So many boxes have been ticked for Irish basketball this summer but Friday’s loss to Iceland may have been the most important of them all, writes Emmet Ryan
The Small Countries was important, it was the step back into international play, but the big factor always was coming home. As we cleaned up press row at full-time, Ross from Basketball Ireland was delighted. He had audio from an Irish international that was played in Dublin he’d get broadcast across national and local stations the next day hyping the second game in Cork on Saturday. Likewise I gave the match its due on Raidio na Gaeltachta, the national Irish language station, this morning. It’s the one that can be sold because it was right here.
A win would have really helped and it looked for so long to be the likely outcome. Ireland led by 10 points a couple of times in the third quarter but the real move forward seemed to have come in the second. Ireland were gobbling up turnovers as Iceland’s ball security fell apart. Mid-court was owned by the women in white jerseys and they looked capable of building a huge advantage at the break. Instead the visitors, with their experience at this level, were able to claw back to 38-38 before a run of trips to the line gave Ireland a 44-38 lead at the half.
Had they held a big lead then, it would have been easier to bury the nerves and force Iceland into taking risks. Instead the calm approach taken by Iceland held firm throughout, eventually shutting down Ireland’s offence in the final quarter. With just 6 points in the final 10 minutes, Ireland ultimately fell 60-65.
The result stung but only for a moment. For the kids there, especially the hordes of young girls, this was a chance for them to embrace their heroes. Nothing sells like the national team, not just in terms of raw commercial value. It’s the easiest concept for youngsters to embrace, the logical goal to go for. It was one that youth teams had but without a senior avenue, the last full international male or female being played in 2009.
For Iceland, Saturday was about preparation for their final two EuroBasket qualifiers. At 1-3, they are unlikely to match the achievements of their men’s side from 2015 but if ever there was a test case for getting organised at sport it’s this island nation. From a population of just 323,000 they have managed deep runs international football at major tournaments in both genders, their handball sides similarly have a fine history amongst men and women, and the achievement of their men’s basketball side is another sign of what can be with the right attitude to sport.
We love excuses in Ireland. Anything to qualify our failures, to find the moral victory. In Ireland the easy excuse in international sport is to look at how many people play Gaelic Games, that this hurts us disproportionately to other nations of our size. It’s bunk, those sports do attract plenty of athletes who will never focus heavy on an international sport, but the sheer participation numbers of soccer across most comparable nations casts doubt on that. Indeed, at youth and young adult level, soccer is easily the largest participation sport in Ireland. Golf trumps everything because it rather owns the middle aged and elderly market.
Those other nations, the ones we make excuses about, have their commitments too. Team sports are, easily, the biggest barrier to hope of Olympic success even with those that are in the Olympics. The proportion of medals and medal opportunities for a nation in a team code is far lower than solo sports. Yet here we see Iceland, making the big push with its tiny population. The likes of New Zealand, Ireland’s nearest comparison in terms of population and economic demographics, perform extraordinarily at multiple sports. Yet still so many look to make excuses.
Nobody was making any in the arena on Friday. They could have said what might have been if Orla O’Reilly, who plays Liga Feminina in Spain with Bembribre, or found some other excuse, there were none. The fact that the pressure was on in this game never came up. This was a game they lost, the players and coaches were annoyed at themselves, and as far as they were concerned it was all on them.
It’s that attitude that gives hope. That ownership of what they are doing and what they need to do in order to keep this project going forward. The men will rightly look on with a hint of jealousy and, more importantly, hunger to get their shot next summer. The smiles the players were embraced with at full time showed the players all that matters.
This generation is fighting for the next one. Claire Melia was 8 years old the last time Ireland played a home game. She has gone through all of her years playing hoops up to now without having a senior side to look up to. Now, at just 16, she’s part of that set-up. She’s the role model playing alongside her role models. That’s the type of moment to remember.
Yeah, Ireland lost but we’re back baby.