Kerry and Irish basketball mourns death of Paudie O'Connor

The late Paudie O’Connor (left) with his brother Seamie and lifelong friend John Keogh (right) on a Las Vegas golf course last year
The late Paudie O’Connor (left) with his brother Seamie and lifelong friend John Keogh (right) on a Las Vegas golf course last year

Eamonn Keogh

Killarney, Kerry and, indeed, Irish basketball lost one of its original and greatest names last week with the unexpected death of Paudie O'Connor, who was a giant of Irish basketball in every sense who revolutionised the game in Ireland and set the highest of standards for everybody else to follow.

Born in Killarney in 1951 - the son of Dan and Mai O'Connor - Paudie grew up alongside his brothers Seamie, Benny and Mike, and from a young age he had an insatiable love for basketball, which really took off in Killarney in the 50s.

A young O'Connor soon emerged as the most exciting talent on the Killarney and Kerry basketball circuit during the 1960s, and in his late teens and early twenties he spent summers in the USA attending basketball camps.

Paudie won various county championships with the Busby Babes in the late 1960s and in 1969 he starred for the Kerry senior and minor basketball teams that won All-Ireland titles. In the 1970s and 80s O'Connor starred with the local St. Vincents Killarney team, helping them to national league and Cup titles in the early 80s.

In Irish basketball circles, Paudie O'Connor is best remembered for spearheading the Killarney initiative that brought the first professional American players to play in the national league. To make it more appealing, Paudie argued that the showmanship and slam dunking skills of the Americans would bring basketball to a new level in Ireland. Despite objections from the governing body and other clubs across the country, the first Americans arrived in Killarney in September 1979.

Paudie retired in 1986 and moved to the USA shortly afterwards with his American born wife Marty and their daughter Morgan was born there. A few years in New York was followed by a move to Las Vegas where Paudie set up O'Connor Golf Tourism bringing high profile tours to Ireland and to Scotland every year.

In Kieran Shannon's book 'Hanging from the Rafters', documenting the golden age of Irish basketball, former Irish Basketball chief administrator Noel Keating described Paudie as the 'greatest Irish basketball player ever'.

Former Basketball Ireland President and former Marian Dublin player Paul Meany, who had many battles on the court with Paudie, tweeted last week: 'Sad to see Paudie's untimely death. Definitely in the top five Irish players who have ever played Basketball. Also Mr Basketball in the 1970s in Killarney where his creativity and innovation brought the national league into a totally different space. May he rest in peace'.

Paudie, who didn't smoke or drink, was described by his lifelong friend John Keogh as a man ahead of his time, a proud Killarney man and a wonderful ambassador for Killarney and Kerry.

Basketball was his true sporting love but Paudie O'Connor was also an outstanding football talent with Dr Crokes and was tipped by many to make Mick O'Dwyer's Kerry golden years squad during the mid 1970s. However Paudie was different to many of those around him who he felt were merely thinking in terms of All-Irelands whereas he was thinking of the international and global stage. He went on to win over 100 senior caps for Ireland as well as captaining his country, played in three pre-Olympics qualifying tournaments and in 1977 he also had the distinction of being selected as the first and only Irish player ever on a European All Star five.

Paudie is still widely spoken as the greatest Irish basketballer of all time. Standing at 6'4", he stood out against all other point guards in that era where he ran the offense with precision and controlled the pace of the game. He was a constant threat to opposition with his shooting, passing and dribbling abilities. Basketball was always first choice sport for Paudie.

Outside his sporting interests, Paudie was Killarney's youngest ever Mayor and member of Killarney Urban District Council from 1974 to 1985, serving as Chairman in 1978, 1980, 1982 and 1984. He was also a Kerry County Councillor from 1979 to 1985.

Paudie O'Connor was interred at The Guardian Angel Cathedral in Las Vegas and a memorial mass will take place in Killarney at a later date.

Predeceased by his parents Mai (1987) and Dan (2001) and brother Benny (2009), Paudie is survived by his daughter, Morgan (nee O'Connor) Mauro, her mother, Marty; son-in-law, Marcello Mauro; grandson, Luciano Connor Mauro; brothers, Seamie and Mike; sisters-in-law, Fidelma and Peggy; and nephews, Patrick, Richard and Philip O'Connor.