Updated: Oct 13, 2021
Combining both profile and impact, it would be easy to argue that Jay Larranaga was the most important recruit Ireland ever had. Those involved in the National Team would best describe it by simply saying that Jay ‘got it’. When Gerry Fitzpatrick took over as head coach of the Senior Men’s team after Bill Dooley he vividly remembers Larranaga inviting Gerry and one of the new Irish-American recruits for a cup of coffee. Jay wanted Gerry’s help to tell some of the stories that he had heard from Adrian Fulton and Gareth Maguire about just how important it was to play for Ireland. Each time Gerry went to tell a story though Jay would get back involved and tell the story himself. Playing for Ireland wasn’t just a nice option for guys like Jay, it was something that was of much greater significance for him and he always strived to get others to see the opportunity in the same light as him.
Jay’s maternal grandfather was born in Cork City but moved to America at age five. The feeling of Irishness was always strong within the family “I grew up feeling Irish, even though my last name was Spanish/Cuban, the rest of my family was Irish. We look very Irish, we have a lot of family traditions based on that heritage. I never visited Ireland until I played for the national team but we definitely felt very Irish growing up. I think probably because of my last name, no one ever thought of my family as Irish.”
Jay played his college basketball for his father Jim at Bowling Green in Ohio. At 6’5 and a deadeye shooter Jay was a solid recruit and he would turn out to be a key signing for his Dad. Jim has gone on to be a legendary college coach who almost had one of the greatest March Madness Cinderella stories when he brought tiny George Mason to the Final Four in 2006. He has since gone on to coach at Miami but in 1993 Jim was allegedly on the hot seat at Bowling Green. Fortunately Jay and his backcourt teammate Antonio Daniels came in and helped transform the programme. For their first three seasons together, the duo had similar production with Jay averaging 15.5 points a game as a junior. In their final season Daniels shot into superstardom as he built his way towards an eventual 4th overall pick in the following year’s NBA draft. Jay’s willingness to take a back seat to Daniels showed a level of humility that he has demonstrated throughout his career. He always tried to do what is best for the team regardless of whether that was what was best for himself.
Larranaga did try and make it into the NBA but his lack of athleticism was ultimately his undoing. Instead, he headed to Europe where he quickly discovered that his Irish passport was of immense value to him. He told the Irish Examiner back in 2016: “When I was getting ready to go overseas the Bosman rule had just started to take effect. The fact that I was Irish meant that I qualified as an EU guy (as opposed to a US import, who were restricted) and it allowed me to play at a much higher level than I would have played with my American passport. It’s part of the reason I always played for the Irish national team at every opportunity. I felt I owed a real debt to Irish basketball for what it allowed me to do in Europe. It was a tremendous honour”.
Jay’s first stop was in Italy for Reggio Calabria. His first major mark was for Asvel (now owned by Tony Parker) in the top French league. Averaging 14.5 points a game in France he set himself up for a strong Euroleague level career for clubs like Oilimpia Milano and Real Madrid. He counts a Spanish League title and Italian Cup title amongst his accolades over a twelve year pro career largely as a rotation level role player.
It was on the floor for Ireland that Jay got to take the leading role.
Playing for Ireland
Jay transformed Ireland’s hopes when he arrived because he was a top level shooter who could help Ireland score against top defences. His impact was seen immediately as he famously scored 29 points in a key game to help Ireland reach the semi-final rounds of the European Championships for the first time ever. He thrived in that leading role for Ireland “There were few times in my career, where I was the offensive leader, I always saw myself as a complimentary player. I could make a big shot but I was willing to defer to the best player whoever that was. I was always thinking like a coach and analysing that guys better than me and that guys better than me, probably to a fault. But for that team, I was a bit older than a couple of the guys and I had been overseas. Myself, Dan Callaghan and Mike Mitchell were the older guys with that group, I was comfortable to take more initiative and I felt responsibility to be more of a leader. I was with a group of guys who played to my strengths, Billy Donlon who was a really good point guard who was used to getting the ball to people and Dan Callahan and Mike Mitchell were like me and were used to being complimentary players and doing all the little things. It was easier for me to take more responsibility with that group”.
Over eight years Larranga was ever present for the team playing in each qualifying campaign. He led by example becoming the team captain and he eventually became the player coach for the 2009 Qualification Campaign. During his time playing he became the top overall points scorer for Ireland in European Qualification games.
How his teammates viewed him
John O’Connell on Jay’s arrival into the team: “In my time with the Irish team, other than Frankie (Powell), we didn’t have anyone who could create their own scoring opportunity, who could create space and get their shot off. Jay was the first one I saw for Ireland who could do that. He had all the moves, moves that I’d break my ankle if I tried half of them. He was a pro, I remember seeing him and thinking that’s a different level right there”.
Post Playing Career
Jay has had perhaps the most high profile post playing career of any of the Irish players. He is currently an assistant coach of the LA Clippers under Doc Rivers, having served as an assistant in Boston for nine years. Larranaga is regularly linked with high profile head coaching roles in the NBA and hopefully his opportunity is imminent.
To this day, Jay continues to the be link for many of the Irish Americans who played for Ireland during the 90s and 2000s. Despite coaching in the NBA and being one of the highest profile coaches in America, it is Larranaga who organised a Zoom call between over twenty former Irish internationals who shared stories of their time playing for Ireland. Jay was always self-aware and his own reflection on the Irish team and what it meant to him and many of the other Irish Americans sums up the man “I think that anyone who interacted with our group would see how much we valued the opportunity and how honoured we were to be a part the national team. I can understand people feeling you guys didn’t grow up in Ireland and you’re just using your heritage to have careers in Europe but I think the frequency that we came back, once we played for the national team we kept wanting to come back. It wasn’t for money or exposure It was just the honour of playing for the team. I think that showed through and the way we played showed how much we cared.”