Emmet Ryan went to Tralee to watch a basketball game and he ended up getting a whole lot more
It’s not like there weren’t sufficient warnings. Gina and Rob had told me over coffee in the afternoon that I’d want to be early, that the Tralee crowd always arrive early. The talk of the crowd down here was signposted throughout the season. Nothing, no verbal warning, could prepare anyone for what they experience once you enter the Tralee Sports Complex.
This is an ordinary looking small town. 20 odd thousand people, all the types of shops and pubs you’d expect, and a strong heritage in Kerry’s better known sport, Gaelic football. The route to the complex really couldn’t understate matters more, a stroll through as quiet a housing estate as it gets to what is a nice but in no way out of the ordinary looking leisure centre. Even once you get there, you have to walk around the pool side to get to the gym. It’s all so ordinary and arriving at 6.55pm for an 8pm tip, this seemed pretty sedate.
The turn into the gym and boom welcome to basketball central. The place was already packed. There was no press row but I was told I could go to the balcony where I could get a view or take a bench behind a bucket. There was never going to be any debate. For the next three hours I was parked on an old gym bench with children squishing for space around me and others standing right behind me. It was perfect.
This is not normal for Irish basketball in the modern era. Some teams get good crowds but nobody fills a barn like this. Forget standing room only, within 30 minutes of my getting there you couldn’t even find room to stand as the PA pleaded with people to push in as much as they could on the bleachers to make room for others. Roughly 4 per cent of the entire town was inside this leisure centre to watch their guys, the Warriors, look for a 10th straight win and potentially derail the title campaign of the visiting Swords Thunder.
It’s the small touches that really made it. Hand-drawn and laminated sheets with three were given to all the kids coming in. The pre-game build had the music turned up all the way and the PA regularly interacting with the crowd as the mascot walked around high fiving and fist bumping every child or journalist in the building.
It’s been a while since there was a Kerry team in the top flight. The Warriors, an amalgalm of the local clubs, came in this season without even a second tier season under their belts. Despite that handicap, they have one big asset for making this big in the town: The Star.
Kieran Donaghy is a legend in Gaelic football, a former footballer of the year who has multiple All Star awards and All-Ireland titles to his name, he carried the local Austin Stacks back to the promised land with a county title a couple of years ago. Yet, for all he has done in that sport, there’s just no doubt he is better at basketball.
As the lights went down for the intros, Sirius by the Alan Parsons Project kicked aka the song the Jordan era Bulls made permanently associated with hoops. Every player on the Warriors got introduced in number order save for one. Everybody got their cheer but when the Star got announced in the MJ slot, the place was just lit.
The visiting guests got their shout, Basketball Ireland chief executive Bernard O’Byrne and legendary Irish commentator Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh. It’s all part of the effort to make those in attendance feel they are getting more than just the 40 minutes of action when they show up. For the Warriors, it’s about making their games an integral part of Saturday night in the town and it was clearly working.
From the off this crowd was pretty on, helped in no small part by the home team taking charge in the early going. Trae Pemberton had ample room to drive and slash while Goran Pantovic and Dusan Bogdanovic took the platoon approach to working the middle. Donaghy? He was just running around everywhere getting work done as a natural 3 playing in the 4 slot.
While below their best, Swords had come to play and didn’t let Tralee develop a serious lead until the middle of the second when the home side stepped up big. This crowd wants excitement and has learned that big defensive plays lead to fastbreaks and that fast breaks just look cool. Pemberton delivered on one after a big turnover, giving the Warriors some breathing room.
Thunder however, while not at their best, still have some of the smartest players in the league and Alex Dolenko showed just why when he stole the ball off an inbounds to tie things up midway through the frame but the offensive out put of the visitors fell apart as the half neared. A 10-0 by the Warriors was spurred by a heads-up play by Ryan Leonard. With 1 second left on the shot clock off the inbounds, Leonard got open and made the quick shot to kick off the late run to put the Warriors up 39-29 at the half.
All the while the kids around me were going nuts. Half-time saw Leonard’s father, Ricardo, honoured along with the rest of the 95/96 Tralee Tigers team that won the league title. After the presentation a few of that side tried some shots from mid-court. Nobody made one but there was a look of joyous disgust on the elder Leonard’s face after he bricked badly on his try.
An early three from Pemberton got the crowd in full voice again as Tralee stretched the lead out to 15 points and the stress was visible in Thunder coach Dave Baker’s face. Charlie Coombes gave him cause to calm down with a long two soon after. Pantovic and Bogdanovic contunued to make life tough for Swords inside but the visitors were able to go into the fourth in a far more manageable position, trailing 54-46.
After little movement on the scoreboard for most of the final frame, the tension in the place really started to build when Jose Maria Gil Narbon made a reaching lay-up. A timeout at 3.44 saw Tralee up 60-54. Another was called with 2.08 left and the score hadn’t changed. Somebody needed to move and it looked like Swords were making the move. Justin Goldsbrough cut the deficit to 4 points, then Isaac Westbrooks made it a two point game. Goldsbrough had a chance to level matters and that was the final turning point.
Goldsbrough’s missed effort was immediately followed by a Pemberton three. The house erupted and the Warriors held on to make it 10 in a row 68-61.”It was just find a bucket or find somebody to get one at that stage. That three put a little separation between us, then we got a few stops and that was it,” said Pemberton after the game. “The crowd has been awesome all year, tonight was definitely the best night.”
Like all of his team-mates, Pemberton was mobbed by children on the whistle. Donaghy had oodles looking to get their pic with the Star. He happily smiled with every one of them, many no doubt having got multiple pics with him at previous games throughout the season. He didn’t care, Donaghy knew these moments mattered to the youngsters and that would keep them excited about Tralee basketball.
“That was a big win for us. They’re a very good team, they are cup champions, and they have all the players but thankfully we had the answers tonight. The home crowd, that atmosphere got us over the line late on when it was tight,” said Donaghy.
“I started a camp four or five years ago with the notion that this might kind of happen. The town is massive for basketball, I knew there was a huge hunger in the town for the game, and I just wanted to get it back. Thankfully the committee came together and this is special, it’s the best atmosphere in the league.”
The commitment by the Star to the cause didn’t stop at the final horn. As revellers retired to the Greyhound bar in town to watch Tony Bellew earn a surprising win over David Haye, Donaghy joined them and made sure to be active and friendly with them all. This club wants to get a winning team on the floor, it has one right now, but it wants to get better. The group around it, none more than Donaghy, know that to do that the effort off the court to energise the town is as important as what goes on during those 40 minutes.
This is a fun town to watch basketball in. You should go watch basketball in this town.