“I love Callahan...he’s relentless. I love that kid. He’s a great player. He knows who he is and doesn’t try to be anything else. I love watching him play.” Mike Krzyzewski, 5 time NCAA Champion with Duke, 3 time Olympic Gold Medallist with Team USA, 2 time FIBA World Champion, and Basketball Hall of Famer.
If you were required to defend the Irish American era in an argument and you could only choose one player to defend it with, it would likely be Dan Callahan. He played for Ireland over the course of thirteen years starting in the early days of 1993 before eventually retiring in 2006 and personified every ideal that Enda Byrt originally sought out when the Irish American route was opened. More important than anything he did on the floor, which in itself was excellent, Callahan simply got it. He got what the whole idea of representing Ireland was about and he fought to ensure everyone else that followed him to play for Ireland got it too.
Dan was raised in Massachusetts 15 miles north west of Boston. His father Daniel ran an air conditioning company in Bedford and himself personified the hardworking every day man. While Dan was in college Enda Byrt contacted him about playing in the 1993 World University Games and due to his heritage and Irish upbringing it was something he couldn’t turn down: “When I got the call from Enda Byrt, I was in college. He saw I was the second or third leading rebounder in the country and he saw Callahan so he got in contact with me and said hey are you second generation and I was, he said come down to New York and tryout for the team. I was just excited to have the opportunity to play for Ireland because I knew my grandparents emigrated from Ireland and growing up in Boston with my family everything was always you’re Irish, everything was from Ireland, Irish music and festivals and everything. I was doing it because obviously I was never going to make the Dream Team USA, so to represent a country was my greatest basketball accomplishment.”
Dan’s connection to the Irish team was one that his father Daniel was also immensely proud of. When Dan first played for Ireland in 1993, his father famously shed a tear in the stands such was the significance of the moment to the family.
Callahan earned a scholarship to play at Northeastern under Karl Fogel. A freshman season that saw little playing time also gave Callahan his one trip to the NCAA tournament as Northeastern earned the bid for the North Atlantic Conference. Their reward was a matchup against North Carolina in the first round. North Carolina had future NBA stars Hubert Davis, Eric Montress, George Lynch and more and were led by future NBA Champion Rick Fox as they pummelled Northeastern in the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. For Dan Callaghan it was a six minute cameo in the tournament as a freshman, while for the Tar Heels it was the start of a journey to the Final Four.
Starting from his sophomore year Dan started to get more opportunities as he started 20 of the 22 games he played in. He averaged 7.9 points and an incredible 9.9 rebounds as he started to establish himself as one of the top rebounders in the NCAA. He built on that further in his junior year reaching 12.1 rebounds a game and incredibly he was still improving. As he shot to the top of the nation’s rebounding charts his surname generated some interest in Ireland and he got to play at the World University Games in 1993.
With a confidence boost from playing for Ireland against top players in Buffalo, Callaghan returned for what was set to be an exciting senior season at Northeastern. Unfortunately, as his senior year started he only lasted four games as a back injury required him to have surgery. Fortunately he was in good hands as Larry Bird’s doctor Dan Dyrek looked after him but he had to medically redshirt and when he did return it left him with issues that limited his ability to practice at times. Despite the physical limitations his senior year was dominant on the boards again as he pulled down 12.6 a game to go with his 13.2 points. Northeastern weren’t having much team success but Callahan was setting himself up as a future professional. He finished his senior year as an American East All Conference player finishing second in Northeastern history with 1007 rebounds. He also joined esteemed company as he became only the second player in school history to have more than 800 points, 800 rebounds, 80 assists and 80 blocks. The other one would be Jerry Lewis. Lewis is a name that will always be remembered in both Northeastern but also around the NBA as he shot to fame as the 22nd pick in the 1987 draft. He joined a Celtics team with legends like Larry Bird and Kevin McHale and by 1992 he was averaging over 20 points a game in the NBA for the Celtics. Shockingly he had heart issues during an April 1993 playoff game and was forced to leave the court. While trying to get back in shape in the summer of 1993, Lewis sufferd a cardiac arrest on the court and died aged just 27. His number retired by both Northeastern and the Celtics. Sharing that record with Lewis, showed the esteemed company that Callahan kept and years after graduating Callaghan was inducted into the Northeastern Hall of Fame as his plaque simply read “the finest rebounder to ever play at NE”.
Despite the injuries he had to overcome, Callaghan was still a top prospect but the storybook start of his professional career didn’t quite work out “After my senior year, the NBA lockout happened. I had been invited to a few free agent camps but that was all locked out so my option was to go to Europe. So I signed and went to France in a lower level French league. I went over and I hated it I was miserable I was away from my family and friends and I didn’t speak the language. After a month or so I said this isn’t for me so I went home. I had my college degree so I started working for my dad. The next summer I played for the national team again, while we were playing I had a few good tournaments and teams started to ask about me. Enda said hey give it another shot maybe that was just a bad spot. I flew straight from a qualification tournament and went to Belgium and I loved it and ended up playing 11 or 12 more years… Enda kind of saved my whole career.” The second chance came in Belgium and was the start of a top flight career for Callaghan that saw him play in the top leagues in Greece and Italy amongst others.
Playing for Ireland
During his time for Ireland he would not only be ever present, but he was also a leader on and off the floor for each group he represented. For many other Irish-Americans Callaghan was the unifying voice that had been there from 1993 and knew everything about the original guys like Frank Powell but also had lots in common with everyone in between from Ken Lacey to Pat Burke. Critically Callaghan understood the importance of representing Ireland and had been very clearly influenced by players like Adrian Fulton and Gareth Maguire from as early as those University Games in 1993 and he wanted to continue their legacy throughout his time with the team “All the Irish guys made you realise the importance of it. We were playing in the World University Games and you’re walking around the village in your Irish stuff and you’re representing a country. When they played the National Anthem and things like that sometimes there was tears in these guys eyes, that’s how much it meant to them and I always understood that. I always understood how much it meant to Fulty and Gareth and those guys. Fulty used to bring around a guitar and play Irish tunes, those were the best times of my life…We definitely let the new guys on the team how important it was. How much it meant to Gareth and Fulty and even though he was gone Enda. Because Enda was the one that started it all. You’re representing a country. We always tried to stress You’re not playing for NorthEastern University or Boston University, you are playing for an entire country that’s on your shirt and it’s important. I think you learn pretty quickly once you are around some of the guys.”
Throughout his decade with the senior Irish team he averaged 12.1 points and 8.6 rebounds in qualifiers as he became the top scorer for Ireland between 1995 and 2009.
Even while enjoying a successful career Dan also has great perspective on challenges that faced the Irish American players.
Firstly on how tough a slog it often was playing in Europe and then playing internationally. It was a slog that he always considered worth it: “A lot of times when your professional season would end in June, you were exhausted. Those teams kicked your ass, you are playing six days a week practicing and travelling and all you want to do is go home. And then a couple times I’d be like oh man I have to go to Ireland in six days I just want to go home for the summer. But then you’d say to yourself no I have to go, I wouldn’t be where I was without the passport and you wanted to finish what you started. Then the second you get to Ireland for two or three weeks it was the best time you’d have all year.”
Dan also had the perfect perspective on the changing nature of the Irish/ Irish-American dynamic over the 14 or so years that he played for Ireland. In later years as Ireland brought in more Irish American players to play alongside him, Callaghan saw the changing face of the team something he was very aware of “I was always aware, in the back of my mind this probably doesn’t sit well with the people back home. You want your countrymen playing not recruiting all these guys in. I’m sure there was a group that loved it because Ireland were starting to get attention and playing big time teams but some people would be why is he wearing Ireland on his chest he grew up in Boston he’s not from Cork. I was aware of it but I was probably caught up in the talent we had and where we could go with it.” At the same time he was also very protective of the type of guys they were trying to bring in and wanted to ensure it was being done for the right reasons “I was scared if we got a Mike Dunleavy (a rumoured recruit), he’s a big NBA player making 10 million dollars and we are just a bunch of guys bouncing around Europe doing what we could do. You don’t know if they’d appreciate the history of Ireland or if they’d get it. I didn’t want people just to play to get their passport to play in Europe. I was hoping they’d understand the history of Irish basketball and what we were trying to accomplish.”
Post Playing Career
Dan has returned to Bedford in Massachusetts and has continued his father’s legacy by running the family business.
The movie trivia game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon shows every actor can be linked within six moves to Kevin Bacon. For Irish international basketball from almost 25 years between 1985 and 2009 it would be impossible to go beyond two degrees of Dan Callaghan. He represented Ireland when he had so many opportunities to opt out and possibly should have, to protect his own health. When he arrived in 1993 it was the changing of the guard for Irish basketball as a new wave of talent were there to drive Ireland forward for over 13 years. Dan was central to that entire movement and was the personification of everything Enda Byrt could ever have wished for when he looked for American born help.
The ultimate compliment for Dan Callaghan is that he was as loyal and hardworking an Irish international as any home grown Irish player could ever aspire to be.