By Francesco Cavalli

I’ve travelled to many different places for “basketball reasons”, watching games at most different levels, on courts which can go from brand new arenas with thousands of seats to small gyms in elementary schools lost in the middle of nowhere. The standard question I’m usually asked before leaving for a basketball travel of any type is just “What are you going to watch there?”, since people expect that there actually IS some hoops to watch everywhere.

So I couldn’t help smiling at the astonishment that I faced when I answered the usual question saying that the next stop of my path would be Ireland. “Yes, Ireland, I’m not kidding”. Questions went at first “Whaaat??” and “Why?”, to become then “Do they play basketball in Ireland?”, “Oh, so are you a rugby scout now?” and “You go for the beer, right? You can tell me”.

Such reactions can easily be understood: if female basketball has some popularity, with the U18 team coming from the country’s best result ever with the silver medal at last FIBA U18 European Championship Division B (with consequent promotion to the 2018 FIBA U18 European Championship Division A), male basketball has a hard time to find some love. Ireland, which didn’t even feature a senior national team from 2010 to 2015, now competes at the international level in the FIBA European Championship for Small Countries; an event which in the 2018 edition will see them play against Norway, Moldova, Andorra, San Marino, Malta and Gibraltar. Within the country, basketball is considered as the fifth most popular sport after rugby, soccer, Irish football, hurling and boxing (if you don’t know what hurling is, as my case was before my Irish travel, dedicate few minutes of your time to a quick YouTube search. It’s worth it).

That being said, Ireland has produced some basketball players over the years, the most notable being former NBA and Euroleague center Pat Burke; and more Irish players are still developing in American colleges and high schools, preparing to a professional career at some level or other. But the number is still relatively low because of the minimal success this sport has in the country, while the usual path for development leads across the Atlantic and on to the USA.

With this whole picture in mind, it is even harder to imagine Ireland as the setting of one of the most interesting youth basketball stories I’ve ever met in my years of travelling and scouting.

It all starts from Clondalkin.

The small village of Clondalkin, or Cluan Dolcain to use the Gaelic name, is in the suburbs of Dublin and is part of one of the twenty-four districts which the capital’s county is divided into. “Dublin 22” district, to be more specific. It is a far from wealthy area, where many immigrants have settled after moving to Ireland.

Here James Naismith’s philosophy is carried on by the Dublin Lions, a small club that features a senior team in Irish second division and holds its practice in an elementary school gym. Dublin Lions give great importance in working with young players from the area and developing talent for their senior team (and possibly a higher level, of course): this happens under the direction of coach Rob White, a 27-year old gym rat with a previous coaching experience at Johnson County CC in Kansas, and his father Michael, who was among the club’s founders little more than ten years ago.

“Here around 80% of the players comes from immigrant families”, says White, “we have many different nations represented in our club”. The club, which starts welcoming players when they’re barely able to stand on their feet and hold a ball at the same time, has become a reference point for kids and their families in Clondalkin.
The increasing popularity in the area started with Aidan Harris Igiehon, who is currently one of the most promising European players in the 2000 generation.

As many people may know, Aidan is a 6’11 big man who plays for Lawrence Woodmere Academy in New York. He’s currently ranked as the 38th overall recruit by ESPN in the 2019 class, and has had around 45/50 NCAA offers so far (Gonzaga, Villanova, St. John’s, Georgetown and California are among the schools recruiting him more aggressively).

He’s a strong, powerful inside player with a 7’2 wingspan and an impressive body for his age: his wiry frame has all the traits of an NBA body, even though he still has to learn how to properly use it to seal his opponent inside. Aidan also has high-level explosiveness which makes him at times an unstoppable force in the paint, he’s an aggressive scorer with impressive ability to make consecutive jumps to contest a rebound or follow his own misses and can finish above the rim with ridiculous ease. He has to play at the center in his team, lacking other elite big men to play with, and the below average ability of the team’s guards to play the P&R and pass the ball inside often limit his offensive production. But, besides a high effectiveness in dynamic sets and catch-and-finish situations, he shows some promise also with the ball in his hands. Despite being highly strong hand dominant at this stage of his development, Aidan shows good touch around the rim and the ability to face up and attack off the dribble from the low post and mid-corner area; he frequently flashes to the high post, even though then gets kind of predictable by generally putting the ball on the floor with his right hand. He can also score with his jumper, showing solid form and smooth release off the catch or after facing up from mid-range, and has shooting range from as far as from beyond the arc, even though will need to work on his consistency.

What most people may not know is that Aidan is from Ireland and that his basketball experience started from his own neighbourhood of Clondalkin, with the Dublin Lions.

Aidan was born in Dublin in August of 2000, even though his parents are both originally from Nigeria: his mother moved to Ireland in the early year 2000 and settled in Clondalkin, taking care of both him and his older brother Brandon. Aidan’s first sport was soccer, just like Brandon who now plays in NCAA Division III for University of Potsdam, and until the age of 12 he played as a midfielder; he then moved to the Dublin Lions, where he stayed for two years. At 14, during a basketball tour in the USA, he was recruited to play for Lawrence Woodmere, where he grew up and developed in one of the most promising U18 big men from Europe.

The games in the AAU circuit never allowed him to join the Irish national team, and European scouts didn’t have the chance to see him at the last Basketball Without Borders Europe camp, since he declined an invitation to go to Israel. To evaluate his game in person it was necessary to travel twice to New York, where Aidan plays and lives with his uncle.

My first days in the USA were hard, I was homesick. But in the end I was lucky to have someone from my family with me, it helped me a lot”, said Aidan to Eurohopes. “I feel like I have to work on my mentality and learn how to go earlier in the game. I also need to learn how to dominate without necessarily scoring”.

About the one-and-done rule and its potential abolition from the NBA: “I would definitely look into the possibility to jump straight to the NBA, if I think I’m ready for it. Otherwise I will enrol in college”. Education is something he has always been taught to care for, which he has done quite well: his GPA is currently little more than 3.9, and he has had offers from Harvard, Yale and other Ivy League schools.

In the future I’d like to play for the Irish national team, something which so far I’ve not been able to do because of AAU. I think Ireland is going to grow a lot as a national team”.

While Aidan is undoubtedly the main face of Irish youth basketball and the most widely known of all the Clondalkin products, there’s another player from the same area who is quietly making a name for himself: Max Amadasun.

Max is a 6’10 center with 7’0 wingspan who is playing for Our Savior Lutheran high school in New York, where he’s a sophomore despite also being born in 2000; he’s quickly rising in the 2020 class recruiting ranks, has already had an offer from Penn State and is being recruited by California among others.

He’s also a physically gifted player with intriguing frame, even though his game is more centred around the painted area than Aidan’s. He’s a fluid and explosive athlete with excellent reactivity for a player his size, something which is particularly evident in his shot-blocking ability and generally in his defensive game: he’s quick in recovering and standing up from his stance to contest shots, and has very good footwork for his position. A quiet kid who rarely loses his composure on the court, on offense he’s quick and coordinated to catch and finish in dynamic situations, has soft touch and high point of release around the basket and some potential to become a consistent shooter from mid-range, as he’s solid from the free throw line and has decent shooting form. His basketball instincts are interesting, particularly considering his relatively poor basketball background, he shows good vision in the halfcourt and quick decisions with the ball in his hands.

Max roots are also from Nigeria: his parents moved to Dublin in June 2000 and established themselves in Lucan, the neighbourhood right next to Clondalkin; Max, who has a younger sister and a younger brother, was born in September of the same year. Just like Aidan, he also started as a soccer midfielder, before turning to basketball with the Dublin Lions at 14. At 15 he was called to practice with the Irish U16 team, but he never played for them as he moved to the USA at 16 despite having also an offer from Spain.

My first season here in New York was very rough”, said Max to Eurohopes, “because I had little playing time. But now I’m happy with my role”. He describes his game as “Defense, rebounds, blocked shots. I have good footwork in the low post and a reliable hook shot. I feel I’m also underrated as a passer and I’m very good at making an outlet pass. I need to work on my shooting consistence though”.

Max, who is also a high academics kid with a GPA around 3.9, says he lists his goals as “Enrolling in a high major NCAA program and then possibly going on to play in the NBA. I’d like to study electronics or engineering in college”.

As for the Irish national team: “I’m looking forward to play for Ireland, I think we can be very good when myself, Aidan and other players who are currently in the USA come back to play with the national team”.

The connection between Ireland, Nigeria and the Dublin Lions doesn’t end with big men, as there’s also a backcourt player trying to make his way into American high school basketball. He’s Kevin Anyanwu, a 6’1 combo guard with 6’8 wingspan who plays for Redemption Christian Academy in Massachusetts and will graduate in the 2019 class.

Kevin is an athletic player who thrives in transition, as he has the speed and burst to easily get to the basket and the length to finish over his defender. He’s still in between the two guard spots and will need to work on his point guard skills and become a more consistent shooter. The challenge for him is even bigger, as he’s trying to emerge in a country where the physical and athletic competition is extremely tough for guards.

Kevin’s mother left Nigeria in 1998 to move to Ireland, where he was born in Galway in November 2000; from there the family, which also includes a 13-year old brother, moved to Clondalkin in 2002, where Kevin started to play basketball with the Dublin Lions right after primary school. He’s completing his first season in the USA.

The last in the timeline to make the jump from the Dublin Lions program to an American high school has been Silas Sunday, who left Ireland last November to join Max Amadasun at Our Savior Lutheran. Silas is way younger than the three other players, as he was born in March 2003 and will graduate from high school in the 2022 class.

An impressively big center, Silas is already 6’10 with a 6’11 wingspan despite having just turned 15. He has high-level physical potential as he will improve his body shape and work on his explosiveness, and shows solid touch with his strong hand and instincts with the ball. He’ll need to learn how to properly use his body inside, avoid settling on jumpers and fix his shooting mechanics.

The first of two brothers, Silas was born in Milano, Italy, from a Nigerian father and a Polish mother; his father, who is 6’9 tall, was a boxer who competed internationally for Nigeria. The family moved from Milano to Dublin in 2007 and settled in Lucan, right next to Clondalkin. Silas started to play basketball for the Liffey Celtics and then went on to play for coach White in the regional team of East Dublin, until he crossed the Atlantic at the beginning of this season.
Having presented all of the Clondalkin players currently in the USA, we can safely say that they represent a rare value for a youth program of any European basketball federation, no matter if they’re still far from reach their full potential as players. This is even more true for a country like Ireland, where basketball is still behind in terms of popularity.

To better understand the Irish basketball context and present an idea of what it’s about, Eurohopes has had the chance to talk with people who have lived it on a daily basis since many years.

There are many people in Irish basketball who are excited in the recent trends in grassroots development” says Pat Price, Head Coach of Ireland U16, a team which finished with a remarkable 11th spot at last FIBA U16 European Championship Division B, “We are improving structures and standards across the board, and the participation rates are very strong and growing. Our U18 women earned promotion to FIBA Division A, losing out narrowly to Germany in the Finals this past summer, which was certainly the country's proudest international basketball moment”.

In recent times the sport in Ireland has seen significant growth, even though we are still far off where the game has been back in the late 70s, 80s and early 1990s, where the sport was at its peak domestically”, answers Dermot Russell, Director at North Atlantic Basketball Academy in Dublin, “In addition to the National Federation, Basketball Ireland, where their work to help the game survive has certainly made a significant positive contribution, various different independent entities have helped the game grow in popularity by offering development opportunities for players on the ground in Ireland. This is now evident by the number of Irish players leaving Ireland to advance their basketball careers. It should be seen as a positive effect as these players often find themselves plying their trade in the mecca of basketball, which is the USA”.

When asked about which challenges Irish basketball has to face right now, Pat Price tells us: “The most obvious involve regular access to facilities and general funding. We realise this is not just an issue in our country alone. Very few clubs own their own courts, so renting court space for growing clubs is critical. This is particularly difficult in rural areas where finding a suitable facility is challenging enough. Funding has improved slightly but still needs to make serious progress if we are to sustain the current good vibes in the sport. The management at Basketball Ireland have done an excellent job in the past few years creating initiatives that addressed the serious financial problems that crippled the sports development - particularly in international teams - between 2010 and 2015. We also need to continue to challenge ourselves on the coaching front, via life-long development for all coaches, at every level”.

So what lies in Irish basketball’s future? Dermot Russell is optimistic and sees favourably the path which brings Irish players to play and develop in American high schools: “For years, Ireland has been one of the best placed countries in several aspects for placing players in the USA or even using Ireland as a stepping stone to opportunities in the USA, where Irish Players like Aidan Harris Max Amadasun and John Carroll - who are all making a lot of noise stateside - are a direct reflection of where the game is going in Ireland. The pending and expected success of these young men and women taking the leap stateside is sure to generate further interest in the talent pool that is Ireland; as the game continues to grow here, the individual talent will surely blossom too. A recent visit to Ireland by Pat Burke had massive interest from the youth of Ireland in terms of attendance to his talks and seminars he ran in conjunction with the Basketball Ireland. The excitement and interest shown in his story alone, along with the fantastic youth development project he runs in Florida, ‘Hoops Life’, is encouraging to say the least. One thing is for sure, the game is only going in one direction in this country and that is progressively better!

Irish Federation is also putting lot of work to improve the youth basketball system, as Price tells us: “There is an enormous amount of work going on nationally at the grassroots level, through a programme we call ‘Green Shoots’. Our development officers have implemented the programme in both underage clubs and schools around Ireland. We have also introduced seven regional development academies which aim to create a greater pool of advanced talent through a streamlined curriculum of international standards, as we seek to improve and develop and 'Irish style of play'. There is ongoing work with coaching development, via the academies and through our coaching exams: player development is directly impacted by the quality of the teacher, so it's an increasing priority as our participation numbers rise. It's an exciting time. We must seize the momentum of good will and genuine interest in becoming a stronger basketball country, we have a number of promising players in the pipeline who have potential for professional careers: getting those players into an Ireland jersey will become a priority. Our federation has had a great few years making the game more accessible than ever to young people, via a strong social media platform and live streaming of more games. The participation rates continue to grow, and our responsibilities to those players includes coaching development, facility development, and a cohesive, comprehensive pathway that develops the potential that exists”.
Looking at this whole picture, there’s one question which comes before any other to whoever has at least an slight idea of the youth basketball scene in Europe: how? How can Ireland, in this small amount of time, have produced basketball prospects with that type of upside? Of course we are talking just about potential, as is nearly always the case with young players, but for people who closely follow European youth basketball this is still enough to be labelled at least as “uncommon”. The question is even more puzzling if we think that we’re not even talking about the whole Irish country, but just about two villages, Clondalkin and Lucan, with a combined population of less than 100.000 people.

We can start saying it has been a coincidence, at least in part. But there’s something which doesn’t explain why coincidences like this don’t happen more often in other countries, even with a stronger basketball culture.

It’s also obvious that Ireland has benefited from immigration, as all four players portrayed in this article are from Nigerian roots. But in Europe there are many countries where immigration has had way more incidence on the total population (Italy, for example, to name one particularly close to me), and still it’s not easy to find basketball players with such physical and athletic profiles.

So the question stays the same: what has separated Ireland, and in particular Clondalkin and Lucan, from other places in Europe in that span from 2013 and 2017, in terms of finding physical and athletic basketball potential?

I think that the difference has been how the Dublin Lions have been able to establish themselves as a reference point for people in the territory, and to make themselves a primary choice for families looking for a place to let their kids practice sport: if there were hypothetically four kids with potential to become appealing as basketball players, it was easy for the Dublin Lions to have all of them under their look.

Aidan was the starting point for them, “the coincidence”, the first player to succeed in basketball and the one who brought more interest around the team from people in the neighbourhood. But from that start Mike and Rob White have been able to establish the club as a main choice for kids in the area, bringing to basketball many of those who don’t find a niche in soccer, rugby or any other team sport. Maybe, without the Dublin Lions and their role in the territory, prospects like Aidan, Max, Kevin and Silas might never have turned to basketball and might have ended up as soccer goalkeepers.

Sometimes I wonder how much potential basketball - and probably other sports as well - loses because of improper recruiting strategies. I’m not sure it can be possible to replicate in other contexts what has happened in Clondalkin, but we should at least admit that we may miss something around us while busy in looking for it around the world. How many prospects are European teams missing in their own cities or countries, maybe thinking it’s not worth working on something that close and easy to grab? When I consider this, I can’t help thinking about a friend of mine telling me how a basketball coach named Liviu Calin once noticed an athletic kid throwing shots at a basket close to a skatepark in the city of Braunschweig, Germany. He convinced the kid to attend basketball practice, stood by him in his first troubled times, and in the end saw him become a professional player. Actually an NBA player, since that kid was Dennis Schröder.