GAA Football

Tyrone's Sean Cavanagh recalls how basketball shaped his Gaelic game

Sean Cavanagh showing some of his basketball skills for Tyrone against Cavan last year. Pic: Seamus Loughran

ALTHOUGH Sean Cavanagh tried his hands and feet at various football codes, including soccer and rugby, before becoming a Gaelic football star with Tyrone, his first Ulster medal was actually won at basketball.

That sport is strong around Dungannon, where the Moy man first went to secondary school, at St Patrick’s Academy, with whom he won several provincial basketball titles.

Yet the sport risked ruling his younger brother Colm out of the 2010 Ulster Final, as he recalls:

“We were waiting for a lift from Philly Jordan, Ryan Mellon was with him, and, unusually Philly was a few minutes late.

“Myself and Colm decided to grab a basketball and throw a few shots – a few shots turned into ‘a bit of one-on-one’. I got a little bit more aggressive than I needed to be and ended up pushing Colm into a wall.

Read More: Gaelic football can learn from basketball - Sean Cavanagh

“He still has the scar down his arm. He got into the back of Philly’s lovely car with the blood running out of his arm, and Ryan and Philly looking at us, thinking ‘What the hell are you guys at?’”

“The crazy thing is, Colm scored a goal that day, probably the only goal he’s ever scored for Tyrone in Championship football!”

It was his older brother Adrian who sparked Sean’s love of basketball from his late primary school days: “Geniuinely, I was probably more of a basketball lover than any other sport when I was growing up. My older brother played a fair bit and I just fell into it.

“Primarily it was my early teenage years at school, but I would have played with him at a younger age.

“I ended up playing at a decent level as a young teenager. We won a few Ulster Colleges titles [with St Patrick’s, Dungannon], we beat St Malachy’s [Belfast] the first time, and that forged my real interest in basketball.

“I would have attended basketball camps around Dungannon every summer. It was my number one [sport] back then.

“We had room out the front and I would have played with Adrian, Colm, and the McAnallens, Donal and Cormac, their granda lived just down the road. There was a youth club just opposite our house which had plenty of basketball games on too.

“That was the early to mid-Nineties and the Michael Jordan [Chicago] Bulls were at the height of their success.

“I remember going to watch Dungannon – they’re now Tyrone Towers – play at Dungannon Leisure Centre; I would have gone to a basketball game before a Gaelic game back then.

“As time moved on, Gaelic was always going to be the sport I gravitated towards in terms of importance to the community and my dad [Teddy]’s involvement.”

Cavanagh credits basketball for his famous side-step, `the Seanie shimmy’, as he explains: “I mostly played on the right hand side up top in basketball, I probably wasn’t tall enough to play down below, so I was like a right forward.

“I always used to shimmy as if I was going to go inside, to my left, then went to my right, dribbled the ball up, and then did lay-ups.

“That’s where it came from. I decided one day I’d try it in the football and see how this works out – it seemed to work out all right.

“In football, I was trying to get onto my right foot, whereas in basketball you always try to get yourself on the outside of the attack, so it was different sides [of the court/pitch] - but it was the same move.”

The multi-talented Cavanagh also played underage soccer with Dungannon Swifts and even got involved with the local rugby club – to his cost:

“Fintan Colgan would have been manager of the basketball team [at the Academy in Dungannon], I think he’s still at it. When I went to Armagh [for sixth form], MacRory was in full flow, so I didn’t get playing much basketball.

“Fintan was the guy who took me to the rugby. I had forgotten my gum-shield one day and a wee guy in front of me got tackled, threw his head back, and smashed into me – and I lost my two front teeth.

“Fintan took to me a local dentist and I got my teeth ‘fixed’; I had to get crowns. After that incident I didn’t head back to the rugby very quickly.

“I was a flanker, because I was massive, but all I wanted to do was run the wings and score tries.”

Since his retirement from inter-county football with Tyrone last year, Sean has been able to play more basketball, although the Red Hands did turn to that sport themselves:

“I’m actually training with the Tyrone Towers myself, as is Petey Harte; now that I’ve a bit more time on my hands, I’m enjoying it.

“Tyrone have trained playing basketball over the last three or four years at St Ciaran’s, Ballygawley. We’ve found ourselves playing one night with St Ciaran’s and the Tyrone lads, another one recreationally ourselves in Dungannon or Donaghmore, or wherever the court is.

“Myself and Colm fall out quite often on a basketball court. We could be doing with a high standard referee at times, there’s a right few elbows for a so-called non-contact sport. It can get quite aggressive, as you can imagine, with two brothers of similar stature and ability playing head-to-head; it’s good craic.

“We are always on opposite teams. Last Thursday in Dungannon it was ‘Right, I’ll take a team, Colm, you take a team’, and we did fall out – and we didn’t speak for about two days afterward! It’s always the same, that competitive streak is there and basketball brings it out."

This year's Belfast Classic has doubled in size, involving eight teams, playing eight games over three days - Thursday November 29, Friday Nov 30, and Saturday December 1.

Cavanagh is keen to see the talent on show, saying: “The college game in the States is almost as big as the NBA, the pro game, so it’ll be great to see them on our own door-step”.

* Teams include: University at Albany (America East Conference); University at Buffalo (Mid-American Conference); Dartmouth College (Ivy League); LIU Brooklyn (Northeast Conference); Marist College (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference); University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (Horizon League); University of San Francisco (West Coast Conference); and Stephen F Austin State University (Southland Conference).

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