Neptune's disappearance a low point for basketball in 2015
While the fortunes of Belfast Star and Ulster Rockets took a turn for the better in 2015, the fall of Neptune served as a reminder of the dangers that can face basketball clubs in Ireland. Tony McGee reports...
TEAMS come and go in most sports and so it was with basketball in Ireland during 2015 when one of the leading sides in the men's game disappeared off the radar.
That was the famed Neptune in Cork, a club that was established in 1948 and collected trophies with regularity. A club that also set new standards of accommodation for players and spectators alike when erecting the purpose built Neptune Stadium during the last decade.
Neptune had entered the 2015-2016 men's Premier League but, in July, sensationally withdrew, three months before the new season was due to tip-off. Player movement, allied to the deflection of young star Roy Downey to arch Leeside rivals Demons, was the explanation given by Neptune.
A July 29 press release from the club stated: “With all the off the court work done, things changed for the worst this week when Roy Downey decided his future was with Blue Demons BC. This forced the club executive to revisit the decision to enter the Premier League.
“When all things were considered, including the loss of Michael McGinn and Jermaine Camara last year, Mati Rudak and Jordan Blount to the USA and, finally, despite assurances from Roy Downey that he would commit to Neptune he has decided to transfer to Blue Demons.
“Neptune has a long history in basketball and for the next season we will concentrate on our young players and play in Division One.”
With half the 2015-2016 season gone, Neptune has played 10 matches, more than any other team in Division One, and have won five to be in fourth place. It is surely changed times in Cork. Once the hotbed of basketball when there were three men's teams – Neptune, Demons and North Mon - in the city now only Demons play in the men's top division but with super success.
During last season the UCC-attached Demons won the top treble, the Men's National Cup (for a seventh time), the Men's Premier League, also for a seventh time, and the Champions' Trophy for the third consecutive season from that competition was launched.
Furthermore, Demons set a new record in the game. They became the first team to complete a full season undefeated, chalking up 24 victories in a row.
Returning to national league action for the present season, after opting out of the 2014-'15 league was Ulster Rockets. The club withdrew for a season from the National stage in order to rebuild their panel in the Ulster Leagues, after a few of their more senior players became unavailable, for various reasons.
Rockets re-launched in Women's Division Two, during October, but were struck an early blow. Ashling Murray was a star in the Women's Premier League two seasons back before a knee injury put her out of the game for over 12 months but she returned in full flow, at the start of this season to captain the new-look team.
In only the second week, she crashed into the back wall when tossing in a lay-up and was carried off five second from half-time with her knee again damaged, to be ruled out for the rest of the league.
Operating with Rockets is New Yorker Emma O'Connor and her great influence has urged the teenage players to greater efforts. Experience Rockets like Helena O'Dornan are also
responding with the Belfast-based side in fourth place and through to the cup semi-finals, at the Christmas break.
Belfast Star ended last season in the bottom half of the men's Premier League, having been late in getting a US player in but they were quicker off the mark this time as Shawn Vanzant lined up in the first round and hit a game high 28 points in victory over UL Eagles, in Limerick.
Missing from the Star squad are the teenage Quinn twins, who were in fabulous form during last season's Premier League. In the summer, Conor and Aidan left for college in America and, I understand, are doing well there, also.
Star finished the first half of the league on a high note with three wins out of four matches in eight days, including two victories in 24 hours. That lurched the Belfast boys into fourth spot in the Premier Division.
As mentioned, earlier, UCC Demons won the 2014-2015 men's National Cup. They beat UCD Marian 91-65 in the final, despite the losers having five players in double figures. The women's National Cup final was also a Cork win as Team Montenotte Hotel defeated Killester 62-36 while Moycullen beat Star 70-60 in the U20 men's final. The Galway club failed to make a double as they lost 62-59 to Demons in the Presidents' Trophy final and it was Portlaoise Panthers who collected the Senior Women's Cup with a 63-48 win over Dublin side Oblate Dynamos.
Money is important in sport with big sponsorship needed but basketball doesn't get the financial backing other organisations can eke out.
“Basketball is considered a minority sport, despite the fact that it is played all over Ireland by thousands of people,” says Belfast Star secretary and assistant coach Danny Fulton. “Match attendances ebb and flow, according to success of teams. The men's Premier League needs a Kerry team taking part, like in the past.”
In July, Basketball Ireland announced a men's team was to be entered in the FIBA Club Competition (second level) with the players drawn from the Premier and Division One clubs. Hibernia Ireland made its debut in Denmark, during October, and lost 96-60 to Bakken Bears. Results haven't improved and many people feel that the exercise is a waste of time and money.
More successful has been the June launch of an All-Ireland Intermediate Cup competition, open to all club players below National League level.