Basketball is a street sport and in its essence creates a unique culture in parts of the world that have not been subjected to the popularity of other sports. A generation that would have idolized Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird to name a few became greats of their own game such as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. The new generation are even more enthralling with LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard. This is what American kids and other nations are exposed to today, these are their idols and each generation of basketball players had to have access to these sports stars to be inspired.
In Ireland, basketball is a far cry away from the streets of Harlem. Basketball is a birthright in many senses, as for many, the introduction to the court and orange ball comes from a family tradition of playing the game
In Ireland, there is no fanatic buzz on the streets of Dublin in time for the Super League Finals in comparison to the GAA All-Ireland finals. Basketball noticeably plays in the shadow to that of GAA, rugby and soccer where national and international stars in these sports are more recognizable. While Basketball Ireland is progressing at a healthy rate even in rural settings it takes idols to build interest even further. Televised content and the concentration of Irish sports media on these entities in contrast to basketball have not given the sport it needs to develop players to have the opportunity to have a shot at the professional game. This reflects in the number of Irish-born players that have actually made it to the setup of an NBA franchise and that is 1 sole man from Offaly, Pat Burke.
This beast of a man topping out at 6’11″ (2.11m) and nearly 18 stone (113kg) his attributes would see this man have a career amongst the best in Europe and the NBA such as Steve Nash and Tracy McGrady. Leaving Tullamore at the tender age of 3, Burke and his family emigrated to Cleveland where he took up Ice Hockey for most of his childhood until a growth spurt lured him into taking up basketball in his sophomore year of high school (15yrs old). The athletic ability that was acquired through other sports allowed him to learn the game technically and improve dramatically, so much so by his final year of college with Auburn University he was on the radar of some NBA scouts and called up to draft workouts.
My hunger is a little different 🚫🧢 pic.twitter.com/qhjzV3g1Wm
— Aidan Harris Igiehon (@aidanigiehon) March 1, 2019
While his transition into the big leagues wasn’t as straightforward as many drafted into the NBA, instead he took the European route playing in Spain and Greece to gain some experience. After a year with another Greek club, Maroussi, the then 28-year old became the first Irish-born player in NBA history when he was picked up by the Orlando Magic and coach Doc Rivers. Speaking with the 42-year-old about his experience he could only reflect in awe.
“That first experience of going in, putting on the practice gear and just playing, it was magic.
“I’ll never forget coming out of the locker room and stepping out and there’s Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill and Mike Miller and all these guys you see on television and we’re just playing some pick-up basketball.’’
The dream was truly fulfilled by his accounts but the individualized culture of the NBA turned off Burkes motivation to sign on another year contract and so returned to Europe once more.
‘’The NBA is more individualized and the bigger contracts play the bigger roles and they’re going to have a bigger say in what’s going on.
“But in international basketball, there’s more of team discipline, everyone is true to the same goal. There’s more of a connection, a brotherhood.
‘’I just felt like my heart was more clear when I was playing in a more team-oriented structure so I wanted to move back to Europe.”
His passion and determination even at 33 to play in the NBA never faltered and his second fling with basketball fame came in the form of the Phoenix Suns. After two seasons fighting to play minutes with the Suns, Burke tried out for the Golden State Warriors but a visit to the doctors spotted a possible career-ending problem, he needed an appendectomy and, within a month, had his gallbladder removed. For a young player, this would have been a blow but for Burke, it ended his NBA dream.
Since Burke, Ireland hasn’t seen anyone dabble in the American leagues but one talent may inspire a generation of Irish basketball players that the NBA is a dream to strive for.
Aidan Harris Igiehon, born and raised in Clondalkin, took up basketball at the age of 12 by sheer luck when a local basketball coach Mick White was in search of extra players and invited Igiehon to try out for the U-13 team. Impressing on his first time out, he improved at an exponential rate and he soon experienced a growth spurt which saw him grow by 10 inches in less than a year.
Now standing at a remarkable 6’10”, he has adapted to the American dream playing High School ball in New York and was soon regarded as ESPN’s 36th best high school basketball player in the country. Moreover, Igiehon’s potential was emphasized further as he was handpicked to attend Steph Curry’s training camp for the countries top High School players and it put his name on the radar for a number of NCAA colleges.
With the number of offers, Aiden chose Louisville who has a very successful basketball program and is in a developmental stage that would allow Aidan to settle into the team and get some heavy minutes on the court. The Dublin native must remain in college for at least one year before entering the NBA draft, meaning he will be eligible to enter the league in 2020 and was predicted to be the 11th overall pick by nbadraft.net. While the opportunity is tempting reports have indicated he will finish his degree and then formally go into the draft.
The resurgence of the basketball scene in Ireland has been notable with the likes of Tralee Warriors attracting sold-out crowds in each of their games and giving an entertainment aspect similar to that in the NBA. Grassroots has always played a part in the development of any sport all the way up to the elite level and while the Super-league has always protected the development of Irish players through the one-American-on-court rule there is still a lot of groundwork that affects our national team and increasing the number of Irish born players making it to the Euro League, NCAA or NBA such as Sean Flood who is on reserve with Longwood College in the Big South Conference or Max Amadasun who is currently in high school in the Bronx and has committed to Pittsburgh Panthers for the 2020 season.
It takes a generation and a culture to allow for this transition and with the likes of Aidan Harris creating his trail to the NBA maybe he will be the inspiration for a new era in Irish basketball.