The last of our missives from the Kingdom sees Emmet Ryan return to Tralee during the run-in to the Irish Super League race as the unexpected league leaders faced a stern test from relegation battlers Neptune
Saturday and Sunday see two huge games for the Tralee Warriors but that’s pretty much the norm. Every time this team takes the floor for a home outing, it feels huge. The lights go down, Sirius by the Alan Parsons Project (giving memories of the Jordan era Bulls), and an absolutely packed complex goes wild.
Title deciders? That’s just bonus territory. Every time these guys hit the floor, it feels like life and death for the locals. They could just do with fewer players literally hitting the floor. Across three games in 9 days, three different players suffered ankle injuries, including this one against Neptune.
A full 90 minutes before opening tip, the queue was around 60 deep. For the second straight home game, the Warriors had to sell tickets in advance such was the demand in Tralee. In just their third season in the top flight, the Warriors had become the big attraction. Chasing down a maiden title added to the demand but these queues are normal.
The doors soon opened and the Sports Complex was nearly full within 15 minutes. There was no space at all left with an hour to go. Earlier in the day, hometown hero Kieran Donaghy was walking me to my hotel through the churchyard and a couple of kids started a Let’s Go Warriors chant. This town is all-in.
There’s no press row here, the hacks sit with the fans, and it is a surprisingly easy to manage working environment. Before opening tip, players from Tralee’s long line of basketball clubs were inducted into the Warriors’ hall of fame.
Willie the Warrior, the mascot, issued a kid a tech as everything started to ramp up before Lose Yourself by Eminem kicked in. It gets the same Pavlovian response that Sweet Caroline does at boxing, with the crowd realising the main event is nearly here.
Then came Sirius, then the anthem performed by a local piper. The fans stayed standing, with an idea that started the previous game against Templeogue that they would stay that way until the first bucket was scored for Tralee. After two scores for the visitors, Kendall Williams responded on a fast break to put everyone in their seats.
The injury bug has been nuts for Tralee all season, with players both domestic and import enduring an awful run of bad luck. The previous week, Paul Dick had rolled his ankle against Templeogue. Before half-time in this one, Keith Jumper would suffer a similar injury. Both would be back by the next game three days later, an away win at Moycullen, but that would see Williams suffer his own ankle injury.
Neptune ran with Tralee well early until a Fergal O’Sullivan three put a bit of bite into this one. This one was flying at a nuts pace, suiting the Tralee rotation more due to its depth and also playing into the upsides of its role players.
The Warriors play a fast game that creates space and involves everybody having a clear job. If you’re there to clutter, you clutter, to shoot in the corner, then you get your hide to the corner, but nobody is there to go all Monta or Kobe and disrupt things with a heap of isos. If you call your own number, you’d better be right or you will get benched.
Jumper’s first score of the night got a good reaction from the crowd, he’s nicknamed Geansaí after the Irish word for jumper (in the sense of a sweater for our US readers). The visitors rallied well to be back on level terms after 10 minutes at 21-21. Rather than going to the bench, Neptune’s veteran Ger Noonan kept the rest of the starting 5 on the court to issue his own instructions.
Despite being only in his mid 30s, albeit the back side of them, Noonan has logged a lot of miles in this league and was supposed to be retired. Despite not being at his athletic peak, damn could he still go.
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The Corkman, who in a game where fouls were being called lightly made sure his were earned, can perform visual miracles with his footwork. While the odd Euro-step by him can be a touch on the James Harden side of permissible, most of the time it is clean and unquestionably legit. The dude has some kind of mystical power to shift position significantly without a travel. Guys half his age with twice his fitness can be made to look like chumps with a single step.
***Whatever Noonan said, Adam Heaphy heard it loud and clear. The kid had himself a quarter in the second, making whatever shot he wanted as Neptune brought real pressure to the home side. A three from him put Neptune back on top and the nerves in the complex were obvious.
Then Lehmon Colbert fouled Jumper, it wasn’t* a hard foul but the Tralee man had a bad landing. Williams was going to have to carry the heavy minutes from here on out. The breaks weren’t going Tralee’s way. Donaghy exploded at the refs in the final moments of the half when the refs adjudged he had stepped over the line on an inbounds. The underdogs were more than with it as Neptune led 44-45 after 20 minutes.
*Refs in this league get a hard time but between the fouls Colbert and Tralee’s Dusan Bogdanovic drew on the night, simply being a big man looked like a crime in this one.
Tralee makes a show out of their games. They know this is the night out for people when the come to the complex. The fans get hyped up from 30 minutes before the opening tip. Half-time always has entertainment. This game featured a couple of local dancers performing to Lorde’s darker version of Everbody Wants to Rule the World, the duo had won a local Strictly Come Dancing contest, followed by the Kingdom Wheelblasters playing on the floor. Every time they raced up and down, the crowd got more into it, and a proper buzzer beater was the perfect finish.
Tralee’s history in the sport is so similar to the rest of the Kerry story. There were the best possible days, most notably with the Tigers, but money issues got in the way. Tigers had stayed in the top flight until the recession.
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The sport stayed active down there, its ties to the GAA madness didn’t hurt as Donaghy himself would end up doing analysis on his former Kerry team mates the following night to this against Mayo in Austin Stacks Park.
It was the drive of Donaghy, although he’d be the first to downplay it, along with others in the community that got top tier basketball back to this town and the county as a whole. St Brendan’s and Imperials had joined forces for this level of hoops. There’s hope yet Tigers will join in too. The town loves big time hoops, Dick came down from Belfast to play as an amateur while training as an electrician just because of that passion.
***Into the third and Neptune were getting into real foul trouble. Both Colbert and Noonan were seeing theirs rack up so Bogdanovic drawing his fourth with over 16 minutes left in the game almost felt like he was doing so out of solidarity.
Tralee were getting more done all the same. A Fergal O’Sullivan three made it a 7 point lead, the largest since the opening quarter. Colbert responded in kind only for Donaghy to hit right back. The pair of them are virtually tied in rebounds, only a tenth of a board per game separating them going into this night, but they were both getting it done on the outside too.
Neptune were far from done. Roy Downey was good from deep to tie it at 62 only for Williams to hit right back. It was a turning into a haymaker fight only for Williams to finish a fast break with a feather touch dunk. On went the Warriors again and back came Neptune. Downey went from deep again because Neptune had a relegation fight and they couldn’t consider the table right now. Tralee led, 71-67, with 10 minutes to play.
The queues continued. Ahead of Saturday’s game with UCD Marian, and the one after back home on Sunday, Garvey’s Super Valu had queues out the door selling tickets from the Thursday. Those getting the bus to Dublin were guaranteed their ticket for the day after. There was even a competition to win tickets for the Sunday game including an overnight stay in a nice hotel. It was totally needless, the game was a guaranteed sell out from the off, yet the club knows it needs to respect the love it gets and not take it for granted.
Yet the broader impact of the club can’t be ignored. The Champions Trophy, the end of season tournament that is the third major in the sport here, was raised in profile because Tralee just cared a whole lot about it. At their first attempt, they won it and it toured the local schools like it was the Sam Maguire trophy (for non Irish readers, that’s the trophy for the All Ireland football championship and quite the big deal). Now qualifying for it through the mid-table places is a fight. Paul Freeman of Maree was lamenting to me that his side had missed out on making the tie-breakers work their way before tipping off against Killorglin on Monday.
That weekend in mid-April in DCU is going to be mad. It is worth noting the women’s clubs always saw it as life or death but, heck, women’s sport in this country is just plain better at making a big deal out of something. The local ladies football clubs do a far better job of elevating secondary competitions amongst those playing than the men could dream of.
***Like this one was going to have a quiet final frame. Williams kicked things off with a heck of a rim rocker. Eoin Quigley followed up right after although he had to force the hop a touch more. Williams to Quigley and the lead is 8, the biggest of the night.
Noonan had a generous Euro step to draw a foul from Donaghy. He has seen it all with Neptune and quickly brought it back to a single possession. Out Tralee sought to push it again, a three from Donaghy and it was a 9 point lead. There was a few moments of calm and even jovialty, as Kerry footballer BJ Keane had to chase down a toddler that ran on the court during a timeout.
Then whatever nails were left to be chewed were gone. Heaphy from deep, Colbert too. One possession in it again as the clock was running out.
Noonan fouled out. Quigley at the line. The Warriors held on, they still had control of their destiny, 87-82.
Monday would see Neptune’s regular season end in a whimper, with Templeogue taking the win they needed to keep the pressure on Tralee. The league leaders would get the win they required at Moycullen but at a cost, with Williams looking done for the year.
Battered and kept together by tape, they somehow still stand at the top as a ridiculous season nears its conclusion. Two games with the reigning champions await. As Tralee photographer Poshey Aherne messaged me afterward, they don’t call them Warriors for nothing.
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