Friday sees the culmination of years of work. The Basketball Hall of Fame Classic in Belfast’s SSE Arena sees four NCAA teams battle it out over Friday and Saturday. Emmet Ryan on how this big deal could be the start of a whole lot more
I’ve forgotten when exactly Gareth Maguire told me what he was planning but, when he did, I was immediately excited yet similarly in no way surprised. Maguire, through his Sport Changes Life foundation, always swings for the fences. The dude just plain aims big and figures he can get there. Northern Ireland has a long history in basketball but it’s not exactly been going through its glory phase of late. A giant shot in the backside was needed and Maguire’s gone with a big one here.
At 4.30pm on Friday, the Manhattan Jaspers will take the floor against Holy Cross Crusaders but the game isn’t in Worcester, MA or New York, it’s in Belfast because Maguire had a crazy idea and decided to run with it. A couple of hours later, Towson Tigers will play the aptly named La Salle Explorers. Then the next day there’s a final and a consolation game.
Maguire’s has been driving the connections between the island of Ireland and the US college scene for a while now. The Victory Scholars programme run by Sport Changes Life has been a huge success in getting ballers over for postgraduate study and to hang around for more than just a single season. Now he’s bringing a bunch of potential future players on that programme to Belfast and they are getting an early look at what could be in store if they do make the jump.
For La Salle, this is a particularly meaningful road trip. Cian Sullivan will line out wearing number 31 in a college level game closer to his home than he could have ever hoped for. The 7’2″ centre* from Tralee will have a bunch of people cheering him on and effectively is single handedly making a team from Philadelphia the home side in Belfast. It works, let’s just run with it.
*I was immensely tempted to say he was a combo guard and see if anyone noticed
None of these sides are members of the sport’s elite but there’s a give and take factor here which helps all parties. The four schools know that playing together in a tournament as far away as Belfast is going to arouse interest, even if it is just curiosity, that they normally wouldn’t get. Asking “why is Holy Cross playing in Belfast?” is a really simple conversation starter around the water cooler. There’s a level of exposure which these schools crave and, with CBS College Sports Network broadcasting, they get the type of event feel that they can sell hard to recruits. That’s a serious cherry.
For Belfast, it’s just pretty darn cool to have teams this good coming over to play each other and for it not to be pre-season but there’s already talk of expansion. If the four-team two-day tournament goes as planned, then the next step is eight teams over three or four days and bigger names being drawn to Belfast. We’re talking the household names, the likes of Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State, etc. That’s the level of side the organisers not only believe they can attract but have already put the ground work in place to pique serious interest for next year.
Belfast has always had a pretty strong basketball culture on the island but it’s in an awfully funny spot right now. Belfast Star, then known as Star of the Sea, won a bunch of trophies in the late 1990s including back to back championships in 1998 and 1999. Ever since, it’s been kind of grim up north at the top table. That buzz, that hope, has never really gone away from the scene up there. It’s the mother of understatements to say folks from the north can get awfully passionate about hoops. What’s lacking right now are a few breaks.
A tournament like this is the type of thing that can get folk focussed. Should be a decent sesh too, Belfast is a good beer town.