I know this sounds like hyperbole, but basketball will play a really important role in Irish society as this small island nation attempts to become inclusive and multicultural. How many sports in this country can claim to be a) truly international and b) fully rain-resistant? Over time, basketball may prove to be the sport that best explains 21st century Ireland.
There was a general feeling of elation at Larkin Community College, just a stones throw from O'Connell St, last Monday. About 50 kids from around the area had gathered to play basketball and meet a real-life NBA champion. Dutch big man Francisco Elson, who is nearly seven foot tall and a winner of an NBA title with the San Antonio Spurs, was visiting to discuss his career. Elson is an ambassador for Jr NBA and was in town for the second annual Irish Jr. NBA Festival of Basketball, which also brought over 400 young basketball players to the National Basketball Stadium yesterday.
Many of the kids present were part of the North East Inner City Basketball Academy, an initiative spearheaded by Michael Darragh MacAuley, who is the sport and engagement officer in the area. Elson watched the kids play and explained what it was like to guard Shaquille O'Neill. It was a multiethnic gathering. The gender breakdown was essentially equal. The passion for basketball was obvious to anyone who might have drifted into the gym.
MacAuley is first and foremost a basketball player and took real pride in the gathering.
"A lot of people are interested in playing basketball in the northeast inner city. It's huge in the area. It brings in a great sense of diversity and different cultures. Basketball is such an international sport, it really attract people from all walks for life," MacAuley said.
MacAuley's love of basketball was generated when he was a six-year-old at Ballyroan School in Rathfarnham.
"In my primary school, not playing was not an option. From the age I was six years old, we’d come in to school an hour early to play basketball. We were always starting English class nice and sweaty. Basketball is the thing in that area."
Basketball has always had those pockets of hyperfandom in this country. Those pockets are expanding now as new communities have settled in Ireland and brought with them their own love for the game.
"You can achieve anything you want if you put your mind to it," Elson told the young basketball players. It may sound cliché, but he was living proof. Elson had an unlikely journey to the NBA. He grew up in Rotterdam and was interested in swimming and karate as a kid. He didn't play basketball until a coach suggested playing the game when he was 15. He went on to have a 10-year NBA career, and is a proud owner of an NBA championship ring, which he won with the San Antonio Spurs in 2007.
Elson spoke in amazed tones about how much the NBA has changed since he retired 6 years ago. Players of Elson's height are no longer expected to play just around the rim. They're supposed to dribble, run the floor and shoot three-pointers. Driving this revolution are foreign players. The NBA has also never been more international, and arguably the two best players in the league are Greek and Croatian (Giannis and Luca Doncic).
"Basketball has always been international," Elson says, correcting me. "It's not only for Americans, it's for anyone with the skills."
Those skills were displayed in abundance on Monday evening. In a part of the country that's starved of green fields, inner-city Dublin has seen basketball become more and more popular. While football and boxing are big in the area, basketball has an especially huge cache amongst many of the young kids whose parents settled in Ireland in the last decade or so.
"There's a huge amount of non-nationals in this area. In the greater Dublin area they reckon it’s 17% [the immigrant population]. In the northeast inner city, its closer to 38%. Which is fantastic. It brings in a great sense of diversity and different cultures," MacAuley says.
MacAuley said a lot of people thought he was a recruitment officer for the GAA when he took the role with NEIC, but he's actually interested in getting all kids in the area - boy or girl, black or white - playing any sport that excites them.
"People think I’m here as a GAA coach. I’m not at all. I want to see people playing as many sports as possible. Because basketball’s not for everyone, GAA’s not for everyone. But basketball does have a great mix. It’s nearly equally played by boys and girls. We’re here at Larkin College here and the girls team just had a big win in the Cup at the weekend."
The kids might not have been aware of Franciso Elson's career as an NBA journeyman, but they seemed motivated by his message. Anybody from any place can play in the NBA.