Sunday 25 February 2018

Hoop dreams are becoming a reality as basketball harks back to '80s halcyon days

Jerome Westbrooks, one of the legion of American players who brought top-flight basketball to Ireland in the ’80s. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Jerome Westbrooks, one of the legion of American players who brought top-flight basketball to Ireland in the ’80s. Photo: Colin O'Riordan

Eamonn Sweeney

It was wonderful to see Isaac Westbrooks play a major role as Griffith Swords Thunder won their first ever National Cup title by defeating Killester at the National Basketball Arena in Tallaght last Saturday night. And apt to see Bernard Brogan sending his best wishes to the North County Dublin club beforehand, because the Westbrooks could be regarded as the Brogans of basketball, a great Dublin sporting family bearing a name which evokes the very greatest days of their sport.

Isaac is the son of Jerome Westbrooks, one of the legion of American players who hugely enlivened the Irish sporting landscape in the '80s by coming here to bring basketball to new, previously unthought of and unrepeated levels of excitement and popularity.

After retiring from the professional game Westbrooks senior became a teacher and a highly successful secondary schools coach, steering teams to several All-Ireland titles.

I interviewed him over a decade ago and he still sticks in my mind as one of the most impressive people I've ever met - not just in a professional capacity but in a personal one. A towering, modest, religious, articulate, funny and thoughtful man, Jerome Westbrooks was one of those individuals who made me wish I was a better person myself. It's a lucky day when you meet someone like that.

Among the schoolkids who he imbued with a love of the game were his children: Isaac, who played professionally in Spain, Britain and Iceland; Michael, who also played abroad professionally; Aaron, who played professionally in England; and Leah and Eric, who both played college basketball in the US. All five have represented Ireland with some distinction.

As has the son of another '80s basketball import. Because Ireland soccer keeper Darren Randolph is the son of Ed Randolph, another name to conjure with from those halcyon days. And last week, a few days after the National Cup finals, the 59-year-old Jerome Westbrooks and Ed Randolph, friends and rivals for three decades, took each other on in a Dublin Division One match. Isaac Westbrooks tweeted proudly, "Two legends of the game", and observed, "Both would probably still claim to have game".

Basketball may not draw the same headlines or crowds as it did during the days of Westbrooks, Randolph, Terry Strickland, Jasper McElroy and Deora Marsh, but the national finals weekend showed that the game is far from dead and buried. While Swords were busy winning their first ever National Cup, UCC/Glanmire were making it four in a row in the women's equivalent. There's obviously something about Cork women's teams and long-winning runs - though in fairness, it should be pointed out that Glanmire's star player and final MVP, Grainne Dwyer, comes from Thurles.

From a personal point of view, it was great to see Sligo All Stars make the Presidents Cup final for second-flight teams before losing narrowly to Neptune from Cork. Sligo have only been back in existence for a year but they have a proud history and their willingness to keep the basketball flame alive in the West gave me, and plenty of others, the chance to see the big American stars in the '80s. Sligo had their own American star, Scott McCarthy, a homegrown hero in Tom Hickey and a richly talented Mayo teenager named Liam McHale. I wonder whatever happened to him? It's great to see the club back in action.

It's also great to see the recent appointment of a national team manager in Pete Strickland, a coach with extensive experience of Division One college basketball in the US, and there does seem to be a cautious optimism that the game is on the way up in this country once more. For one thing the influx of Lithuanians to the country should be a godsend for basketball. Despite having a population of under three million, Lithuania has won three Olympic bronze medals since regaining independence in 1990 and their men's team is ranked fifth in the world, ahead of such strong and populous basketball nations as Brazil, Russia and Australia.

The demographic shift has already led to a largely Lithuanian team, Dublin Inter, reaching the National Cup final in 2014 - but chances are that the real benefits will only become apparent when a new generation of immigrants' children start to break into the national teams.

If they're as good as the Westbrooks kids, Irish basketball might once more be able to party like it's 1985.

Sunday Indo Sport

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