Updated: Nov 25, 2021
Simply put, Frank Powell was the first star that the Irish American vision delivered. Without Frank arriving in, it’s impossible to know whether the energy and enthusiasm for finding Irish Americans could have lasted as long as it did.
Frankie’s four grandparents had all been born in Ireland before emigrating to the Boston area. The option of playing for Ireland was as much about Irish citizenship as it was basketball for Frank “When I was initially contacted by Enda Byrt to potentially play for Ireland, it was such a great honour and opportunity. You feel like you’re picking up the mantle of your family in some respects. It makes you closer to your grandparents and you have that closer connection to Ireland. Going back to play basketball but to actually go through the process to get citizenship was something special to me and my family thought it was an incredible thing that I was becoming a citizen. It meant more to them simply an opportunity to go play basketball, it solidified a cultural connection”
Enda Byrt found out about Frank when he was still eligible for the Junior Men’s team and he set about recruiting him to play for the Junior Men’s team. It was a measure of the Powell family’s connection to Ireland and trust in the system that they allowed Frank to travel to represent Ireland after his freshman year in college at Holy Cross. Powell was everything that Enda Byrt really could have dreamt of when the search for players began. At 6’7 he had the size to help Ireland to rebound, but he also had an ability to score that Ireland desperately needed and he would immediately become the focal point of Ireland’s offense. Playing alongside Adrian Fulton, the team would become the first Irish team to win multiple games at Junior Men’s level and steps of progress were beginning to be seen.
Having played for the Junior Men and experienced international basketball for the first time, Frank wanted more and the summer after his sophomore year Ireland would head to the World University Games for the first time and Powell would start to develop out into a star. He was growing in confidence constantly and although Ireland was outmatched throughout, the team were fighting hard and making an impression on their opponents. Having competed against the USA amongst others, Powell would return to Holy Cross a different player and his averages would jump from 5.3 points a game as a sophomore to 12.5 points a game as a junior. Having played at Junior Men’s and World University Games level the stage was now set for him to jump to the Senior Men’s squad for their European Qualification campaign in 1992. He was one of four American’s on the squad alongside Tom Casey, John Brennan and Sean McDonagh. Although Ireland wasn’t competitive in the tournament Powell would be the team’s top scorer with 15.6 points a game. The performances included 26 points against Turkey and another 23 against Slovenia, all before his senior year at Holy Cross. Later that same summer Ireland would go to Cyprus for the Promotions Cup and have their last agonising taste of defeat at that level as Cyprus defeated Ireland in hostile conditions.
In his senior year at Holy Cross, he would average 13.2 points a game and 5.3 rebounds, as he finished with over 1,000 career points. Critically the 6’7 big man was shooting the ball extremely well as a stretch four. In his senior year, he would hit 47 threes and would shoot 43% from the perimeter. These numbers came in an era before stretch fours were valued and it’s likely that if Powell was playing in the modern game he would have been even more successful. In his senior year, Powell would help lead Holy Cross to a Patriot League Championship. They would defeat Army in the first game of the Patriot League championship. In the second round, Fordham and a young guard called Jay Fazande were in the way, Fazande would later move to Ireland and play and later coach for many years. Once Fordham had been dispatched it was Bucknell in the final with an NCAA berth on the line and Holy Cross would win 98-73 to book a place in March Madness. In the tournament, they would be drawn with a young Arkansas team with three NBA players on the squad. Arkansas were on a journey that would eventually see them crowned National Champions the following year. Powell would come off the bench and have 11 points and 8 rebounds in the game but Arkansas were led by a young Corliss Williamson and would easily win 94-64.
Having graduated and with a game ideally suited to European basketball, Powell would have been a natural for any of the powerhouse teams in Europe in later years. Unfortunately, the timing wasn’t on his side and he was ahead of the Bosman ruling that would open up European basketball to those with European passports. He would play initially in Germany and then in Luxembourg but neither situation worked out well for him. In 1994 the Promotions Cup would arrive in Dublin as Ireland would try and finally win it having come close on several occasions. Powell would be central to the effort top-scoring with 20 in the critical final game.
Sadly for Powell despite his achievements in college and for Ireland, the timings just didn’t fall well for his professional career. He knew the Bosman ruling was coming but he couldn’t afford to sit there and wait for it as life had to go on. “I knew it would have a significant impact on someone like me who would have to scrap to get on most European teams if there was a two American quota, but if the Bosman rule applied and I didn’t count as an American it would mean a great earning opportunity for me. I was kind of holding out for that but at the same time I was trying to go to law school and advance my career.” Powell would start law school just two months before the court case happened and he would have to be content watching some of his teammates reap the benefits of the new ruling in their careers.
What his teammates thought of him:
“Frankie was a really solid guy. He just always had that calm Larry Bird coolness about him. Never flustered. Great, great player”. Mark Keenan
Post Playing Career
Frankie embarked on a very successful law career after playing and is currently a partner in a law firm in the greater Boston area.
Despite finishing playing professionally, Frank would continue to answer the call for Ireland whenever possible and would continue playing up until 1998. He would be involved in some of the narrow close calls for Ireland as the semi-final round remained just out of reach. Ireland didn’t qualify in 1998 but Frank knew that the groundwork had been laid for success to follow: “We started playing more with the mindset that we could win the bracket. Whereas before it was the mindset that we want to represent Ireland well and compete and make everyone proud of our effort and that was the shift in philosophy over those couple of years.” That shift in large part belongs to Powell. He was the driving force for so many of the players at the time to see that they had the ability and the talent level to compete with other countries. This was no longer the Irish teams of the past who couldn’t win a game. In a way, Powell passed the baton on to the next group of Irish-Americans who came in and helped drive Ireland on to new heights. He never got to reap the rewards himself either professionally or with Ireland but there is a generation of players grateful to him for giving them the platform to do so.