BASKETBALL IN EUROPE
|Ger Noonan and the Irish senior men's team returned to the court earlier this month, following a three-year hiatus|
Irish basketball has been through the wringer and back in recent times, but there is finally some promising news for hoops fans in the Emerald Isles.
With compiling financial issues leaving a heavy strain on the coffers of the Irish Basketball Federation back in 2009, the national men's team was temporarily disbanded.
This came following the so-called "boom time" of the eighties and nineties when Ireland were able to attract a high calibre of players to compete in their domestic league, such as future NBA champion Mario Elie.
However, on January 13 the Irish were back on court, taking on neighbours England in a friendly as a curtain raiser to the British Basketball Cup Final.
The Irish team, selected from the top domestic players came out on top, seeing off a late English comeback to win the encounter 83-80.
A large majority of the success in turning round the fortunes of the Irish can be laid on the shoulders of Bernand O'Byrne, who entered the crisis as new general secretary of Basketball Ireland two years ago.
O'Byrne, perhaps importantly, entered the job from outside of the basketball community, having previously held the same title at the Football Association of Ireland (FAI).
Despite a gaping difference in the exposure and size of the two sports in Ireland, O'Byrne told The Irish Mail on Sunday that he finds more similarities than differences between the two jobs: "I'm dealing with a volunteer base here, like the FAI, and also a corporate board," adding, "The only difference is that I didn't come from a basketball background, so nobody can accuse me of having an agenda."
The Ireland-England game was a step in the right direction at bringing Irish basketball back to its previous levels of prosperity, but O‘Byrne remains cautiously optimistic, insisting, that in the immediate future, there are more pressing issues than resurrecting the national men's program.
"I don't want anyone to get carried away, but it is a step in the right direction.
"We have under-16 and under-17 international teams now and gradually, within time, we will get back to a situation where we will have sustainable senior men's and women's teams - the senior women were particularly strong a few years ago. But the key is sustainability."
Two of the key areas that O'Byrne is targeting in developing basketball in his home nation are player retention and involving the migrant communities that have grown significantly in the past decade.
Basketball is one of the most popular sports at secondary schools in Ireland, but at the completion of studies, most players throw in the game, by either giving up competitive sport or opting to pursue other sporting interests. In terms of targeting migrant communities, O'Byrne points toward Lithuanians and Latvians who have flocked en masse to Ireland since their countries joined the European Union in 2004.
"We have tried to ensure that the Lithuanians and Latvians become part of the basketball family here and not just play among their own community," O'Byrne said. "It's interesting to see the number of different nationalities that love the game."
Some success has been made in this latter goal, evidenced by one of the teams playing in Ireland's premier men's basketball competitions, Dublin Inter, who pulls their players exclusively from the local Lithuanian community.
Lithuanian-born Mindaugas Tamusauskas was also prominent in Ireland's over the weekend. The forward top-scored for the Irish with 17 points.