Tuesday 21 November 2017

Basketball: Partnership that bloomed and withered on the fringe

They had one glorious season together but it ended sourly and they haven't spoken in over 25 years.

Mario Elie went one way, Kelvin Troy the other. But they were re-united, albeit in virtual fashion, by their presence in a documentary film which had its television premiere on Setanta Ireland on Friday night.

We Got Game: The Golden Age of Irish Basketball tells the story of a sporting sub-culture which flowered in the 1980s before returning to the margins again.

Back then it also passed most of the population by, but those who discovered it, loved it. They flocked to its hot spots, on Cork city's northside, and in Dublin, Belfast, Ballina and Killarney. The venues were cramped and barely fit for purpose but the people who came were hungry for something different from the drab reality of Irish life in another lost decade.

Magic would happen in these humble halls. Fans would feast their eyes on some of the most spectacular sportsmen the country had ever seen. They were African-Americans, mostly, with prodigious athletic ability and dazzling ball skills. They were showmen too, and they were worshipped by their adopted communities.

Most of them moved on but a few put down roots and never went home. Kelvin Troy is one of them, living in Dublin to this day. Mario Elie lasted five months. Together they won the senior men's National Cup with the Dublin team, Killester, in 1987. Together they played some of the most sensational basketball ever seen on an Irish court.

In We Got Game they talk about the falling out but there didn't seem to be much to it beyond the usual macho posturing between testosterone-fuelled team-mates. Their story is more interesting for the different directions they took when faced with the same fork in the road.

Like several of their peers who ended up in Ireland, Troy and Elie had been outstanding young prospects. But the basketball pyramid in America is where a million childhood dreams wither and die. At its pinnacle is the NBA, the shining city on a hill. Near the base is the high school system where every year some 550,000 teenagers play senior competition.

The next step is college basketball. Almost all the high school hopefuls are culled in the chasm between high school and college. Only three per cent land a scholarship. If you make it to a Division One college you're an elite talent but your chances of a top pro career are still slim.

Troy, brought up poor in New Jersey, won a four-year scholarship to Rutgers, a Division One team. In the summer of '81 he was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks, an NBA franchise. At their summer camp all the new recruits were evaluated and one by one they were dropped. Troy survived until pre-season and was on the brink of a contract when the head coach eventually cut him, for reasons not of talent, but of temperament.

The documentary is based on the acclaimed 2009 book by sportswriter Kieran Shannon Hanging from the Rafters. In the book, Troy reflects on that pivotal moment from the perspective of middle age. "I'd become too big-headed," he says. "I had no humility, no God, no guidance. I was lost, man." Within a few weeks of touching the NBA, writes Shannon, "Troy was back in New Jersey sweeping the roads."

He eventually fetched up in Ireland and became one of the best players and most popular characters of the era.

In 1985, Mario Elie, from Harlem, New York, was also drafted and then cut by the Milwaukee Bucks. But Ireland was only ever going to be a stepping stone. He went on to Portugal where he played for two years, then Argentina and Yugoslavia before going back to America where he played in the game's minor leagues, well off broadway. All along he held onto his dream. He never stopped practising or improving. He finally got his big break in 1991, at the ripe old age of 27. "No player in the history of the NBA," writes Shannon, "has had to travel so long to make it so far."

Once there, he kept climbing. Elie ended up winning three NBA national titles. He played for 11 seasons and retired a multimillionaire. He has been a fulltime coach in the NBA since. "I came across a lot of players more talented than me," he said. "But I beat them and I outlasted them."

In Ireland, he nagged his friend constantly for not taking his talent to a higher level in a different country. But Troy was content with his lot at that stage. He wasn't dreaming of the big time anymore. He liked his new home; he had a wife and kids and was getting paid, however modestly, for playing the game he still loved. Kelvin stayed put and is glad he did. Mario moved on and eventually forced his way through the eye of the needle.

But they are still connected by that brief, brilliant partnership they had at Killester – and by the hurt which still endures over that silly confrontation back in 1987.

"We had something special and then that happens," Elie told Shannon in Hanging from the Rafters. "But I don't hold grudges. Kelvin was a great guy, a heart of gold. If you're talking to Kelvin, tell him I wish him well, tell him I miss him and that some day we'll meet again."


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