A year on from sitting courtside, Emmet Ryan reflects on basketball, coincidence, and hope
We knew it was coming, we just had little idea when it was going to happen. The past weekend saw memories pop up in my social feeds from this time a year ago, the last game I was at in person as DCU Mercy won the Irish women’s Super League title. Pictures of the presentation, the winning coach, and the other sights you expect from such a day.
Within a few days, everything would start to get postponed, then fully cancelled. The men’s league ended off the court, an unfortunate way for Belfast Star to end a two decade wait for a championship, and the idea of the postseason tournaments never crossed anybody’s minds.
That day I saw one familiar face not associated with the sport. Seeing basketball people at a basketball game is normal, seeing the person currently overseeing Ireland’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout strategy isn’t.
Brian Mac Craith had no idea he’d be in such a role at the time, we didn’t even know what the story was with vaccines or even the type of restrictions we’d see. Masks wouldn’t be the norm for quite some time yet. Mac Craith was there in his role as outgoing president of Dublin City University, the aforementioned DCU.
He was cheering on the women wearing his college’s colours. It was the second time I’d met him in the same gym. The first time, a few years prior, was for DCU winning the Premier League. In matters that are convoluted to anyone that wasn’t playing in the league at the time, the women’s league at the time treated the regular season as secondary to the postseason. That’s normal across most of basketball but oddly not so much in Ireland where regular season titles tend to hold more meat. Just to add a bit of confusion, there was a two year spell where the Super League rebranded to the Premier League before going back to the more popular original name.
So that Premier League title win, which Mac Craith presented the trophy for, meant less than the Super League win last February. No matter, that first time round he was just trying to make sure he knew what was going on.
Fortunately I was there with a buddy of mine on a lad’s day out. His then girlfriend was in the US and it was Valentine’s Day so to cheer him up it was a day of sport, meat, and beer. That began with Fingal vs Warwickshire in hurling, DCU Mercy’s game, then onto Aussie BBQ (since closed although well before the pandemic), and a pub near his gaff. We kept Brian clued in so he felt more comfortable come presentation time.
Watching basketball these past few months hasn’t been easy for me. In the day job, within days of this last game, I was drafted onto the Covid-team for the paper and days later that team became the whole newsroom staff. You all know what comes next, with a few exceptions, no matter where you are in the world it was something similar to this.
On 12 March, the government told us all to go home. When work was wrapping up for the day, one of my co-workers asked a boss how long we expected to not be on site. Before my boss could respond, I chimed in with “until otherwise instructed”, a dash impetuous but accurate.
Getting back to watching sport was remarkably easy. Football, it’s not my number one but I knew it’d make my flatmate happy to see it back and my own team, UCD, even streamed some games. Boxing, yes, yes, feed me more. American Football, heck NFL Redzone was the most comfortable routine of the whole of this mess.
Somehow, watching hoops has been tougher. Anybody who follows this site or has met me knows how much I just love the buzz of a crowd, including games I’m only watching on the telly. The sanitised environment of basketball without fans somehow hit more than any other sport.
It could be because I care more about the sport, it could be because I’m lucky to have seen so much of it across the world, there’s definitely some of both, but I think more than that it’s how alien watching the game is right now. Everything else it’s a case of, well it is what it is. With hoops it’s like a stinging reminder of how far from normal we are.
My mood has been all over the shop since this whole business kicked off. Even today, I woke up feeling rotten, but on balance I’m feeling better the last week or so. Part of that is basketball, part of it is life.
The signings of Pau Gasol and Mario Hezonja aren’t likely to make much of an impact on the rest of the Euroleague season but the scale of them as a jolt to my senses was huge. Gasol wants to be game fit for the Olympics, should they proceed and playing with Barcelona is just the logical call. He might well do well for the Blaugrana but I don’t expect 30 minute nights from him.
Hezonja is joining a Panathinaikos team that is all but eliminated from the playoff picture in Europe but needs a shock to the system to maintain supremacy in Greece. More importantly, there’s a really good chance we get to see them debut in the same game. Tomorrow night, Barcelona vs Panathinaikos, one of its greatest sons returns against one who has a testier relationship with his old club. There’s so much to like about it.
That helped. Then the other news came through. Ma and Da got their first shots of the vaccine yesterday. We’ve all lost people or known people who lost people through this. We’ve all been worried for those close to us. We compartmentalise more than grief. We’ve been compartmentalising anxiety, frustration, guilt (usually undeserved but we bring it on ourselves anyway), sadness, and everything else.
Basketball is trivial in the grand scheme of things but through that triviality we build friendships, go on emotional rollercoasters, take a break from the world, take a chance to see the world, and let our imaginations run free. For some people that’s cinema, football, the gym, or even cooking.
After so long not knowing what to write on this site, so many months not being able to even look at the content management system, I’m ready to take a leaf out of the greatest of all time’s book.