IT seems like a century ago - well actually it is a quarter of a century - since Ballina hit the headlines when they won their first ever National Senior Basketball Cup in 1991 with victory over Burgerland in Cork, writes John Melvin.
The team will return to the National Basketball Arena in Dublin tomorrow (Saturday), the scene of their second cup win in 1996, to be honoured during the break at this year’s cup final, a fitting tribute to a team that put basketball in Mayo on a pedestal and brought us many great years of drama and excitement as supporters from all over the county were literally hanging from the rafters in the old Killala sports hall.
The hall, the floor of which was wooden, creaked, moaned and groaned as it witnessed many famous battles. The venue had a capacity of around 900 but often squeezed in over 1,200 as the top teams from Belfast, Dublin and Cork visited what became something of a fortress for a Ballina team who seldom lost at home.
For a team from Mayo to win such a title was in itself a massive achievement, and a week of celebrations and the amazing homecoming reflected just how important it was at the time and what it meant for the sport in the county in general but to Ballina in particualar. To go down to Cork and beat the local boys in their own back court - the Neptune Stadium - was a stunning sporting accomplishment in a sport that was becoming dominated by US players.
But Ballina had one thing few other teams had - well three in fact - the McHale brothers, who embodied all that basketball was in the town.
As the fellow said, I was there and I still have the t-shirt (I think it belonged to D.J. Naylor, or maybe it was Barry Murphy) to prove it, as Ballina - under the banner of Connacht Gold - were led by the twin towers of Deora Marsh (who scored 29 points and won the MVP award) and Liam McHale, who snuffed out the threat of none other than one of the top Irish players, Tom O’Sullivan, who was held to just four points, along with team captain, Anthony McHale, point-guard Paul McStay and boards man Brian Collins, who made up the starting five of a team who had a sensational 77-61 win over Burgerland.
Coach Terry Kennedy puts it down as the highlight of his coaching career, which is not over yet as he brings a ladies team from Galway to Tallaght on Sunday in search of the Senior Women's National Cup with two Mayo players on board, Siobhan Kilkenny from Castlebar and Suzanne McDonagh, Ballina.
Said Kenendy:“That night in Cork, which was televised by RTÉ, was the stuff that dreams are made of. I will never forget it. The Cork boys were raging hot favourites but Liam and Deora had the biggest games of their lives and McStay ran the floor. It was unreal.
“But the best part was to see Sean McHale, who was injured, come on and score a basket, and watching the McHale brothers, Anthony, Sean and Liam, win their cup medals after all they had given to basketball,” he said.
Kennedy is on the verge of history in coaching as he won two cups with Ballina and one with Sligo, while a win for himself and Mike Murray with the NUIG Mystics would make it four cup wins with three different teams - a record surely.
While Kennedy is looking foward to the interval introductions along with his team for winning that title in 1991, he has other business to attend to as they hope to bring a senior cup back to Galway.
“Women’s basketball has been revitalised and is going well. The Mayo Ladies Masters (of which his wife Triene is a player) are playing some great basketball and won four tournaments last season,” he said.
Castlebar’s Siobhan Kilkenny, who won a scholarship to the famous Manhattan College in New York and was honoured by the college recently when she was inducted into the sporting greats hall of fame, has been a huge driving force behind the rise of the Mystics, who take to the court in the senior cup final on Saturday at 2 p.m.
Said Kennedy: “Siobhan Kilenny has come back playing and she still has all the qualities which made her an outstanding player at underage level.
“She still has the class, the pace and the power that made her an international player of note when she played for Ireland and also played professional basketball in Spain and coached in the US.
“She was a phenomenal underage player and to be inducted into the famous Manhattan College Hall of Fame for her sporting achievements with the college basketball team while on scholarship there is some recognition for this girl, but she always worked hard for everything she achieved and she still demands only the highest standards from herself and her team,” he said.
The stats speak for themselves as Siobhan is the leading scorer and has provided the most assists, and she has won a player of the month award. Now her team hopes to bag a cup and league double.
It should be a great weekend in Tallaght.