Saturday 24 February 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Music of sport hits a perfect pitch

‘Marcus Paige launched himself into the air, seeming to hover for a second before propelling an unorthodox long-range effort towards the basket’ Photo: USA Today Sports
‘Marcus Paige launched himself into the air, seeming to hover for a second before propelling an unorthodox long-range effort towards the basket’ Photo: USA Today Sports

Eamonn Sweeney

This morning last week in Kolkata, Dublin's Eoin Morgan had one hand on the World Twenty20 trophy. Maybe a hand and a half actually. The West Indies needed 19 runs from the last over to wrest the spoils from the England team captained by the former Irish international.

It wasn't an impossibility but it was a very tall order given that the Caribbean side's run rate up to this had been 7.2 an over. They'd scored eight in the 19th over and 11 in the 18th. And Carlos Brathwaite, who began the final over facing England's Ben Stokes, had struck just 10 runs from the six deliveries he'd faced. In seven previous T20 international appearances the towering all-rounder had scored just 25 runs. In the previous two overs Stokes had conceded just 17 runs.

But when the English bowler sent down the first ball Brathwaite struck it over the leg-side boundary for six. Thirteen needed from five. Down came the next ball and the man from Barbados hit it so far into the stands he almost deserved 12 for it. The third shot of the over wasn't quite so impressive, there was the hint of a slice but it too soared into the stands and now all the West Indies needed was one run from the last three deliveries.

You sensed the denouement was not going to involve anything so prosaic as a single. In the commentary box former England international David Lloyd sportingly stepped aside to let ex-West Indian star Ian Bishop call what happened next. Stokes, looking a bit like a shell-shocked Ed Sheeran at this stage, trundled towards the wicket as though he knew full well what was going to happen. Ball four disappeared into the crowd, "Carlos Brathwaite, remember the name," shouted Ian Bishop and it looked a good bet that there wouldn't be any leatherback turtles milked in Barbados that night.

Even if it had been a pretty rum finish for Captain Morgan, there was still an Irish connection to the winners. Not only were the West Indies managed by former Irish cricket boss Phil Simmons, but just half a dozen years ago Brathwaite plied his trade with Leinster CC, based at the famous old Observatory Lane ground in Rathmines. In 2009 he helped them to their first ever Irish Senior Cup victory, though funnily enough he was out first ball in the final against Donemana. He also spent time coaching eight- and nine-year-olds in the rudiments of the game, something those kids must be feeling pretty proud of right now.

It was magic, pure magic.

The following night, or the early hours of Tuesday morning our time, Villanova took on North Carolina in American college basketball's national title game, the culmination of the frantic three-week tournament they call March Madness. It was a thriller.

Villanova were outsiders, and seemed to be clinging on in the first half. They were probably relieved to reach the break just 39-34 down.

The second half was a different matter. An unheralded youngster named Phil Booth came off the bench for Villanova and had the game of his life, scoring a career high 20 points. With just over four minutes to go they were 10 up and looking home and hosed. But, as often happens with underdogs, the enormity of what they were about to achieve seemed to spook them a little bit and with 13 seconds left, North Carolina had pulled to within three points and had the ball.

The plan was to get it into the hands of top scorer Marcus Paige, but when this happened Paige found himself under pressure. He eluded one challenge and then launched himself into the air, seeming to hover for a second before propelling an unorthodox long-range effort towards the basket. When it dropped, the NRG stadium in Houston seemed to erupt. And there, captured on camera jumping to his feet in elation, was North Carolina old boy Michael Jordan. He might be as fine a sportsman as ever strode this planet but in that moment Jordan was pure fan.

Now there were just 4.7 seconds left. The commentators, and pretty much everyone else, agreed that North Carolina would have the advantage in overtime. The momentum was now with the favourites. Villanova restarted, their outstanding player Ryan Arcidiacano, whose parents met when they attended the college, sprinted down the floor and popped the ball back to Kris Jenkins. As the ball headed for its target the backboard lit up to indicate time was up. But this shot, having been released moments before the end, could still count. It dropped plumb in the centre of the basket, laces all the way down as they say. Villanova were the champions. It was the first time in 33 years the title had been won by a buzzer beater. We didn't get a shot of Michael Jordan this time.

And here was something about Kris Jenkins. Several years ago his mother Felicia, following the break-up of her marriage and the death of her 11-month old daughter, was afraid she wouldn't be able to cope with bringing up her son. Mindful of the dangers which await young black men in a major American city like Baltimore, she asked a couple, Melody and Nate Britt, whose son Nate Junior played basketball with Kris, if they'd become her son's guardians. They agreed. And in a twist which would be rejected by the most outlandish of soap operas, guess where Nate Junior was on Monday night? Playing for North Carolina. Young Jenkins sank the winner and while his team-mates celebrated on the court, he made a beeline for the stands where he hugged his adoptive parents, his sister Natalya Britt and Felicia, who vaulted over the press table to get to him. And then his two mothers hugged each other.

Magic, pure magic.

There was an Irish angle to this one too, Villanova being one of the most famous of all Irish-American institutions, a place where Ronnie Delany, Eamonn Coghlan and Sonia O'Sullivan honed their talents, where Marcus O'Sullivan is current head athletics coach, which has links with Irish universities and the Abbey Theatre and where the university president is Fr Peter M Donohue.

The two matches where the magic happened might not have been the matches which received the most publicity in this part of the world last week. But that's the joy of sport, isn't it? You never know where something really special, something you'll remember for the rest of your life, is going to happen. The wider your sporting interests, the more chance you have of being astounded.

There will be more magic this year, in Gaelic football and hurling and soccer and rugby and baseball and athletics and golf and tennis and in all those sports which normally pass under the radar but have a chance of a brief stint in the spotlight because it's Olympic year - your gymnastics, your rowing, your hockey and sailing and volleyball. There may well be some tonight as proceedings draw to a close in Augusta. And there's a good chance there was some yesterday at Aintree.

Those moments that make me and you and Michael Jordan jump out of our seats are what, in the end, we go to sport for. The exhilaration they provide make it all worthwhile.

And in the end they matter more than the tidal wave of sleaze and slime which threatens to engulf sport. Yes, there is corruption in FIFA and drugs in cycling and athletics and concussion in the NFL and possible drugs and concussion in rugby. And yes, these stories need to be covered. But they are not the whole story.

Doping is a story in athletics but so is the grace and power of Usain Bolt. Corruption is a story in soccer but so are the combination of Messi, Neymar and Suarez, Leicester's unbelievable march to the Premier League title and Wolfsburg's gallant Champions League campaign. Concussion is a story in rugby but so is Connacht's unpredicted tilt at the Pro12 title.

Ignore the bad stuff in sport and you're just a cheerleader. But ignore the good stuff and you're just a cynic. And a cynic is probably even worse than a cheerleader because all they're doing is making themselves and other people miserable. Sport, like life, is a thing of highs and lows. Forget one or the other and you're only seeing the half of it.

The great jazz drummer Art Blakey used to say to his audience, "Tell your friends about us, I'd hate for anyone to pass through this life and miss this music."

The same goes for the music of sport. There's no tune quite like it.

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