International band of brothers have got everything to play for
Dublin Inter have more reasons than most to covet a National Cup title, writes Marie Crowe
On June 26 last year, Toomas Ilves was coaching basketball at the gym in Palmerstown Community School. He was overseeing some routine drills, when he started to feel unwell.
Ilves asked one of the other coaches to take over and he walked slowly around the edge of the court, holding his chest.
When he reached the exit door, the Estonian slumped to the ground; he was having a heart attack. Fellow coach Mariuz Landus saw the events unfold and, along with a colleague, rushed to his assistance.
They performed CPR on Toomas until the ambulance arrived, but their efforts were in vain. A short time later, at Blanchardstown hospital, the 45-year-old was pronounced dead.
"It was a very big shock, he has been involved in sport all his life, everyone is still thinking about it," explains Landus.
For Ireland's basketball community, the death of Ilves was not just a tragic passing; it was a devastating blow that affected a lot of people. Ilves was more than just a coach: he was a leader to many and was responsible for keeping the game going in several areas around Dublin. Along with running the basketball programme at the school in Palmerstown and at Ballon basketball club, he was the founder and driving force of the Men's Premier League side, Dublin Inter.
"His role went far beyond just coaching, he organised the team events, tournaments and the fundraising," said player Barry Ryan. "To lose his presence and commitment to the club so suddenly and dramatically was hard to take. It really impacted on a lot of our young players. He had coached them right up through school and they witnessed his passing that day in the hall."
So deep was his influence and involvement in the club that after he passed their underage programme fell apart and there was a real chance that the club would fold. But they rallied and with Toomas in their minds and Basketball Ireland in their corner, they regrouped and focused on the upcoming season.
Fast forward six months and the team have exceeded all expectations. A cup semi-final win over Neptune just over a week ago shocked the Irish basketball world and showed how far the team had come, against the odds.
You see, Dublin Inter are not like most top Irish teams. They don't have a rich history, a long tradition, a sponsor or even a home. They have no professional players, no American and no resources to contemplate getting one. They epitomise amateurism.
Most of their players are eastern European, and the rest are made up of Irish, Americans and Filipinos. At training, in a community hall in Clonsilla, the coach speaks Lithuanian and the captain translates for others.
Because of work and family commitments, getting together to train isn't easy. Currently they are only able to meet one night a week for a couple of hours. The fact that several of the players work shifts, usually 12-15 hours at a time, dictates this. But when they are together they work hard, no time is wasted and the intensity of the work-out is ferocious. They are serious about what they do.
As a result of the players' limited availability, the onus is on the individual to take care of the other aspects of preparation. Fitness training, strength and conditioning and recovery sessions are all done in their own time. There has to be trust between the players and an unbelievable amount of dedication is required.
Without a sponsor or a large fan base, there is no money coming in. Referees and registration fees, hall rental, kit and ball costs, along with travel expenses, all fall at the feet of the players. A quick calculation reveals that a season costs each player approximately €2,000. So why do they do it?
"For the love of playing and the love of the game and because they want to win," says the manager Vaidas Butkus. "Most of these players are from eastern Europe so basketball is very popular in their home countries. They want to play the game they grew up with and they want to play it at the highest level possible."
Dublin Inter, who have only been competing in the Premier League for two seasons, are now on the verge of making history. Next Friday night they will face UCC Blue Demons in the National Cup final at The Arena in Tallaght. It's undoubtedly a David and Goliath type contest but the team aren't fazed. They have just disposed of Neptune, one of the league's most successful sides, and are well aware of what they need to do to beat the Demons.
They have a plan and are happy to draw on their underdog status and the memory of Toomas. But along with having plenty of motivation, their multi-cultural background gives them confidence.
"As we have so many different nationalities on our team, we have a variety of styles we can play. The eastern European style is about moving the ball around and everyone having a role," explains Barry Ran. "It doesn't really follow the characteristics of large guys on the posts. There is no player set to any one position and we can all really shoot. In Lithuania, there is a focus on skill sets for all players, everyone learns the same skill set."
As it stands, their future as a Premier League side for next season is hanging by a thread. They need to get their underage programme back on track and secure some new senior players to add some depth to their squad. Friday's game may be just a Cup final, but a win could mean they will be around to tell their tale.