw as Trae Pemberton watches on Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

********** 

Trae Pemberton arrived in Tralee in 2016 not knowing quite what to expect.

He grew up in Indiana and spent four years playing college hoops with Maryville in St Louis, Missouri. He scored 1126 points across four seasons with the Division II side, finishing in 14th place on their all-time scoring list.

Pemberton made the all-conference team in his senior year which saw him average 16 points per game. 

He graduated with a degree in Sports Business Management but decided he wanted to see where basketball would take him. One of Pemberton’s former coaches reached out to a coach in Ireland who was on the look-out for international players – Mark Bernsen of the Tralee Warriors.

“The rest is history from there I guess,” Pemberton tells The42

He signed a professional contract with Tralee and packed his bags for a new adventure across the Atlantic. 

“I had no idea what to expect,” he continues. “Mark was telling me different things and looking back now he was spot on with how he laid it out for me, in so far as how nice the people are. They were looking out for you all the time and the town really rallied around the team and you and take care of you.

“He was spot on with that. Going from college to that town was kind of similar in some ways in the fact that the school I went to was a bit smaller. Everybody knew each other which I liked so that really wasn’t too big of a transition.

Trae Pemberton and Colin O'Reilly Trae Pemberton in action against UCC Demons Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“I had to get used to some of the different slang words and people talking a bit faster, that took me a week or two. Other than that it was fine.”

Bernsen was excited to pair up Pemberton up with the team’s other high-profile guard Kieran Donaghy. 

“You’re going to be playing with Kieran Donaghy. He’s like the LeBron James of Gaelic football over here,’” Bernsen told him.

“Yeah, okay, okay,” Pemberton replied.

When they finally crossed paths at training, Donaghy was intrigued by the team’s new addition. 

“I really didn’t know what to expect getting there,” continues Pemberton.

“I finally met him and he was as sound as can be. At the first training he gets there and he’s talking to me, asking me tonnes of questions. And he said, ‘If you’ve ever any questions come and let me know, we’ll get anything handled and taken care of.’”

Pemberton remains deeply appreciative of how welcome Donaghy made him feel when he first arrived in Tralee. They quickly forged a bond off the court as well as on it. 

“He wanted to know about my family and stuff like that and getting to know me. That really made me feel at home being there when someone was caring about me like that, given I’m from a whole different country so that was pretty awesome. 

“He has a family, two girls now and he’s always looking out for them that’s number one by all means, which it should be for anybody. He was nice enough to invite me and my girlfriend over to his house. Hillary, she’d make dinner for us and we’d hang out over there a few times.

“He just invited us in with open arms when you don’t have to do that. That goes a long way to speak about the type of person he is and how he cares for his team-mates and people close to him.

Darco Bucan and Kieran Donaghy Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“He knows when to turn it on and off. In the locker room before games it’s all business, but as soon as that last buzzer sounds we’re back in the locker room whether we win or lose.

“If we lose we’re talking about what we could have done better and move on from there. Come back, relax with the team, maybe whether it’s having a few pints or whatever.

“Literally the next day I’ll get a phonecall from him: ‘Hey man, how are you doing? Is the body okay? What do you think we did wrong in the game last night?’”

The pair could often be found in the Sports Complex before dawn working on their jump shots. Pemberton is known for his smooth shooting style and Donaghy was like a sponge, soaking up his advice.

“He works for PST Sport so he’d be doing that most mornings. Maybe two to three times per week we’d try get into the gym at 6am in the morning and get some extra shots up.
“From his aspect, he knew I was a pretty good shooter and he wanted to pick my brain and get some extra shots up to improve on that aspect of his game. I think it really paid dividends in our second season together. 

“We did that and he had one of his football phsyios come in and we did some cardio work with him, which was really good. We were helping each other on both ends. We were getting the body ready in the hips, legs and doing all that type of stuff.

“That was a bit new for me in looking at it from a different sport. It was a good adjustment and something different. 

“As far as a team-mate goes, he was an unbelievable competitor in practice. He wants to win every drill – no matter what it is he’s trying to win. I’d be really upset if he wasn’t on my team and I had to play against him.

“He needs that competitor’s edge and he’ll do everything to get it which I love and took some things like that from him.”

The Warriors won the Super League Champions Trophy in both of Pemberton’s seasons with the club in 2016/17 and 17/18.

The team’s American star picked up numerous individual accolades including the Import Player of the Year, multiple Superleague Player of the Month awards and Basketball Ireland Men’s Superleague All-Star award.

Source: Trae Pemberton/YouTube

When he looks back, Pemberton modestly says Donaghy was a major driving force for Tralee’s successes.

“In our first year we won a few games on the road earlier in the season and then we hit a lull where we lost to a few of the better teams in the league. So we weren’t too happy about that. Kieran called a team meeting and we sat down.” 

“Guys, we can beat all these lower level teams – that’s fine,” Donaghy told the group. “But we’re only going to get judged on if we’re able to step up to the plate when we play these better teams or we duly fold.”

Pemberton continues: “From then on we ramped up practice a little bit more and stepped up in those bigger games. It showed in the playoffs at the end of the season. We went up to Letterkenny which was a journey from Tralee.

“It was a good session of team bonding on the way up and we grew a little bit closer that weekend. We beat two of the top teams that weekend to win the championship. That was a big memory for me. 

Trae Pemberton talking his team Trae Pemberton talking his team Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“Then in the second year, there were more expectations on us given we’d won the previous year. Kieran came into the same mindset saying, ‘Let’s not get off to a bad start again. Let’s take it from the beginning and ramp it up.’

“I think we did as far as training with a different mindset. We were a bit more consistent in that second year. We finished off with another championship which was great.” 

Despite all the glory they enjoyed together on the court, Pemberton admits many of his fondest memories arrived outside of the games. 

“We had a few great team bonding trips in that first year. We were in Dublin for a game on a Saturday. We won it and stayed the night in Dublin and went to a Drake concert on the Sunday which was pretty awesome.

“Kieran said it was his first hip-hop concert so that was a great experience, he absolutely loved it. The Drake trip was organised by Fergal O’Sullivan on our team and we had a blast.

“We had another one later that year. We were down in Waterville on another team bonding trip. They were one of our sponsors so Kieran kind of set that all up. We enjoyed our time down there as well. I’ve quite a few good memories and some of them didn’t even involve being on the court. A lot of it was stuff we did off the court as a team. 

“I also loved to play golf and Kieran does too, he’s a pretty good golfer. We’d go out to the Tralee golf links there and smack a few balls around. All that stuff will always stick with me as far as memories.” 

Adrian O'Sullivan and Kieran Donaghy Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Last November, Donaghy, Pemberton and some of the team’s international players enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner with Tralee basketball royalty Ricardo Leonard and Roscoe Patterson. 

“Last year, we spent the day at Roscoe Patterson’s house. Kieran came over and Rick (Ricardo) Leonard was there as well. We just spent the night there eating good food and telling stories which were crazy to hear, especially from Roscoe and Rick because they’re a little bit older so they have stories from way back in the day. That was pretty cool.” 

He even managed to watch Donaghy doing his thing with the Kingdom on a number of occasions.

“It’s been good for me because I’ve been able to go to quite a few of Kieran’s football games. One that always sticks out for me is when the played Dublin in the league final in Croke Park (in 2017).

“That was the first time I was in Croke Park and that was unbelievable. I was sitting next to Kieran’s Mom. It was amazing to see how into it his Mom gets when it comes to the football.

“I don’t Kieran actually got on for that game but it was still great to witness that because Kerry ended up winning. It was awesome.

“I absolutely love the sport. I tell everybody about it back home. They’re like, ‘It sounds mad.’ But it is a cool sport.”

When Pemberton caught wind of Donaghy’s retirement from inter-county football yesterday, he paid a glowing tribute to his old team-mate on Twitter. 

He wrote: “Congrats on the retirement my guy! Unbelievable competitor and even better person! Privileged to have shared the court with you. Blessing to you on your next step! More success on the court coming soon.”

Pemberton joined English National Basketball League team Reading Rockets this season, but he’ll be keeping a close eye on Donaghy’s exploits on the basketball court. 

“I know the competitive edge will always be there and it will probably ramp up a little for him in basketball now he’s done with Kerry. I definitely will be tuned in watching and I know he’ll continue to work on that jump shot and keep the defence honest. I think he’s got two to three more years when it comes to basketball.”

Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Mike Quirke both tipped Donaghy for a managerial role in the future and Pemberton could see him being a successful coach in either code.

“The personality is absolutely there for him to coach. He can make you want to run through a wall for him. As far as a manager goes, that’s all you want.

“If you get players to believe in your system and believe in you, you pretty much have three-quarters of the battle won already.

“The rest of it is just going out there and putting the tactics to it. Whether it’ll be football or basketball, either one I think he’ll excel in if he wants to go into the management side of it.

“It was mostly his idea to get Tralee Warriors off the ground. He put a lot of backing into it. It’s part of his nature to be an outgoing person. Being able to talk to people and get the best out of them. That’s one of his greatest traits, being able to to get the best out of whoever he’s talking to.”

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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