Sunday 25 March 2018

When Star met Magic

Kieran Donaghy is ready to jump through hoops in Kerry's bid to reclaim All-Ireland title, writes Colm Keys

It's amazing what you could see when you're running down a beach in Miami at 6.45 on a January morning.

Kieran Donaghy was about 40 feet away from this great hulking figure coming against him when he realised he would soon be in the company of basketball royalty. Manna from Heaven!

Earvin 'Magic' Johnson, five times an NBA winner and three times MVP, just happened to be on the same stretch of sand at that hour of the morning when he stopped by a young man with stars in his eyes.

Being the outgoing sort that Donaghy is, the Austin Stacks clubman managed to detain 'Magic' for five minutes, somehow procured a camera to grab a picture with him and told him of his preference for Larry Bird, Johnson's great Boston Celtics rival through the 1980s.

"I told him I preferred Larry Bird, just because he was white and he played with the Celtics! I said we have to go with the Celtics because we were from Ireland. He was laughing away at me but he was a big man with huge shoulders on him. This fella was a point guard in the '70s and '80s."

Inevitably a chat with Donaghy will always drift to one sport. Even after five years as one of the bulwarks of the Kerry football team, it's basketball that loosens the tongue and energises him more than anything else. Like pouring petrol on a fire.

Discuss the current NBA play-offs and he'll deliver chapter and verse, who's who. The chance meeting with one of the game's legends while on a 10-day break in Orlando just a few months ago -- where he took in a couple of Miami Heat games, getting Row Two tickets from a hotel concierge who had the right contacts for one of them -- illustrates Donaghy's devotion to it.

Nice and all as it was to meet 'Magic', however, for Donaghy nothing or no one compares to Michael Jordan, the game's greatest exponent.

The conversation is focusing on sporting heroes. Donaghy is recalling days as a youngster when he looked up to Seve Ballesteros, around the time he started playing pitch and putt.

But would he have "dossed" out of school as a 16-year-old and cycled the 15 miles to Tralee Golf Club to watch Seve tee it up, just as he did with Jordan all those years ago? In the life of an adolescent, that still ranks as a special day.

"I heard he was out there so I cycled out the 15 miles or so. I saw him walking around the golf course. Huge man. At 16 I was quite small so he looked even bigger. They're massive like, unbelievable athletes. Scary. A pair of shoulders the width of the table."

Only the other day he was watching a documentary on Jordan on ESPN and marvelled at just how good he was. So he clicked on to YouTube to watch some of his last professional games.

"I got on to one of his last games and he had 40 points at the age of 40 ... with the Wizards, and they were terrible. But he was still running the break, he was dunking. I was going, 'this guys is just incredible.'

"Then I watched his last NBA game ever in Philadelphia against the 76ers, the crowd for the whole last quarter were standing up chanting 'we want Mike back', they wanted him back out. So he came back out and some fella fouled them and they gave him two free-throws and he was half crying shooting two free-throws.

"He is definitely my sporting hero by a long way. I'm a better basketballer than footballer anyway."

Maybe he is, but Kerry will still take the athlete who has been turned into potentially the most destructive full-forward in the game, five years on from transforming Kerry with his switch to the edge of the square.

There he has struck up one of the great partnerships in Gaelic football with Colm Cooper , a partnership that continues to stand the test of time and will be the object of most of Tipperary's interest when Kerry get their championship campaign under way in Killarney on Sunday.

"We have a very good understanding really. I know his game pretty much completely. I know his runs. He knows my runs. I know what runs he likes and he knows where to get me the ball. I think for us as a Kerry team, we should just be trying to get it to him as good as we can because good things happen when he touches the ball."

Last year the telepathy between them was reflected in the two moves that assured the Down goalkeeper Brendan McVeigh of his first All Star.

"His vision is top class. What I like about him, he could have gone for goal there to be the hero but he did the right thing," says Donaghy of Cooper.

"It was just unfortunate that I didn't finish them off as the 'keeper made a good save. But even the first one when I missed, 99 fellas out of 100 wouldn't have put it back in my hands again.

"But he had trust in me and still did the right thing if you could see it. That just comes. We would be doing that stuff in training. He might not be looking at me at all but I know he stills see me. If the right thing to do is to put it in my hand he will do that. It's great to play with a fella like that in a full-forward line."

And it would be great to reciprocate in the year that he is finally Kerry captain in his own right. The year of the Gooch perhaps?

"You don't really start thinking about that until late on in the year. Gooch is a very well-respected member of the Kerry panel. He's a guy we all look up to. He's a leader. A silent leader really.

"When he does speak, everybody listens. That's the way he's going to take his captaincy. If we're ever lucky enough to get to a final this year -- it's something you would like to win for him. But there is a long road to go in this year's football championship. If you start thinking down the line, that's where you slip up.

"He's the ultimate team player and I think that's what makes him such a good captain.

"If Colm Cooper is told to go out and not score and set up everybody else and Kerry win, he'll do that. He has no ego. He's so far from any of that. That's what makes him a good captain."

Failing to reach an All-Ireland final for the first time in seven years has had its positive spin-offs, Donaghy feels. After six successive appearances, the grind was beginning to tell.

"It makes you look forward to the next year. We just got so used to the routine. Six finals in a row -- it was quarter-final, come back, train, get ready for the semi-final, hopefully win, get back and go training.

"We got in a rhythm and then next thing we were going back down on the train and there was no more training.

"We didn't think when we were leaving Killarney on the Thursday night that it was the last time you were going to be there in 2010 with your friends and team-mates.

"It hits you hard two or three days after when you start to realise that it's over and you're going to be watching the end of the championship rather than being involved. I suppose it gives the team that hunger that comes with the pain of defeat and that's always good."

Revived, refreshed, reinvigorated -- the recipe for a really big season.

Irish Independent

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