Puff Summers was supposed to be a banker. He had the grades, he’d gone to a great school, and he was set for a steady and impressive career behind a desk. In his heart he knew he belonged on the court. This Saturday Summers plays in the Irish Cup final for the first time, a decade after making a life-altering decision. Summers sat down with BallinEurope’s Emmet Ryan to discuss balling with Steph Curry, making a life a long way from home, and backing out of banking
The buzzer has just sounded on Templeogue’s best chance to get their title chase back on track. Having won the Irish Superleague for the first time ever last season, the south Dublin club has just fallen 85-66 to UCD Marian. That defeat puts them three games back on the league leaders, falling to 2-0 head to head with them this season in the process.
Having had time to digest the result, Puff Summers comes back on the floor to talk. It’s not exactly ideal circumstances. He should be down after a missed opportunity and now he’s stuck sharing a discarded college exam table with someone who wants to get his life story.
Staying down just isn’t the Summers way. He can accept being upset about the defeat but has an on to the next one attitude that gets him back focused in short order.
“It was a tough one to swallow. There was so much riding on it. We kept saying that if we kept winning and we could knock them off, then we’d be in a 1-2 race. Now we’re just in the mix of all the rest of the teams with 4 or 5 losses,” said Summers.
This Saturday, Summers and Templeogue will face UCD Marian for the third time this season. The Hula Hoops Cup final, the only men’s game broadcast live on national TV this season and a chance for his side to claim the cup for the second time in three years.
“Even since high school, when you grow up playing a team twice in a conference and then in the conference tournament, it’s very hard to beat a team three times. There’s a little bit of complacency that might set in but we’re not going to assume that. They’re a veteran team and they’ve lost out in finals before,” said Summers.
“It’s a huge challenge but I wouldn’t want to be in any other locker room right now. We have a veteran team and a veteran coach, it’s fun.”
The switch to Templeogue a couple of seasons ago offered Summers a rare change in environment. He’s been in Ireland for a decade, married, has two daughters, and made a life here.
Prior to Templeogue however he almost invariably had to be the guy on a side that was unlikely to contend. Most of the stops Summers made were at teams looking to develop into something special.
The growing pains had largely been shorn by Templeogue at this stage. While still a relatively young club, it had built itself into a serious force in Irish hoops and was fresh off its first ever cup title when Summers linked up with the side.
“It was just a breath of fresh air. I’d played with a lot of teams that were either young or I had to be a ball dominant player. I feel that if your point guard has to score 20 or 25 points a game, then it’s hard to succeed,” he said.
“You look at all the clubs in Europe, there’s not a lot of ball dominant point guards. A lot of countries don’t even like having American point guards because they need the ball in their hands so much. I’ve curbed my game and have the team around me that we have threats around me.”
For our analysis series The Ballin After, post-game interviews, and more, subscribe to BallinEurope’s YouTube channel
The challenge is still there however as, despite his long time in Ireland, Summers still counts as an American on the floor. He’s got to fight for that one slot on the court for imports and splits time with Templeogue’s other Category 2 player, to use the formal name, Michael Bonaparte.
With Bonaparte it’s not just about splitting minutes, it’s about the adjustments the defending league champions make when the duo alternate. Bonaparte is a big man who typically plays the four with occasional stints at the five. Puff is about as obvious an under-sized point guard at it gets, standing just 5’9” in sneakers.
“For me it’s just hard. For me to play in the game it means I’m taking some kid out of college’s opportunity to get his first job,” said Summers.
“Even coaching on the senior [Irish national] team, if I had got my Irish passport I could have tried out to be a part of it but what’s the point in having a 34 year old point guard when that’s the best position we have in Ireland? We have so many good young point guards. It’s frustrating for me in that sense.”
The tandem situation with Bonaparte is still a strange scenario for Summers, despite both men having logged plenty of years in this league.
“It’s so weird to have a teammate that I can never play with. Even when we’re doing a transition drill in practice, if Mike and I end up on the same team it’s like ‘what is this?’, I had that awkwardness being able to see what he can do well, how I can help him on the court, but not being able to do it.”
Weird is a good way to describe pretty much everything about the life Summers has. The easy line is to say he’s a journeyman, looking at his raw bio online as a baller he fits the description but with Puff it really has been a journey, man.
BallinEurope now has merch, like actual merch, t-shirts, phone covers, and even pillows. Check it all out on our RedBubble page.
Having played and studied at Davidson (yes we will get to that Davidson player), Summers graduated and was on course to no longer play basketball competitively. He had a good education was set to work in banking but there was an itch that really needed to be scratched.
“As a kid it was always about playing basketball professionally. I felt if I got 1 cent, I’d do it. When the opportunity came, I was doing all of these [banking] interviews and there was no energy. Everybody who knows me knows that everything with me is about high energy. Going to all this banking interviews I was imagining my life being something I didn’t want it to be but it was something I had to do because there were no other avenues,” said Summers.
“Then I was playing a summer league game, an agent saw me, and he said I could make money playing basketball. That was all I needed. Regardless of what my family thought or what was the smartest thing to do, he put something in my head that already been there. I knew I was good enough to be a pro, all I needed was a little bit of confirmation and I was off.”
The first landing spot in Ireland for Summers was Ballina, a town of just 10,000 people. A prior stop as a pro helped make it easier to transition.
“I’d played in England in the EBL with Kingsland Fury, it was another small town team with a lot of young guys. Coming over to Ballina it wasn’t much different except they had a lot of history behind them. It was easy as far as culture shock because the people were friendly and once they took me to a gym I was happy out,” he said.
Still, this was just a stop in his head at the time. Summers was in his early 20s and very much an Amercian overseas as opposed to someone planning on staying put.
“I could never have written this life for myself. I met people over here who’d made lives for themselves and I was wondering how they missed Thanksgiving, Chick-Fil-A, everything. I could have never imagined living here but now if people ask if I want to move back to the States, it takes me back because why would I do that?”
Then he met his wife Lynda, they’ve got two daughters together now, and the whole family has seen a whole lot of Ireland.
The life for a baller who settles down here tends to see activity with the sport go far beyond the club you ply your trade with. Summers runs his camps under his Why Not Me motto, inspired by an old mentor and not Derrick Rose [thanks to Kieran Shannon for that tidbit], and coaches a whole bunch of teams at various levels.
There’s work there, it involves a whole lot of movement but life can dictate how and where you work. For someone looking to make a living in the sport, Kilkenny wouldn’t exactly be the optimal place to do it but a teaching post came up for Lynda there and it was where they landed.
It’s not the easiest place to work and means he has a serious commute to train and play with Templeogue but Summers sees huge upsides in how he can help out youngsters.
“It would have been easy to settle in Dublin or Cork where basketball is a big deal. Being in Kilkenny, the kids appreciate it a bit more. It means a lot to see the difference you are making,” he said.
Kilkenny was a tough place to sell the sport, St Kieran’s College was tougher. The school is one of the most storied sporting institutions in Ireland but in just one sport. St Kieran’s are the gold standard in hurling at schools level, with 21 All-Ireland senior titles, 53 Leinster senior titles, 39 Leinster junior titles, and 34 Leinster juvenile titles. It is a factory of hurlers that tend to form the backbone of future Kilkenny county teams and win more All-Irelands.
Here was this American who’d moved all over Ireland coming into a school that was all about winning at one sport and looking to inspire them to consider a wildly different one.
“It was the hardest thing. They let me do a PE session over a block of six weeks. I was trying to make it fast paced so the boys would think it was good fun. It wasn’t until I started doing ball-handling drills with a tennis ball that the teachers were thinking it was something that could help with their hand-eye coordination. They bought into it then,” said Summers.
Having Lynda in his life comes in quite handy, beyond the whole way that he’s mad about her. Lynda runs a gymnastics club on top of her teaching duties, and that combination of tasks means she has to be able to stay on top of things. Her disciplined approach to life helps make it easier for Puff to keep his priorities in order.
“My wife is very organised. The parts that I lack in on that front, she makes up for. My girls have probably been in every gym in Ireland and they are growing up around it and gymastics,” he said.
It’s tough but a life that Puff wouldn’t change. He’s happy in Ireland, he gets to inspire kids, and now, at a stage in his career where most players are winding down, Puff is finally part of a regular winner. The league title last season was the first major honour for Summers since turning pro. At the end of a nervy night in the Oblate, a decade long wait for him was finally over.
Now he’s looking for another big medal and it comes down to one more big night. On Saturday it’s UCD Marian facing him and Templeogue in the National Basketball Arena. Being broadcast live on national television here is nice but it’s also a bonus for Summers that the game will be streamed globally.
“I’m just so happy that I get the opportunity to play, that my family back home will get to see that I made the right decision not to follow through on those banking interviews. I’m not a superstar Euroleague player but I feel I’ve helped change lives over hear. Having kids who I coached 8 or 9 years ago coming up to me all grown up saying they are looking forward to seeing me in the cup final, that means everything to me,” he said.
“Winning the cup final, for me personally, would be a big deal but my story goes a long way towards showing kids who think they don’t amount to much that if you stick with it something good will happen.”
The side he has features an interesting mix of talent. Neil Randolph is the brother of Irish national soccer team goalkeeper Darren, and son of Irish Superleague legend Ed. Lorcan Murphy used to be an international high jumper. It’s a team deep in sporting talent beyond the hardwood.
“It’s amazing the attitude those guys have. I’ve played with a lot of athletic Americans but Lorcan is just something different. Neil is something different, then Stephen James as well. All these guys carry themselves like professionals,” he said.
For all Summers has done to inspire, there’s one guy he’s shared a court with that he doffs his hat to. Back while he was looking to catch on as a pro, Summers saw this skinny kid who was starting out in Davidson. Steph Curry was known as Dell’s kid and pretty much zero else at that stage. He was ludicrously skinny and Summers battled him one-on-one, finding out quickly that the young man could ball. Even still, he has watched in awe at what the two-time NBA MVP and two-time NBA champion has achieved.
“If I have inspired one or two kids in Ireland, this guy has taken it to a whole different level. Everybody looking at him back then would have thought that maybe, after his first or second year in college, that he was a fringe NBA player. Nobody ever imagined he’d be in NBA Finals doing what he did to Gonzaga and NC State in the NCAA Tournament,” said Summers.
In case you were wondering, Puff’s real first name is Lawrence but I’m pretty sure even Lynda doesn’t call him that.
The Irish men’s cup final between UCD Marian and Templeogue is live this Saturday on TG4 in Ireland and around the world on TG4.ie from 7.45pm Irish time/ 8.45pm CET/ 2.45pm EST
To keep up to date with everything on BiE, like BallinEurope on Facebook