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The Renaissance Man Behind The Irish Men's Basketball Team

The Renaissance Man Behind The Irish Men's Basketball Team
By Gavin Cooney

If things had turned out differently, Irish basketball coach Pete Strickland could have been treading a different set of boards.

Kevin Costner has got all my roles! The one about the baseball [Field of Dreams]; every single role he gets that sports-related I think, ‘Shoot, I would love that role, what a meaty role! I would love that one!

He’s the guy, if I met him on the street, that I’d grab by the nape of the neck and shake him and say, ‘You bastard, you took all my roles!

But life has unspooled differently, and this week Strickland finds himself preparing Ireland for next week's European Championship for Small Countries in San Marino. He returned to Ireland as head coach of the men's team in November 2016, with CEO Bernard O'Byrne calling the appointment  "a coming home".

"It still does", says Strickland, calling Cork his "Irish home". 

Strickland came to Ireland in Cork in 1980, getting in on the ground floor of the Irish basketball boom with Neptune in Cork. He stayed for two years, leading them to an undefeated season as player-coach before returning to the States where he started a Master's in Acting at the Tisch School of the Arts, NYU. He stuck it out for the first of the three years of the course, before feeling the pull of basketball again.

He left his acting mark on Cork, too. He was cast in a play at the Everyman Theatre called Zigger Zagger, considered one of the definitive plays on English football hooliganism. Strickland, with more time on his hands than usual, was cast after an audition with the role of a Protestant pastor changed to a preacher from the Deep South to suit the accent.

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He needed an understudy as away trips with Neptune meant he was unable to fully commit to the role. He is certainly committed to his current role, frequently travelling over from his home on Capitol Hill for two-week blocks in which he takes training weekends along with a series of coaching clinics across the country.

Strickland is a highly-rated coach, with 31 years of coaching experience across the professional, collegiate and high school ranks in the U.S. Among the players he came across on the courts forming rungs on the ladder to the NBA is one Steph Curry.

He learned his trade from coach and co-author of the highly-regarded Coaching Basketball Successfully Morgan Wootten, who would go on to have a formative effect on the legendary American coach John Wooden.

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Wootten's influence along with his talents as an actor, meant coaching came naturally to Strickland.

Good actors listen, and if you are a good coach you really listen. We think of coaches as spouting technical jargon that precedes tremendous execution, but good coaches listen and watch.

They will understand what the players are doing well and what they are doing not so well. Good actors aren’t just waiting to speak - they are listening and staying in character with the people they are on stage with.

The comfort with people you need as an actor translates to being a good coach, too.

Communication, too. My coach in America, Morgan Wootten - he never sent a confused team out on the floor. They knew exactly what they were supposed to be around. He was the most extraordinary communicator I’ve ever met.

To be a good actor you need to communicate feelings, nuances and thoughts and to be a good coach you have to be clear on what you are asking your players are to do.

Strickland, without willing to get "too profound this early in the morning", says good basketball relies on improvisation like "free-form jazz", and as a result does not drill his players to move perfectly in unison. Instead, while repetition is the basis for most of his coaching, he trusts the players to make decisions on the court. This involves a more holistic approach to coaching.

"Wootten told me that coaching starts when practice ends. It’s so true. They are still young men and you are coaching the whole person. A certain percentage of coaching is from the neck up".

Ireland head into the unknown in San Marino next week, facing group games with Malta and Andorra.

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I don’t know enough about what we are up against. Malta have three Americans who are recently naturalised. What I do know is that our team is a team of Irishmen.

I don’t think we have the 12 best players in Ireland right now - in fact I’m certian we don’t, I’d love to have Kieran Donaghy, but Kerry football’s not going to let him not play! - but we might have the best team.

I’m looking for us to play together, execute and be the kind of team that any young boy in Ireland would want to play for.

Spending time regularly in Ireland for the first time since the 1980s, Strickland says that he has noticed that the country is much more sporting now, with many more people involved in sport than ever. The irony is that Irish basketball is incomparable to the sport he encountered and enriched when he first arrived in Cork.

"We’re lagging behind many other sports in terms of interest and participation. But I think there is more sporting activity across the board now, and that will eventually have a good impact on basketball". 

Next week, Strickland and his team will take their latest step in the sport's recovery in Ireland.

Not a bad part to play.

 

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